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By Howard Schneider
(Reuters) – Income and net worth among U.S. families increased broadly between 2013 and 2016, a reversal to years of stagnation that cut across education levels and race, and lifted lower-income families as well as top earners, the Federal Reserve said in its latest extensive review of the economic state of American households.
Income inequality still widened: the top 1 percent of families boosted their share of all income to 23.8 percent from 20.3 percent. With the share for the next 9 percent stagnant, those gains came through a decline in the income share for the bottom 90 percent of households, to 49.7 percent.
But within that distribution, median and mean incomes were rising across the spectrum, and family net worth increased as a broader set of families started setting aside money for retirement and benefiting from stock market gains of around 9 percent annually during the period.
The Fed conducts the survey every three years to measure income, debt and other trends among families, a core economic unit whose prospects and decisions are central to consumption and the overall performance of markets and the economy.
Though homeownership rates declined to 63.7 percent, continuing a slide from the 2004 peak of 69.1 percent, those who did own homes enjoyed an average 6 percent rise in their homes value.
Overall, the survey showed the benefits of the recovery being more extensively felt after a period in which an economic crisis and recession pummeled low- and middle-income earnings. Between 2007 and 2010 both mean and median family income fell, while between 2010 and 2013 median income fell though the mean was pulled higher by income growth at the top of the earnings distribution.
Over the last three year, by contrast, “families throughout the income distribution experienced gains in average real incomes between 2013 and 2016, reversing the trend,” the Fed wrote in a summary paper describing the results of its survey of 6,254 families.
The survey results were weighted to make estimates for the overall population.
Median income, which divides the top and bottom half of earners and is more indicative of broader growth, rose 10 percent over the period, to $52,700 from $48,100. The mean, or average, which can be dragged higher by excess earnings at the top, rose 14 percent, to $102,700 from $89,900.
The findings are in partial contrast to an economic narrative of stagnation, particularly among lower-income and less-educated workers, that has driven U.S. politics in recent years from the Occupy Wall Street movement to the election of Donald Trump.
Rather, “between 2013 and 2016, both median and mean income grew for all families grouped by educational attainment. The highest growth rates occurred among families without a high
school diploma, whose median and mean income grew 15 percent and 25 percent, respectively. Median income among families with a college degree grew only a modest 2 percent.”
Notably net worth – the value of all assets a family owns less the debts it owes – also reversed, rising 16 percent to $97,300.
There were stronger gains also for nonwhite and Hispanic families. Black families saw median income grow 10 percent while Hispanic median incomes grew 15 percent; that compares to 6 percent for white families, a discrepancy partly accounted for by higher earnings in general for whites.
Overall the results “represents a return to a general pattern of substantial increases in both the median and the mean… dating back to the early 1990s.”
The survey did affirm one important trend connected with the 2016 election: a continued divergence in incomes between people who live in cities and those in rural areas. Median incomes for people in metropolitan statistical areas rose 10 percent; outside those urban hubs the increase was just 2 percent over the three-year period.
Though the Fed noted rising debt in some areas, such as education finance, overall household debt fell and leverage ratios comparing debt obligations to income also declined.
Notably, the percentage of families with retirement accounts also reversed its recent decline, rising to 52 percent from 49 percent.