Excerpt from The Recovery Threw the Middle-Class Dream Under a Benz,
Data from the Federal Reserve show that over the last decade and a half, the proportion of family income from wages has dropped from nearly 70 percent to just under 61 percent. It’s an extraordinary shift, driven largely by the investment profits of the very wealthy. In short, the people who possess tradable assets, especially stocks, have enjoyed a recovery that Americans dependent on savings or income from their weekly paycheck have yet to see. Ten years after the financial crisis, getting ahead by going to work every day seems quaint, akin to using the phone book to find a number or renting a video at Blockbuster.
The financial crisis didn’t just kill the dream of getting rich from your day job. It also put an end to a fundamental belief of the middle class: that owning a home was always a good idea because prices moved in only one direction — up. The bubble, while it lasted, gave millions in the middle class a sense of validation of their financial acumen, and made them feel as if they had done the Right Thing.
In theory, if you lost your job, or suffered some other kind of financial setback, you could always sell into a real estate market that was forever rising. Ever-higher home prices became a steam valve, and the “greater fool” theory substituted for any conventional measure of value.
The kindling for the fire that consumed Wall Street and nearly the entire economy was mortgages that should never have been taken out in the first place. Homeowners figured the more house the better, whether or not their income could support the monthly payment, while greedy banks and middlemen were all too happy to encourage them.
Banks were hurt, too, but aside from the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the pain proved transitory. Bankers themselves were never punished for their sins. In one form or another — the Troubled Asset Relief Program, quantitative easing, the Fed’s discount window — the financial sector was supported in spectacular fashion.
Like the bankers, shareholders and investors were also bailed out. By cutting interest rates to near zero and pumping trillions — yes, you read that right — into the economy, the Federal Reserve essentially put a trampoline under the stock market. The subsequent bounce produced a windfall, but only for a limited group of beneficiaries. Only about half of American households have any exposure to the stock market, including 401(k)’s and retirement plans, and ownership of the shares of individual companies is clustered among upper-income families.
For homeowners, there wasn’t much of a rescue package from Washington, and eight million succumbed to foreclosure. Sometimes, eviction came in the form of marshals with court orders; in other cases, families quietly handed over the keys to the bank and just walked away. Although home prices in hot markets have fully recovered, many homeowners are still underwater in the worst-hit states like Florida, Arizona and Nevada. Meanwhile, more Americans are renting and have little prospect of ever owning a home.
Worsening the picture, the post-crisis era has been marked by an increased disparity in wealth between white, Hispanic and African-American members of the middle class. That’s according to an analysis of Fed data by the Pew Research Center, which found that families in the latter two groups were more dependent on housing as their principal form of investment. Not only were both minority groups harder hit by foreclosures, but Hispanics were also twice as likely as other Americans to be living in Sun Belt states where the housing crash was most severe.
In 2016, net worth among white middle-income families was 19 percent below 2007 levels, adjusted for inflation. But among blacks, it was down 40 percent, and Hispanics saw a drop of 46 percent. For many, old-fashioned hard work has simply not been a viable path out of this hole. After unemployment peaked in the fall of 2009, it took years for joblessness to return to pre-recession levels. Slack in the labor market left the employed and unemployed alike with little leverage to demand raises, even as corporate profits surged.
Maybe it was inevitable that when half the population watches its wages stagnate while the other half gets rich in the market, the result is President Donald Trump and Brexit.
“It peeled away the facade and revealed an anger that had been building for decades,” said Ms. Swonk, who is chief economist at Grant Thornton in Chicago. “The crisis was horrific, but its legacy pushed us over the edge in terms of the discontent.”
It also made inequality and the One Percent an urgent topic, and made unlikely celebrities of wonky intellectuals such as the economist Thomas Piketty. His best seller, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” published in 2013, was 816 data-laden pages that laid out a grim diagnosis. Mr. Piketty argued that the decades after World War II, when the divisions between the classes narrowed and opportunities to move up the economic ladder expanded — that is, when the middle class as we knew it was formed — may actually have been an aberration. Society, Mr. Piketty wrote, risks a return to the historical norm of a yawning gap between rich and poor.
Whether or not he is right, the concentration of wealth that is a legacy of the financial crisis will make itself felt far into the future. Younger Americans, in particular, will be marked by the experience of 2008 much as the Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression haunted the generations who lived through it in the last century. Not only were they unable to accumulate assets in the lean years of the early recovery, but they also missed out on the recent stock market rally that benefited their older and richer peers.
A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that while all birth cohorts lost wealth during the Great Recession, Americans born in the 1980s were at the “greatest risk for becoming a lost generation for wealth accumulation.”
For those fortunate enough to still possess wealth after the crisis, the future looks very different. With the security provided by assets, rather than just income, they and especially their children are on a glide path for a gilded financial future.
“Over and over, you see that family wealth is an important determinant of opportunity for the next generation, over and above income,” said Fabian T. Pfeffer, a sociologist at the University of Michigan. “Wealth serves as a private safety net that allows you to behave differently and plan differently.”
A wealthy person who loses a job can afford to be more choosy and wait for an opportunity suited to his or her skills and experience. The risk of going to an expensive college and taking on debt is lower when there is parental wealth to fall back on.
Timothy Smeeding, who teaches public affairs and economics at the University of Wisconsin, put it more bluntly. “You can see dynasties starting to form,” he said.
Ten years have passed since the trauma of 2008, the nerves are still raw, and the pain still has a way of flaring up. Every time she goes down into the basement and peruses her diary, Diane Swonk feels it anew.
“It is the diary of an economist, as well as a mother and a human being,” Ms. Swonk said. It includes her published writings for clients, as well as her feelings, thoughts and fears as the crisis unfolded. She also recorded her impression of key figures she met during those fateful months, including Lawrence H. Summers, a top White House economic official at the time, and Ben S. Bernanke, then the chairman of the Federal Reserve.
“The financial crisis became a delineator,” she said. “There were those who could recoup their losses and those who could not. Some people have amnesia, but we are still living with the wounds.”