U.S. Growth Starts to Help More People, But Wealthiest Win Most

The long-running U.S. economic expansion is starting to reach down and deliver gains to lower-income Americans, while causing already-wide disparities in earning power and wealth to get even bigger, according to a triennial Federal Reserve survey.

“Families throughout the income distribution experienced gains in average real incomes between 2013 and 2016, reversing the trend from 2010 to 2013, when real incomes fell or remained stagnant for all but the top of the income distribution,” the Fed said in its Survey of Consumer Finances released Wednesday in Washington.

The survey also found that the shares of income and wealth held by the most affluent families reached the highest levels in records back to 1989. The share of income received by the top 1 percent of families rose to 23.8 percent in 2016, up from 20.3 percent in 2013. The share of the bottom 90 percent of the distribution fell to 49.7 percent, the lowest on record in the survey’s history.

While the jobless rate is near a 16-year low and the economy is growing for a ninth year, rising inequality is a risk to capitalist institutions and social cohesion as market-based systems distribute more gains to those at the top. President Donald Trump rode a wave of anti-establishment anger to the presidency, and trust in the Fed waned after it bailed out failing financial institutions such as Bear Stearns Cos. in 2008. Economists now warn that rising disparities in wealth and incomes could also affect patterns of consumption and the labor market.

“Persistently high levels of income and wealth inequality may also have implications for the robustness of consumer spending” because the wealthy have a higher propensity to save, Fed Governor Lael Brainard said in a speech Tuesday, where she previewed the survey’s results.

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