A bursting stock market bubble at the beginning of the decade, a recession and a prolonged period of job losses have all taken their toll.
Average incomes, which had been posting double-digit gains during the boom of the 1990s, actually fell, after adjusting for inflation, in 2004 when compared with 2001, the Federal Reserve said yesterday.
And Americans' net worth, despite the gain in home prices, rose at the smallest rate in a decade during the 2001-04 period.
The gap widens: The gap between the very wealthy and other income groups widened during the period.
The top 10 percent of households saw their net worth rise by 6.1 percent to an average of $3.11 million, while the bottom 25 percent suffered a decline from a net worth in which their assets equaled their liabilities in 2001 to owing $1,400 more than their total assets in 2004.
"This is the continuing story of the rich getting richer," said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's in New York. "Clearly, the gains in wealth are going to the top end."
"These statistics show why, even though GDP is rising, most people do not feel better off," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
The central bank's "Survey of Consumer Finances," depicted in stark terms the contrasts between the 1990s and the economic troubles of the current decade.
Hard numbers: Average family incomes, after adjusting for inflation, fell to $70,700 in 2004, a drop of 2.3 percent when compared with 2001. That was the weakest showing since a decline of 11.3 percent from 1989 to 1992, a period that also covered a recession.
Net worth, the difference between assets and liabilities such as loans, rose by 6.3 percent in the 2001-04 period to an average of $448,200, after adjusting for inflation. That gain was far below the huge increases of 25.6 percent from 1995 to 1998 and 28.7 percent from 1998 to 2001, increases that were fueled by soaring stock prices.
The 2001-04 performance was the worst since net worth actually declined by 9.9 percent in the 1989-92 period.
The median family net worth, the point where half the families owned more and half owned less, stood at $93,100 in 2004, a rise of 1.5 percent after adjusting for inflation from 2001.
Home ownership helps: The report showed that the slowdown in the accumulation of net worth would have been even more sizable except for the fact that homeowners have enjoyed big gains in the value of their homes in recent years.
The Fed survey found that the percentage of Americans who owned stocks, either directly or through a mutual fund, fell by 3.3 percentage points to 48.6 percent in 2004, down from 51.9 percent in 2001. Analysts said this was an indication that investors burned by plunging stock prices in the decade's early years have been leery about getting back into the market.
Fewer invest: The share of Americans' financial assets invested in stocks dipped to 17.6 percent in 2004, down from 21.7 percent in 2001.But reflecting the housing boom, the share of assets made up by home ownership rose to 50.3 percent in 2004, compared with 46.9 percent in 2001.
The Fed survey found that debts as a percent of total assets rose to 15 percent in 2004, up from 12.1 percent in 2001. Mortgages to finance home purchases were by far the biggest share of total debt at 75.2 percent in 2004, unchanged from the 2001 level.There was concern that families may start to feel even more squeezed as the cost of financing their debts increases along with rising interest rates.
While surging home values have supported consumer spending in recent years, analysts worry about the economic impact if, as expected, the home price surge begins to slow this year.
"This report shows a race between factors boosting net worth, such as home ownership, and factors pushing the other way, such as weak wage growth," said Jared Bernstein, senior economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. "Unless we start to see better income growth from jobs and wages, it is hard to see major gains in net worth for the typical family."