Looking back, the financial lives many Americans enjoyed until just a few years ago can seem like a mirage.
On a suburban cul-de-sac northwest of Atlanta, Michael and Patricia Jackson are struggling to keep a house worth $100,000 less than they owe. In a small town in West Virginia, Michael Bobic, who last year lost his job as a college professor, sells Star Trek collectibles on eBay to get by.
Their voices and those of many others tell the story of a country that, for all the economic turmoil of the past few years, continues to believe things will get better. But until it does, families are trying to hang on to what they’ve got left.
The Great Recession claimed nearly 40 percent of Americans’ wealth, the Federal Reserve reported last week. The new figures, showing Americans’ net worth has plunged back to what it was in 1992, left economists shuddering while sharpening attention on the pocketbook issues at the center of the presidential campaign. But for families across the country, the report, tracking the period from 2007 to 2010, confirms what they already felt in their gut and saw in their checkbooks. It is one more reminder that they’re not alone.
Most of the wealth was lost to the mortgage crisis and the drop in home values, wiping out equity many families counted on. But incomes and stock-based retirement accounts fell, too. In the 18 months since the Fed completed its survey, home prices have continued to fall in many cities, while stocks rose and then fell back to nearly the same level.
“There’s nothing in this report that makes me feel good,” says Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College and an economic official in the Clinton administration. Bubble-inflated housing wealth was a fiction whose end should have been expected, she said, but the drop in incomes is especially troubling, because it gives people even less flexibility and confidence to save for the future. “There are signs of improvement, but I think that everybody is scared.”
It’s not just plummeting wealth affecting Americans’ financial psyche. Incomes have been stagnating for years. But until the bubble burst, lenders and credit card companies gave consumers freedom to borrow and spend. No more.
Americans “were told they were much wealthier than they really were and they believed it,” says Robert Manning, author of the book “Credit Card Nation” and an expert on consumer finance. “Now they’re kind of hearing they’re a lot less wealthy then they believed — and they’re in denial.”
In New York, Michael and Patricia Jackson shared a bedroom made from a walled-in front porch, in a house cut into three cramped apartments. Then, on a visit to Georgia in 2000, they drove past spacious new homes and lawns in subdivisions promising affordability, and they began to dream.
By the time they moved in to their brick-face colonial in Marietta four years later, even bigger dreams seemed within reach. The house in the new Hampton Chase neighborhood cost a little more than $200,000 and values were rising fast.
With $20,000 in equity and two paychecks, the Jacksons were financially secure. What they remember most, though, is feeling proud. Their daughter had her own room. Patricia loved the “humongous” master bedroom and bathroom. Michael devoted himself to the lawn that sloped down to a thick stand of trees, working hours in the heat with a relish he’d never felt as a renter.
“This is what we always wanted, was to live somewhere comfortable and to be part of the community as well,” says Michael, who is 53. “It made me a better man. I learned how to cut the grass. You know in New York you have one little patch of grass and you can take scissors and cut it.”
The couple said they rejected countless offers to borrow against the house. Instead, they made plans to save and let equity build, hoping to eventually buy a vacation home near Patricia’s parents in Jamaica and maybe even a small apartment in New York, for visiting family.
But in 2007, Patricia was cut from her job as a dispatch supervisor with a cable television company. Then Michael lost work as a contractor. They struggled to pay the mortgage. But they kept pace when their lender offered a forbearance plan that temporarily halved monthly payments, but added the balance to the loan, a fact the Jacksons say was not explained to them at the time.