Three Numbers That Help Explain What Happened to Inequality During the Pandemic
An employee working at a restaurant in Chicago on Sept. 27, 2022. (Christopher Dilts/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
FRONTLINE’s new documentary Age of Easy Money examines one of the biggest forces at play in the pandemic economy: the “easy money” policies that the Federal Reserve implemented to prevent an economic crash when COVID struck, and the current and ongoing effort to rein in inflation. Some critics in the documentary maintain that the Fed’s policies have helped Wall Street more than Main Street and contributed to inequality.
Here, FRONTLINE takes a closer look at three figures that help show how wealth, wages and racial wealth inequality changed during the pandemic. The overall story of inequality is larger than these numbers can illustrate and is affected by much more than just Fed policies, but these figures offer a window into how the highs and lows of the last three years affected certain groups.
The wealth held by the bottom 50% of Americans is now more than 2.2 times higher than it was at the start of the pandemic, according to data published by the Federal Reserve. But, economists caution there’s more to unpack in that number before interpreting it as reversing years of a persistent wealth gap.
Manuel Schechtl, a postdoctoral scholar at the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality, pointed to two driving forces in the pandemic economy that affected the bottom half’s wealth: three rounds of stimulus payments and a housing market that mostly soared.
Stimulus payments, which amounted to up to $3,200 per tax filer, allowed many Americans to increase their savings at a rate much higher than the years following the Great Recession, according to Schechtl, which gave them a meaningful financial cushion. “But it quickly faded,” he said. By January 2022, the personal savings rate for Americans overall dipped to its lowest since 2009.
Read more: What Silicon Valley Bank’s Collapse Says About the Easy Money Era Ending
At that point, the larger driver of wealth for the bottom 50% became the housing market. This group holds more than 58% of its assets in housing, the highest percentage of any wealth bracket. That meant an increase in wealth for homeowners when home prices rose as they did for much of the pandemic. But for many in the bottom 50% who were renters, rising home prices had the opposite effect.
“As housing prices have increased, so have rental prices,” Schechtl said, and those with lower net worths are far more likely to be hurt by rising rents since most are not homeowners. Among the bottom 25%, fewer than 13% own their homes, according to 2019 Fed estimates.
Though a doubling of wealth for the bottom half is a material improvement from how recovery played out after the Great Recession, Schechtl said he doesn’t see the trend being permanent. Stimulus payments were a one-time increase and the value of homes is likely to fall as the Federal Reserve continues to raise interest rates. “It’s a good thing,” he said, “but it’s not a change or fundamental shift in how wealth is distributed in the U.S.”
While wealth may have risen for many Americans, the same can’t be said of their wages. Economists at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank, analyzed data from the Social Security Administration and found that on average workers in the bottom 90% of wage earners (those who made less than $112,000 per year) saw no increase in their wages from 2019 to 2021 once historic levels of inflation were taken into account. These workers actually saw a decline in their real earnings of 0.2%.
While workers in the middle of the earnings range saw a decline in real wages, the story is more complicated for workers on either end of the spectrum. The top 1% of earners (those who made over $373,000 per year) saw a significant pay increase of more than 16%. The top 1% earned 14.6% of all wages in 2021, double the share of what they earned in 1979, according to EPI’s researchers.
Another striking pandemic phenomenon was that lower-earning workers — around the 10th percentile — saw raises too. “Lower-wage workers have had stronger gains than they’ve seen in a very long time,” Elise Gould, senior economist at Economic Policy Institute, told FRONTLINE. “They lost their jobs at much greater numbers, many in leisure and hospitality, but when they came back in 2021 and 2022, they had more leverage.” Still, those gains for lower wage workers were not enough to offset the 0.2% decline that the bottom 90% saw.
Black households now hold 4.7% of the wealth in the United States, the highest share since 1992 and up slightly from 4.3% before the pandemic, according to Federal Reserve data.
Darrick Hamilton, the Henry Cohen professor of economics and urban policy at The New School, said that figure should not be cause for celebration given that more than 13% of the United States population is Black. But, he said, it does reflect an improvement in the government’s response to the pandemic’s economic fallout compared to the 2008 financial crisis.
“Government engaged in this pandemic in different ways than they had in the past,” Hamilton told FRONTLINE. “That was a ray of hope.”
Hamilton said the swift distribution of stimulus payments helped increase savings and soften the blow that pandemic job losses had on Black households. Facilitating these payments directly through the IRS rather than through state or private enterprise also may have prevented some of the biases that Black people encountered with other assistance programs, like the Paycheck Protection Program, Hamilton said. Multiple studies, including an analysis from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, found disparities in the ways the PPP program reached Black individuals and business owners.
Part of the growth in Black household wealth was thanks to real estate — about 34.5% of Black household assets are in housing — but a notable driver of the increase was the rising value of pension benefits, according to Federal Reserve data. Black households hold 24% of their assets in pension benefits, the highest of any racial group. Hamilton partially attributes this to the fact that Black workers are more likely to have unionized jobs than workers of other races.
When considering the three numbers in this story, economists said there are certainly snippets of data to be optimistic about, such as the increase in wealth held by the bottom half, the higher wages for lower-earning workers and the slight decrease of the racial wealth gap. But considering the small time frame these figures cover, all cautioned that it’s too soon to tell if these improvements will be able to withstand the economic changes ahead as interest rates rise.
“It could have been a whole lot worse without intervention,” Hamilton said, referring to the impact of the pandemic on inequality. “But we haven’t yet made a structural change.”