CHICAGO (Reuters) - While there's some comfort in a slowly improving U.S. economic climate, the majority of Americans are still trying to close a prosperity gap that has widened in the last ten years.
There is the painful realization that a combination of stagnating wages, job loss, recessions and depletion of wealth is morphing the middle class into a "muddled class" unable to keep up with the cost of living. This decline has been most pronounced over the past decade.
The most recent Census Bureau study showed that real median household income fell eight percent from 2007 through last year, and is almost nine percent lower than the 1999 level. Can families climb back? It's possible, but not without some financial rigor.
As many analysts have noted, the early part of this century has been a lost decade for most of the middle class. Some income experts cite a "Gini Index," which measures the disparity between higher and lower income groups. A zero means perfect equality between groups, and one is perfect inequality; meaning a huge gap between the lower and middle class and upper-tier earners.
Between 2010 and 2011, the Gini index increased 1.6 percent, to 0.477, the first time the measure showed an annual increase since 1993, the Census Bureau noted. Higher inequality translates into more losers than winners based on the sheer size of the middle class, echoing dozens of other reports showing that the top one percent of the population is reaping most of the benefits of economic growth and tax advantages.
The multiple roundhouse punches of the dot-com meltdown, two recessions and the 2008 housing meltdown wiped out much of the 43-percent gain in net worth that middle-income families experienced from 1992 to 2001. That's when the bulk of white-collar wage earners were involuntarily moved into 401(k) plans and stock mutual funds as the housing market kept rising.
According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, median net worth of middle-income families dropped 28 percent from 2001 to 2010, which "erased two decades of gains". Net worth is basically what you own, minus liabilities such as debt. With paltry 401(k) savings and loss in home equity, many households now have a negative net worth.
The lost decade hurt unmarried, non-college educated Americans from ages 30 to 44 the hardest. Least impacted were those over 65, who were largely enjoying the protection of Medicare, Social Security and guaranteed defined-benefit pensions.
Given that the economy is not going to show a robust rebound soon, and some jobs may be lost for good due to automation, downsizing and off-shoring, is there any way to reclaim prosperity if you're slipping into the muddled class? Here are some strategies to move forward:
* Cost out and compare your lifestyle - When Pew did its study, it asked middle-income Americans to estimate their lifestyle costs. The median amounts were $85,000 per year in the East, $60,000 in the Midwest and $70,000 in the South and West. Those living in rural areas said $55,000 was the right amount. If you're living above your means in any area -- and you can relocate or lower your cost of living -- you could save money.
* Refinance - You can still take advantage of generational lows in mortgage rates as the housing market rebounds. Want to re-build your net worth? Take your mortgage payment savings and direct it into your retirement accounts. Buy funds that invest in high-quality, dividend-paying stocks such as the SPDR S&P International Dividend ETF (DWX), which gives you global diversification and decent dividend payments.
* Stay married - Those who stayed married from 2001 to 2011, according to Pew, saw their incomes rise almost 4 percent, compared to a more than 3 percent decline for those who separated or divorced. If your marital relationship is on an even keel, it tends to translate into more economic stability.
* Invest in your human capital - More education, especially courses that update your vocational skills, is always a good idea, particularly if a spouse can support you while you're learning. Those who had more education, i.e. graduate degrees, fared much better in income growth than those without college degrees.
* Reduce your investment expenses - This is the low-hanging fruit of rebuilding your net worth. Are you paying more than one percent annually in expenses on your 401(k) or other mutual funds? That's too much. You can easily pay half as much and invest the difference. Look to iShares, Vanguard, Fidelity, Schwab and SPDR groups for savings. (I invest in Vanguard, Fidelity and iShares funds because their costs are low and their fund offerings are numerous).
How do you reclaim a lost decade of economic destruction? You can't make up the difference overnight. But if you can refocus on lifestyle, savings and investments that make sense for you, it will be easier to find a more prosperous path.
(The author is a Reuters columnist and the opinions expressed are his own. For more from John Wasik see link.reuters.com/syk97s)
Editing by Heather Struck and Andrew Hay