Center for Economic and Policy Research
July 10, 2008

As Senators McCain and Obama fine-tune their plans for Social Security in preparation for the 2008 presidential election, a new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) shows that, due to the collapse of the housing bubble, the vast majority of Americans have accumulated little or no wealth. This means that they will be almost completely reliant on Social Security and Medicare to support them in their retirement years.

The study, “The Impact of the Housing Crash on Family Wealth,” analyzed the wealth holdings of families in all age cohorts in 2004 and projected the wealth of these families in 2009. The findings are presented by income quintile under three scenarios- real house prices remain at current levels, real house prices fall by an additional 10 percent, or real house prices fall by an additional 20 percent. In all three scenarios, the vast majority of these families will have little or no housing wealth in 2009.

“This extraordinary destruction of wealth will have tremendous implications for millions of families,” said report co-author Dean Baker. “Coupled with a very low personal savings rate, this means that many people, especially those near retirement will only have Social Security and Medicare to rely on once they leave the workforce.”

The report projects that if house prices stay the same through 2009, the median household headed by a person between the ages of 45 and 54, those in their prime earning years, will have 24.7 percent less wealth than did the median household in this age group in 2004. These households will have accumulated just $113,268 in net worth in 2009, barely $15,000 more than their counterparts in 1989, whose net worth totaled $97,600.

If real house prices fall 10 percent, the median household in the 45 to 54 cohort will see a 34.6 percent loss in wealth compared with the median in 2004 while families in the 18 to 34 cohort will lose of 67.6 percent. If prices fall by 20 percent, the most pessimistic scenario, families in the 55-64 cohort will experience a loss of 49.6 percent of their wealth compared to the same cohort in 2004.

This analysis should also prompt serious re-examination of policy proposals to cut Social Security and Medicare for near retirees. Baker commented, “policies that perhaps could have been justified at the peak of the housing bubble make much less sense now that tens of millions of near-retirees have just seen most of their wealth disappear.”

In analyzing wealth holdings for these families, the authors used data from the Federal Reserve Board’s 2004 Survey of Consumer Finance. The authors also used the S&P 500 and the Case-Shiller 20-City Composite Index to adjust for equity values and home price changes between 2004 and 2009.

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