Immersed inside the 80 pages of the Federal Reserve’s triennial report on the Survey of Consumer Finances are a slew of statistics that point to how our economy has contracted from 2007 to 2010. Americans, as the headline writers were quick to point out, have lost some two decades worth of gains since the economic crisis began. Reading the report is an exercise in how much bad news a person can digest. But there are few glimmers of hope in the data for the optimistic among us. The overall findings show median net worth fell 38.8 percent, and the mean fell 14.7 percent in those three years. The American family’s net worth is now back where it was in early 1990s — before the rise of the Web, the birth of Amazon and Google and the iPod, the arrival of Nafta, and all the other changes that were supposed to bring us everlasting prosperity. Look at the balance sheet of the average American today and it’s as if none of the gains of the past 20 years ever happened.

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Education borrowing rising as retirement accounts depleted

The worst hit by the drop in wealth are the very old and the very young.

Education-related debt rose from 15.2 percent of families to 19.2 percent. Furthermore, the mean balance among those with such debt rose 14 percent, and the median balance increased 3.4 percent.

Retirement accounts followed suit as people reevaluate the cost and feasibility of retirement. During the three-year period investigated, ownership of retirement accounts decreased for nearly all of the groups considered in the study. Median holdings in retirement accounts bucked a decade old trend and decreased 6.6 percent in the 2007–10 period.

Credit card usage drops, fewer holding balances

But every cloud — even those of the financial-catastrophe variety — has a silver lining.

Americans responded to the crisis by reining in their most dangerous financial practices. The number of families using credit cards dropped from 72.9 percent in 2007 to 68 percent in 2010.

More specifically, credit cards became considerably less common among the highest and lowest income groups and by families headed by a person 65 or older or retired.

In addition, families lowered the balance they carried, if they carried one at all. Only 55.1 percent of families carried any balance at all in 2010, down from 61 percent in 2007 and those that have a balance dropped it 6.7 percentage points to 39.4 percent in 2010.

The full update form the Fed can be found by clicking here.

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