December 10, 2013

'New rich’ key to economic recovery and polarization

Fully 20 percent of U.S. adults become rich for parts of their lives.

By Hope Yen
The Associated Press

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Gallery owner Deborah Sponder walks her dog in the Design District neighborhood of Miami. Fully 20 percent of U.S. adults become rich for parts of their lives, wielding outsized influence on America's economy and politics.

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

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James Lott stands outside the Walmart store where he works as a pharmacist in Bonney Lake, Wash. Lott, who lives in Renton, Wash., a suburb of Seattle, adds significantly to his six-figure job salary by day-trading stocks.

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

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The group is more liberal than lower-income groups on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, according to an analysis of General Social Survey data by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. But when it comes to money, their views aren’t so open. They’re wary of any government role in closing the income gap.

In Gallup polling in October, 60 percent of people making $90,000 or more said average Americans already had “plenty of opportunity” to get ahead. Among those making less than $48,000, the share was 48 percent

Sometimes referred to by marketers as the “mass affluent,” the new rich make up roughly 25 million U.S. households and account for nearly 40 percent of total U.S. consumer spending.

While paychecks shrank for most Americans after the 2007-2009 recession, theirs held steady or edged higher. In 2012, the top 20 percent of U.S. households took home a record 51 percent of the nation’s income. The median income of this group is more than $150,000.

Once concentrated in the old-money enclaves of the Northeast, the new rich are now spread across the U.S., mostly in bigger cities and their suburbs. They include Washington, D.C.; Boston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Seattle. By race, whites are three times more likely to reach affluence than nonwhites.

Paul F. Nunes, managing director at Accenture’s Institute for High Performance and Research, calls this group “the new power brokers of consumption.” Because they spend just 60 percent of their before-tax income, often setting the rest aside for retirement or investing, he says their capacity to spend more will be important to a U.S. economic recovery.

In Miami, developers are betting on a growing luxury market, building higher-end malls featuring Cartier, Armani and Louis Vuitton and hoping to expand on South Florida’s Bal Harbour, a favored hideaway of the rich.

“It’s not that I don’t have money. It’s more like I don’t have time,” said Deborah Sponder, 57, walking her dog Ava recently along Miami’s blossoming Design District. She was headed to one of her two art galleries – this one between the Emilio Pucci and Cartier stores and close to the Louis Vuitton and Hermes storefronts.

But Sponder says she doesn’t consider her income of $250,000 as upper class, noting that she is paying college tuition for her three children. “Between rent, schooling and everything – it comes in and goes out.”

The new rich’s influence will only grow as middle-class families below them struggle. The Federal Reserve said Monday that the nation’s wealth rose 2.6 percent from July through September to $77.3 trillion, a record high, boosted in part by a surging stock market.

But the gains haven’t been equally distributed; the wealthiest 10 percent of U.S. households own about 80 percent of stocks.

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