Winners and Losers in the Great Recession

Bernanke Economy

The Recession's Winners and Losers

The Great Recession may have officially ended in June 2009, but for most Americans, its impact will last a lifetime.

The numbers -- 8.4 million jobs lost, double-digit drops in housing values, the 7,000-point plunge in the Dow Jones industrial average -- don't begin to paint an accurate picture of the perfect-storm-like course correction that has devastated so many while leaving a select few all but untouched.

For those hardest hit, including the middle class, pre-retirees, recent college graduates and homeowners, the process of recovery may be life-changing, according to Don Peck, author of "Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It."

"The most important economic trend in the United States over the past couple of generations has been the growing economic disparity, the sorting of Americans into winners and losers, and the hollowing out of the middle class," he says. "The housing bubble of the past decade masked that trend, but the crash blew away that fig leaf. The recession has pressed down especially hard on the blue-collar middle class."

With one eye cast wearily toward the possibility of a double-dip recession in the coming months, here is a limited accounting of the winners and losers of the Great Recession, so far.

Winner: The Wealthy

If true winners can be found in any recession, the wealthy certainly qualify in the Great Recession.

According to the Pew Research Center, the simultaneous collapse of the housing and stock market bubbles resulted in a 23% decline in the median wealth of middle-income households between 2007 and 2009, while the wealthy experienced just a 12% decline. The chief reason: Middle-class wealth is highly concentrated in homes, while the rich enjoy far more diverse portfolios.

"If you look at normal recessions in the past, what usually happens is the rich fare very poorly because the stock market goes down quite a lot, and inequality tends to decline," according to Don Peck, author of "Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It." "That really hasn't happened in this recession. By most measures, income inequality has actually increased."

The wealthy also were largely spared the pain of unemployment. According to Pew Research, the fourth-quarter unemployment rates for workers without a high school diploma grew from 7.7% to 15.3% between 2007 and 2009, while the rate for workers with a college degree remained less than 5%.

Losers: The Middle Class

The middle class continues to take a beating from the recession.

The Associated Press reports that following the recession that began in late 2007, the share of working families who are low income has risen for three straight years to 31.2%, or 10.2 million. That proportion is the highest in at least a decade, up from 27% in 2002, according to a new analysis by the Working Poor Families Project and the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit research group based in Washington.

Broken down by age, children were most likely to be poor or low-income -- about 57% -- followed by seniors 65 and over, according to the Associated Press. By race and ethnicity, Hispanics topped the list at 73%, followed by blacks, Asians and non-Hispanic whites.

One bright spot: "During the recession, for the first time in U.S. history, women came to hold a majority of the country's jobs," says Don Peck, author of "Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It."

Winners: Homebuyers

The same precipitous decline in home values that sucker punched American homeowners when the housing bubble burst has provided homebuyers with the rare opportunity to land the deal of a lifetime.

"When you look at the affordability circumstances now based on the relationship between mortgage interest rates, median prices and median family income, this year is the most favorable on record dating back to 1970," says Walter Molony, spokesman for the National Association of Realtors.

According to the NAR's Housing Affordability Index, the median price of a single-family home has dropped from $196,600 in 2008 to $168,400 in August 2011. During that same period, median mortgage rates declined from 6.15% to 4.69%, and the money you would need to buy the average home dropped nearly 25% from $45,984 to $33,504.

"For buyers who can get a mortgage in the current market and who have that long-term view, this is really a golden opportunity," Molony says.

Just one caveat: Don't buy unless you're planning to stay for a while.

"First-time and repeat homebuyers should plan to stay in the home for 10 years," Molony says.

Losers: Home Sellers

Real estate agents have long chanted the mantra, "location, location, location." But since the housing bubble burst, home sellers are far more focused on timing, timing, timing.

"The folks who were really hurt are those who bought at the top of the boom and had to sell for one reason or another. They were relocated or lost their job or had some sort of toxic loan they couldn't refinance," says Walter Molony, spokesman for the National Association of Realtors.

According to NAR figures, median home sale prices across the country fell from $196,600 in 2008 to $173,100 in 2010.

Molony blames subprime lending, not just for the housing bubble, but also for skewing housing data for the foreseeable future.

"The whole economic downturn was really driven by the toxic mortgages that should never have been introduced to the market in the first place. That led to abnormal behavior and induced sales above what we were expecting. This whole house of cards was built on these toxic loans that originated with Wall Street, and we are still paying the price for them today," he says.

Winners: Motorists

Although it's hard to imagine in retrospect, the major financial story of the summer preceding the market crash was the price of gas, which hit an all-time high of $4.11 per gallon in July 2008.

The market collapse and its subsequent impact on consumer spending quickly reduced the price at the pump for motorists.

"We hit that high in 2008, went into a recession and saw crude oil prices drop below $65 a barrel in 2009, which brought us very low gas prices for consumers," says Jennifer Brady, a spokeswoman for AAA.

But gas prices increased by more than $1 per gallon in the first half of 2011 largely because of concerns over the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Libya. Prices rose from $3.12 per gallon for regular unleaded in January to a yearly high of $3.93 in May before retreating.

The mixed blessing for motorists is that as the economy improves, gas prices also tend to increase.

Losers: College Grads

Recent college grads could scarcely have chosen a worse time to enter the U.S. job market.

First, there's the jobs picture. In 2010, the unemployment rate for workers age 16 to 24 was 18.4%, the worst on record in 60 years, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

For those who do get hired, their first salary comes with a 10% "penalty" for graduating during a recession, while their median starting salary is $27,000 rather than the $30,000 average for 2006 and 2007 grads, according to a May 2011 study from the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.

And then there's student debt. Two-thirds of 2010 college grads hit the pavement owing an average of $25,250 on their student loans, up 5% from the previous year, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.

Don Peck, author of "Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It," says the timing of their birth may haunt "Generation R" for decades.

"Academic and historical evidence shows that people who get stuck in bad jobs or no jobs in the first few years of their careers not only start out behind, they never fully catch up," he says.

Winners: Teenagers

The Great Recession could turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to teenagers.

"What we saw in the Depression was, while people who were in their twenties during the heart of the Depression really struggled throughout the rest of their lives, people in their teens experienced that period very differently and were shaped differently by it," says Don Peck, author of "Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It."

"They couldn't be blamed for the financial struggles that their families were having; many of the biggest scars that recessions leave are psychological, so that didn't affect teens."

Instead, much like today, teens were called upon to pick up the slack at home and provide emotional support while both parents worked to support the family.

"They became what is now called the Greatest Generation. They were renowned for their ability to delay gratification, their civic-mindedness, their family commitment and generally for a very practical, can-do attitude," Peck says.

"I wonder if the same thing may be happening with today's teens," he says.

Losers: Pre-Retirees

Imagine you're running a marathon and nearing the finish line when someone in the crowd suddenly trips you, fracturing your ankle. That's how the recession feels to pre-retirees.

According to Pew Research, the unemployment rate for workers age 55 to 64 increased from 2.9% in the fourth quarter of 2007 to 6.9% in the same period of 2009. And for those without jobs, the Great Recession has been particularly brutal, with the average duration of unemployment at its longest in modern times.

"For those 55 and over who lost their jobs, it has been a real struggle getting re-employed, having an average duration of unemployment of more than a year," says Sara Rix, senior strategic policy advisor for the AARP Public Policy Institute. "The longer you're out of work, the less likely you are to find work."

Even those who own their homes outright were not spared. The domino effect of unemployment and housing devaluation forced many pre-retirees to resort to their nest eggs prematurely.

"Many of those unemployed workers will never recover," Rix says.