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Household Wealth Is the Highest Ever. Probably Not Your Household's, Though

Updated: Mar 13, 2015 1:25 PM ET

Americans' total wealth has reached a record. According to a Federal Reserve report released Thursday, the net worth of U.S. households and nonprofit organizations rose to $82.9 trillion at the end of 2014.

Much of that growth was driven by stocks, which grew in value by $742 billion during the final quarter of last year. The value of residential real estate also rose by $356 billion.

However, these aggregate numbers from the Fed provide only a partial view of Americans' financial well-being. Since wealth is spread unevenly, so is the effect of gains in asset value. The median household—the one that's richer than about half of households, but poorer than the other half—is likely still well behind where it was before the financial crisis.

The most recent solid data on this runs through 2013. As MONEY recently reported, an analysis by researchers at the University of Michigan last year found that the median wealth of a U.S. household, in inflation-adjusted dollars, dropped 36% from 2003 to 2013. In that same period, the richest 5% of households saw their median net worth increase by 12%.

In 2003, the wealthiest 5% of Americans had a net worth 13 times that of the median household. By 2013, that disparity had nearly doubled, with these households holding 24 times that of the median.

The main reason for this increasing wealth gap: not only do the rich have more assets, but they have more of the assets that have performed better. More than half of a typical household's wealth is in real estate. But a median household in the top 5% keeps only 16% of wealth in home equity. More of their assets are in businesses (49%) and financial investments like stocks and bonds (25%). So these households have gained far more from the recent equity bull market.

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