Peter Goldberg—Getty Images
By Dan Kadlec
June 25, 2015

The housing bust of 2008 touched every homeowner. The subsequent recovery has been selective, mainly benefiting those with the resources and credit to invest. This has had a more damaging effect on individuals’ retirement security than many might expect.

For a quarter century, home equity has been the largest single source of wealth for all but the richest households nearing retirement age, accounting for 44% of net worth in the 1990s and 35% today, new research shows. The home equity percentage of net worth is greatest among homeowners with the least wealth, reaching 50% for those with median net worth of $42,460, according to a report from The Hamilton Project, a think tank closely affiliated with the Brookings Institution.

By comparison, the share of net worth in retirement accounts is just 33% for all but the wealthiest households, a figure that drops to 21% for low-wealth households. So a housing recovery that leaves out low-income families is especially damaging to the nation’s retirement security as a whole.

There can be little doubt that low-income households largely have missed the housing recovery. Homeownership in the U.S. has been falling for eight years, down to 63.7% in the first quarter from a peak of over 69% in 2004, according to a report from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. Former homeowners are now renters, frozen out of the market by their own poor credit and stricter lending standards.

Meanwhile, rents are rising, taking an additional toll on many Americans’ ability to save for retirement. On average, the number of new rental households has increased by 770,000 annually since 2004, making 2004 to 2014 the strongest 10-year stretch of rental growth since the late 1980s.

The uneven housing recovery is contributing to an expanding wealth gap, the report suggests. Among households near retirement age, those in the top half of the net worth spectrum had more wealth in 2013, adjusted for inflation, than the top half in 1989. Those in the bottom half had less wealth.

Housing is by no means the only concern registered in the report. Much of what researchers point to is fairly well known: Only half of working Americans expect to have enough money to live comfortably in retirement; longevity is putting a strain on retirement resources; half of American seniors will pay out-of-pocket expenses for long-term services and supports; the percentage of dedicated retirement assets in traditional defined-benefit plans has shrunk from two-thirds in 1978 to one third today.

All of this diminishes retirement security. Individuals must adapt, and with so much riding on our personal ability to manage our own financial affairs it is surprising that the report goes to some lengths to play down the importance of what has blossomed into a broad financial education effort in the U.S.

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Financial acumen is generally lacking among Americans and, for that matter, most of the world. Just half of pre-retirees, and far fewer younger folks, can correctly answer three basic questions about inflation, compound growth, and diversification, according one often-cited study. Yet researchers at The Hamilton Project assert that it is an “open question” as to whether public resources should be spent on educational efforts, citing evidence of its effectiveness as “underwhelming.”

I have argued that we cannot afford not to spend money on this effort. Yet I also understand the benefits of promoting things like automatic enrollment into 401(k) plans and automatic escalation of contributions, which The Hamilton Project seems to prefer. The truth is we need to do all of it, and more.

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