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Unsteady Progress: Income Trends in the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances


William R. Emmons , Bryan J. Noeth
Tuesday, August 21, 2012


This analysis of the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances is but one aspect of a recently launched research initiative now under way at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Through research, publications, web-based data tools and public events, the HFS initiative aims to help rebuild the balance sheets of struggling American households. For more information, see the Household Financial Stability site at

The Federal Reserve's 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances revealed a decline in the income of many Americans between 2007 and 2010.[1]

Among the middle decile (10 percent) of all families, the average pre-tax family income in 2010 was $45,951, falling 5.6 percent from the 2007 level of $48,669.[2] (All figures are expressed in terms of 2010 purchasing power.)

Detailed comparisons of income and wealth trends over both short and long periods for a number of subgroups lead us to conclude that some types of families are doing noticeably better than others.[3]

For example, the average older family (headed by someone 55 or older) in the middle ten percent of such families had a pre-tax income 3.5 percent higher in 2010 than a similar family had in 2007.

In stark contrast, the average younger family (headed by someone under 40) had a pre-tax income 12.6 percent lower in 2010 than in 2007.

Meanwhile, a family headed by someone between the ages of 40 and 54 had pre-tax income that was about 8.3 percent lower in 2010 than such a family in 2007.

Short- and Longer-Term Income Trends

Table 1 provides information on typical pre-tax family incomes at various times for several different types of families. The first row shows constant-dollar incomes for a typical family among the entire population. Subsequent rows show income levels over time for families subdivided along several dimensions, including race or ethnicity, age and college-degree status.[4]

One striking conclusion from the table is that pre-tax family income was lower in 2010 than it was three years earlier across virtually all main groups (rows 2 through 8, column D). The only exception was older families.

Column E shows that, for all families, pre-tax family income was 9.4 percent higher in 2010 than it was in the early 1990s. The largest increases among subgroups were older families (up 42.1 percent) and historically disadvantaged minority families (up 26.4 percent).

By way of contrast, families headed by someone under the age of 40 had incomes 2.3 percent lower in 2010 than in 1992-95, and families headed by someone between 40 and 54 were basically unchanged.

Families with college degrees fared somewhat better than those without degrees during the longer period.

Finally, rows 9 and 10 indicate that college-educated families that were white, Asian or other minority saw large increases in pre-tax family income between the early 1990s and 2010. For such families headed by someone between the ages of 40 and 54, the increase was 19.4 percent; for those headed by someone 55 or over, the increase was 12 percent.

Table 2 shows the incomes of various groups of families relative to the typical family in the entire population and how their relative positions changed both during the recent downturn and over a longer period of time. Relative to the overall population, the incomes of historically disadvantaged minorities increased slightly since the early 1990s, but lost a little ground after 2007 (row 2).

The incomes of typical younger and middle-aged families declined relative to the overall population during both these shorter- and longer-term periods (rows 4 and 5), while the relative standing of older families improved over both time horizons.

William R. Emmons 

Bill Emmons is an assistant vice president and economist in the Supervision Division at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.