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9 things to know from the Wall Street Journal story on debt swamping the middle class

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the middle class is piling up a mountain of debt just to stay middle-class.

“Cars, colleges, houses, and medical care have become steadily more costly, but incomes have been largely stagnant for two decades, despite a recent uptick,” the newspaper reported on the front page of Friday’s print edition.

To fill the growing gap between spending and earnings, people have taken on debt, the newspaper said.

The newspaper said the growing debt can be seen as a vote of confidence in the future because it means people expect to pay the loans back. But it also described the loans as “an accumulated ledger of economic risk.”


The stats mentioned in the Journal article may not all be new, but taken together, the effect is eyebrow-raising reading.

Here are the numbers (which include adjustments made for inflation when applicable):

■Consumer debt, not counting mortgages, is at $4 trillion, higher than it has ever been. Mortgage debt declined after the financial crisis, but it is rebounding.

■Student debt was about $1.5 trillion last year, exceeding all other types of consumer debt except for mortgages.

■Auto debt is up nearly 40 percent in the past decade to $1.3 trillon, with the average loan for a new car at $32,187.

■The median household income at the end of 2017, $61,372, was just above the 1999 level. Over the three decades through 2017, incomes are up 14 percent.

■Over that same period, average housing prices grew 290 percent, according to an analysis by Georgetown Law professor Adam Levitin.

■Average tuition at public four-year colleges went up 311 percent, Levitin said. (The article did not address private college tuition.)

■Over a slightly shorter period, 1990 to 2017, average per capital personal health-care spending rose about 51 percent.


■From 1989 through 2016, the value of assets held by US households grew by $58 trillion. About one-third of that growth, $19 trillion, went to the wealthiest 1 percent, according to a Journal analysis of Federal Reserve data.