After the booming 1990s when incomes and stock prices were soaring, this decade has been less of a thrill ride for most American families.
Average incomes after adjusting for inflation fell from 2001 to 2004, and the growth in net worth was the weakest in a decade, the Federal Reserve reported Thursday.
Many families were struggling after the 2001 recession and the bursting of the stock market bubble in 2000, the Fed's latest "Survey of Consumer Finances" showed. The comprehensive look at household balance sheets comes every three years.
Average family incomes, after adjusting for inflation, fell to $70,700 in 2004, a drop of 2.3 percent when compared with 2001. That showing was the weakest since a decline of 11.3 percent from 1989 to 1992, a period that covered a recession.
The average incomes had soared by 17.3 percent in the 1998-2001 period and 12.3 percent from 1995 to 1998 as the country enjoyed the longest economic expansion in history.
The median family income, the point where half the families made more and half made less, rose 1.6 percent to $43,200 in 2004 compared with 2001.
Economists said the weakness in the most recent period was understandable given the loss of 2.7-million jobs from early 2001 through August 2003, when the country was struggling with sizable layoffs caused by the recession, the terrorist attacks and corporate accounting scandals.
The weak income and the stock market decline in the early part of the decade, which wiped out $7-trillion of paper wealth, had an adverse effect on family balance sheets.
Net worth, the difference between assets and liabilities such as loans, rose by 6.3 percent in the 2001-2004 period to an average of $448,200, after adjusting for inflation.
That gain was far below the huge increases of 25.6 percent from 1995 to 1998 and 28.7 percent from 1998 to 2001, increases that were fueled by soaring stock prices.
The 2001-2004 performance was the worst since net worth declined by 9.9 percent in the 1989-1992 period.
The median family net worth, the point where half the families owned more and half owned less, stood at $93,100 in 2004, a rise of 1.5 percent after adjusting for inflation from 2001.
The report showed that the slowdown in the accumulation of net worth would have been even more sizable except for the fact that homeowners have enjoyed big gains in the value of their homes in recent years.
The gap between the very wealthy and other income groups widened during the period.
The top 10 percent of households saw their net worth rise by 6.1 percent to an average of $3.11-million while the bottom 25 percent suffered a decline from a net worth in which their assets equaled their liabilities in 2001 to owing $1,400 more than their assets in 2004.
"This is the continuing story of the rich getting richer," said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's in New York. "Clearly, the gains in wealth are going to the top end."