The wealth gap is turning into a sinkhole for most people: A new report from the Pew Research Center finds the rich are indeed getting richer, while the rest of us are struggling to keep our heads above water.
If your household net worth tops $500,000, you've probably done really well in the two years after the recession ended in 2009. That accounts for about 7 percent of the population.
But for the other 93 percent, it's as if the recession never ended.
Pew analyzed data from the Census Bureau to determine that the wealth gap kept widening. Overall, household wealth rose by 14 percent from 2009 through 2011.
But the upper 7 percent captured all of those gains. In fact, the wealth of the other 93 percent actually fell by four percent, even though the economy was recovering.
Here's the big difference between the haves and have nots: The affluent are heavily invested in stocks and bonds, but the rest of us are not. And those assets soared in value after the Great Recession ended.
In general, people in less affluent groups have more of their money tied up in their homes – which continued to lose value – and in savings that pay interest. And interest rates have been hovering near all-time lows. And it doesn't look as though this trend is about to change any time soon.
In fact, the author of a Brookings Institution report last month said the long-term trend of growing inequality in America is becoming permanent.
That's one reason why President Obama's budget plan proposes tax hikes that would fall most heavily on very high income households.
About 60 percent of the $800 million in new taxes would come from taxpayers making more than $1 million. Lower income earners would pay more mostly through higher cigarette taxes and a change in the way cost of living adjustments to Social Security and other programs are calculated.
Bottom line: the wealth gap keeps growing.
–Produced by Drew Trachtenberg
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Guadiano worked with a pro athlete in San Antonio in his mid-40s whose road into hard times was paved with the purchase of too many toys, and a failure to plan for retirement.
The athlete came to Guadiano with $100,000 in credit card debt, $200,000 in loans for two sports cars, a $200,000 loan for a luxury cabin cruiser, and a look of terror on his face. His sports career was at an end, and he had attempted to get a job with a life insurance company. But he was turned down when his prospective employers saw his credit report.
Initially, the athlete started a debt management plan with fixed payments to eliminate his debt, but since some of his toys had been repossessed and he had judgments for non-payment of other bills, he eventually dropped out of the program and declared bankruptcy.
Guadiano saw him recently and said he seems happy without the trappings of the high-profile lifestyle and is gainfully employed at a nonprofit company that works with cancer survivors.
Ashley Adami, a certified credit counselor with ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions in Portland, Ore., worked with a woman in her late 40s who lived off a monthly income from a trust fund, but had accumulated $300,000 in gambling debts.
"She lived in a home with a lot of home equity and a small mortgage, plus she owned a second property without any mortgage," says Adami. "She came to me because she had a gambling addiction and her therapist told her to get some financial help."
The woman's credit score had plummeted, yet her favorite casino continually loaned her money to cover her gambling because they knew she had assets to sell. In the end, she sold her second home to pay off her debts. Her credit improved and she was able to refinance and keep her primary residence. She also found a full-time job. While this woman didn't end up in rags because of the cushion of her trust fund, she needed to make some dramatic transformations to her life in order to clean up her debt problem.
"Although she still struggles with her gambling addiction, it's under control now and she's much happier working full time," says Adami. "Not only is she earning a living, but she's keeping busy and feeling productive."
Another of Guadiano's clients, a high-ranking noncommissioned military officer, was making a good income, but got caught up in buying expensive furniture for a new home, a costly car, and a high-end truck. He wasn't eligible to reenlist, and so he retired at an income that was about half his previous salary.
"He struggled with a debt management plan for about a year," says Guadiano, but then he wound up getting a job as an overseas security advisor through his military connections. He went back to Iraq and earned enough money to pay off all of his debts.
"He's a lucky guy to have had the connections to bring in the income to get him out of the hole," says Guadiano.
Mary Ellen Nicol, a credit counselor with CredAbility in Atlanta, is working with a client who owns a public relations firm.
"In September 2012, my client lost his major client, a restaurant chain that was paying him $27,000 per month for his PR services," says Nicol. "His income went from $30,000 a month to $3,000 a month."
The client used his $40,000 in savings to stay current on his mortgage and for other living expenses, then began putting all his expenses on his credit cards, but finally turned to CredAbility for help.
At that point, says Nicol, he was two months past due on his mortgage. He couldn't qualify for a loan modification because the payment was about the same as his income from his remaining PR client. Nicol and the client are currently requesting a reduced payment due to his reduced income.
Bruce McClary, currently director of media relations for ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions in Seattle, worked with a debt collection agency in Los Angeles where he saw the sad aftermath of fortunes frittered away.
"An actor who had been popular in the 1970s and had earned millions was living off the residuals from some TV roles and the income generated by several properties," says McClary. "One of the homes, a $2 million mansion, was destroyed by a natural disaster."
Although there was insurance on the property, the special coverage needed for that particular disaster had lapsed. The property was a total loss, sending the actor's already shaky finances into a tailspin.
The debt collection company McClary worked for eventually collected a 50 percent settlement the portion of the actors debt that concerned them -- a second mortgage on one of the actor's properties -- but most of the actor's fortune had evaporated by the time the actor died from an illness.
"These situations remind me of similar circumstances that happen to lottery winners, sometimes referred to as 'sudden wealth syndrome,' when people who come from modest means are suddenly thrust into the limelight of fame and fortune," says McClary. "If they weren't prepared with core financial skills, their financial security is at risk."
The biggest lesson that everyone can take away from these tales -- whether they come into sudden wealth or not -- is the importance of living within your means.
"Fame is fleeting, so those reaching the top should think about how to make their newfound fortune last a lifetime. Otherwise, it can disappear faster than it arrived and can even turn into some serious debt," McClary says.