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That nagging feeling of harder times in recent years was no illusion. The government says American households' net worth dropped roughly $5,000 on average between 1988 and 1991.

The Census Bureau on Tuesday blamed the 12 percent decline, after inflation, mainly on falling real-estate values. Those years included an eight-month recession and the start of an anemic recovery.Hard times' bite was cushioned by rising values of stocks, cars and trucks and retirement accounts.

A falling net worth means real hardship for real people.

"For kids, for example, it means your parents may not have the money for you to go to college, and it means they may not be able to borrow money in an emergency," said Arloc Sherman, a researcher at the Children's Defense Fund. "It certainly means that your cushion in hard times has suddenly become hard and flat."

The median American household's net worth was $36,623 in 1991, down $4,849 from 1988. The 1988 median of $41,472 was little changed from the $42,934 recorded in 1984. All the figures were adjusted for inflation.

Median means that half the households had net worth - assets minus liabilities - of more than that amount, and half had less.

The median black household's net worth, $4,604, was about a 10th that of the median white household, $44,408.

Hispanic households had median net worth of $5,345. Hispanics are a cultural group and can be of any race.

The elderly were worth 16 times the young. Households headed by people under 35 were worth $5,565; ages 35 to 44, $31,148; 45 to 54, $58,250; 54 to 64, $83,041; and over 65, $88,192.



Where money goes

Where the median American household puts each dollar of its net worth:

- 54 cents in housing and other real estate.

- 14 cents in savings accounts, money market accounts, certificates of deposit and interest-earning checking accounts.

- 7 cents in stocks and mutual-fund shares.

- 7 cents in businesses.

- 6 cents in cars and trucks.

- 5 cents in retirement accounts.

- Half a cent in a checking account.

- The rest in U.S. savings bonds and other investments.

Each dollar of net worth was reduced by 3 cents in unsecured liabilities.