The weak job market is limiting pay. With so many applicants to choose from, employers need not compete for workers by boosting salaries.
Hourly wages increased 2.1 percent last year, barely enough to keep up with inflation. Median household incomes fell 4.8 percent between June 2009 and June 2012, after adjusting for inflation, according to a report by Sentier Research, which crunches census and other government data.
Meanwhile, Americans are paying down debt. That leaves fewer dollars available for spending.
The Social Security tax break is no more.
Nearly 80 percent of working Americans are taking home less pay this year because of a tax hike that took effect on Jan. 1. The last-minute tax deal between Congress and President Barack Obama to extend some lower tax rates failed to renew a reduction in Social Security payroll taxes. As a result, the rate increased this year to 6.2 percent from 4.2 percent.
The extra 2 percent will cost someone making $50,000 about $1,000 a year, and a household with two high-paid workers up to $4,500.
Smaller paychecks make it difficult to feel included in Wall Street's exuberance.
Housing may have hit bottom, but it hasn't fully recovered.
In a healthy housing market, builders start work on about 1.5 million homes a year. Last year, they began 780,000. That's a 41 percent increase from 2009, but not enough to revive big industries like construction that rely on the production of new homes.
Home price gains also suggest a slow, uneven healing process. The S&P/Case-Shiller index of home prices starting rising in June after 20 straight months of decline. Prices nationwide remain about 30 percent below the peak reached in mid-2006.
For many Americans, their home is their most valuable asset. When it loses value, they feel less wealthy and are less likely to spend and contribute to the recovery.