Debt Inequality Has Dramatically Risen Since 1983: Report

There's a gap between America's richest citizens and everybody else. And that gap has been growing larger for years.

No, it's not income inequality. We're talking about debt.

The vast majority of Americans are deeper in debt than ever, while the richest sliver of the population has actually seen its debt go down in the last 30 years or so, according to International Monetary Fund research recently cited by CNN. It's not only bad news for the debtors themselves; this kind of pattern has emerged before, according to CNN -- and each time, it was followed by a major U.S. financial downturn.

Debt has become an enormous problem for the typical American. Among the bottom 95 percent of earners -- most of us, in other words -- debt has risen to eye-popping levels. In 1983, the bottom 95 percent had 60 cents of debt for every dollar they earned, according to the IMF's research. By 2007, it had risen to $1.40 of debt for every dollar earned.

For the top 5 percent, it's been a different story. In 1983, that group had 80 cents of debt for every dollar they earned. By 2007, that had dropped off to 65 cents of debt.

And the spending patterns of the super-rich may only exacerbate debt gap between the rich and the poor. That's because when the rich boost their spending, the poor follow suit, according to a March study from the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business.

By any measure, working and middle class Americans have seen their debt balloon since the 1980s. Today, Americans owe some $704 billion in credit card debt, and more than that in both auto loans and student borrowing.

Many Americans may not even realize the extent to which debt underpins their lifestyle. A number of analysts argue that many Americans who consider themselves middle class are in fact leading a precarious, over-leveraged existence, with few savings and little financial cushion in case of emergency.

Wages have been holding steady for most U.S. workers over the past generation -- but inflation has kept going up. As a result, by one estimate, consumer debt has risen 1700 percent since 1971.

Meanwhile, of course, the rich have only gotten richer, zooming ahead of the rest of the population with explosive income growth over the past three decades.