WASHINGTON — Despite a decade-plus of economic growth, Americans have slowed the pace at which they're forming new companies, a trend that risks further widening the gap between the most affluent and everyone else.

The longest expansion on record, which began in mid-2009, has failed to restore entrepreneurship to its pre-recession level, according to a Census Bureau report based on tax filings.

Between 2007 and the first half of 2019, applications to form businesses that would likely hire workers fell 16%. Though the pace of applications picked up somewhat after 2012, it dipped again this year despite President Donald Trump's assertion that his tax cuts and deregulatory drive would benefit smaller companies and their workers. Applications are down 2.6% so far this year compared with the same period last year.

Business formation has long been one of the primary ways in which Americans have built wealth. When fewer new companies are established, fewer Americans tend to prosper over time.

In addition, smaller companies account for roughly 85% of all hiring, making them an entry point for most workers into the workforce. Even with the unemployment rate at a near-record-low of 3.7%, a decline in the creation of new companies means there are fewer companies competing for workers, a trend that generally slows pay growth. The pace of pay growth has stalled for the past five months even as hiring has remained healthy.

"What you see is reduced social and economic mobility," said Steve Strongin, head of global investment research at Goldman Sachs. "It means that most of the growth is occurring in the corporate sphere, which keeps wage growth down and improves profits."

Smaller companies and startups were generally cautious about expanding as they emerged from the Great Recession, in many cases choosing not to hire. The 2008 financial crisis delivered a warning to many would-be entrepreneurs that scaling back their ambitions might help them survive another recession.

"People became a lot more risk-averse after the Great Recession because so many people were hurt," said Nicholas Johnson who founded Su Casa, a chain of four furniture stores based in Baltimore that employs 30 workers.