The Blog

Far From The Middle Part 2

in-debt-we-trustAround the same time as the Atlantic monthly article hit the stands, the Pew Center released it’s own findings on the shrinking middle class. They were disturbing to say the least.

In many metro areas surveyed, middle-income earners have shrunk while both upper and lower income earners have gained ground. The implications of a disappearing middle class are as wide as they are deep and reach far beyond limited access to education and squeezed consumers, to a broad range of social issues that impact the governing of the country.

Major disruptions like the shrinking of an entire economic class that for generations has been the engine for prosperity in the US may explain the popularity of outlier candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. People are afraid on both sides of the political aisle, and seem to share an anxiety that there isn’t enough and what little there is, is subject to disruption in the guise of a $400 emergency.

So what’s behind the shrinking of the middle class? Spiraling costs for education, housing and healthcare are at the top of the list, but in a healthy economy those costs would be offset by rising salaries. So then is wage stagnation the problem?

According to the Census Bureau, the median income for U.S. households is still below its 1999 peak. In Gabler’s article, he sites Edward Wolff, an economist at New York University whose research found that median net worth is down 85.3 percent from 1983 to 2013 for the bottom income quintile, down 63.5 percent for the second-lowest quintile, and down 25.8 percent for the third, or middle, quintile.

From the article…

“According to research funded by the Russell Sage Foundation, the inflation-adjusted net worth of the typical household, one at the median point of wealth distribution, was $87,992 in 2003. By 2013, it had declined to $54,500, a 38 percent drop. And though the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008 certainly contributed to the drop, the decline for the lower quintiles began long before the recession—as early as the mid-1980s, Wolff says.”

It used to be that increases in wages followed increases in productivity, but no more. In fact, since 1980, real wages have increased only about 8% compared with a 63% increase in productivity. It’s called the wage/productivity gap and economists don’t necessarily agree on why it exists in the first place.

Not surprisingly, that’s not the only thing economists don’t agree on.

Around the same time as the Gabler piece appeared, a San Francisco Federal Reserve study took issue with the idea that wages have stagnated over time and concluded that they had actually continued to rise, if only modestly.

Modestly. A five dollar word that means, not so much. Even a person of very little understanding of economics and/or math or the English language for that matter would understand that wages rising modestly does nothing to offset housing, health care and education rising astronomically.However, it may explain why people who make upwards of $100,000 don’t have $400 in an emergency.

For Gabler’s part, problems selling his NYC condo (in the 1990s) and then financing his children’s expensive private school educations went a long way toward putting him in a hole he can’t climb out of. Not wanting them to go into debt, he first tapped himself out and then turned to his parents, spending forward any inheritance he may have been very glad of. Later he financed his daughter’s wedding by tapping his 401K.

He makes no excuses for his poor financial decisions, freely admitting the folly of spending more than he made while also acknowledging a flawed assumption that his making would keep up with his spending.  And while I agree that those decisions were ill considered, Gabler, like all of us was doing exactly what he’d been told to do his entire life: buy a home, send your kids to college, make sure they have adequate healthcare.

What they didn’t tell us was that, except for the very well-to-do, none of it is possible without getting into significant debt.

Henry Ford understood that in order to sell automobiles people had to be able to afford to buy them. He paid his workers so they could buy his cars and it was a recipe for great success.

But those days are gone and no employer cares one iota whether they pay any of us enough to afford their products or services or if we can afford anything at all for that matter. So it’s not entirely the fault of all of us living beyond our means. It’s the fact that as each of us tries to live a life we’re told we should continually strive for, the price tag for that life just keeps going up even while wages aren’t cooperating.

And the bottom line is, sure a person of reasonable means should be able to come up with $400—it just doesn’t seem like all that much.

Only problem is, if you don’t have it when you need it, it’s a fortune.

How Did The Middle Class Get So Far From The Middle?

in-debt-we-trustA few months back I read an Atlantic Monthly article that gnawed at me and ultimately became the inspiration for this blog.

The article by Neal Gabler caused quite a stir when it was published in the May issue. Writing about his own financial struggles, Gabler referenced a 2014 Federal Reserve report on the financial well-being of American consumers after the Great Recession that among other things made famous the following disturbing statistic, “48% of survey respondents making between $40,000 and $100,000 couldn’t come up with $400 is the case of an emergency.”

Perhaps worse, of those earning in the $100,000 range, 27% couldn’t scrape together the $400 with either cash or credit they could pay off within the month. Gabler, a well-educated, upper middle class guy who happens to be a successful writer (NY Times best-selling biographies, screenplays made into movies, an impressive list of publications he’s written for) and who has put two children through college confessed to being a member of that 48%.

How did someone so successful find himself in such a precarious predicament? In a country that at times seems to be dripping with money, how did almost half of all Americans find themselves in the exact same boat?

I put the piece aside and moved on to tackling various writing assignments, but in the end, I couldn’t get the article out of my head. Gabler was a writer like me (albeit a far more successful one) and yet I definitely had $400 for an emergency (at least for now).

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that even if they had $400 extra dollars, many friends and family members worried about, at worst making ends meet and at best, saving enough for retirement. I did, too. We all have one thing in common—children we’re either trying to put or have put through college, something that Gabler admits in the article was a source of money drain not just for he and his wife but for his parents, too.

Thinking about all of us in the same leaky boat made me realize why Gabler’s article seemed to pinch a national nerve; late stage boomers and their millennial children are two huge cohorts who for better or worse are struggling financially under the weight of spiraling college tuition costs, out of control healthcare costs and a mountain of debt from years of living beyond their means.

How they got there will be the subject of this blog but suffice to say that a tech bubble bust, an addiction to credit cards, a hollowing out of the manufacturing sector, a housing bust that lead to the Great Recession from which folks are still recovering (no more using your house as an ATM) are all culprits. Sure we’ve all been beaten to a pulp by forces in many cases beyond our control.  But we’ve also been sucked into the academic industrial complex–college tuition has gone up — percent since — and the healthcare industrial complex that has skyrocketed— since —. All while wages have stagnated.

I don’t know about you but that sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.

I’ve always been in business for myself and along with my late husband, made a living in real estate. Economics is a hobby and I certainly don’t pretend to be an expert at anything other than surveying the economic landscape and forming my own humble opinions about what’s going on.

But I am an expert at being a late stage boomer with millennial children. And though I’ve been lucky enough to pay the freight on their very expensive educations (4 years of private high school and large public universities) so that neither is carrying any debt as they launch, it was a sacrifice that took a significant financial toll and will take some doing to recover from.

I guess that means I’m one of the lucky ones.

At least for now.