Sunday, April 24, 2016

Credit Card Debt and Middle Class America ... Income Stagnation and the Shame of It All ... IT'S TIME TO WAKE UP AND CHANGE OUR HABITS, MY FELLOW AMERICANS

The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans is subtitled 'Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I'm one of them.'

It's a long but riveting article which should be required reading for one and all, young and old, rich and poor, political and apolitical. It's all about debt and the current sad state of affairs in far too many American households.  While you won't 'enjoy' reading it, reading it will be very much worth your time.

Here's what it says in part:

"Since 2013, the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?

Well, I knew. I knew because I am in that 47 percent. . . .

You wouldn’t know any of that to look at me. I like to think I appear reasonably prosperous. Nor would you know it to look at my résumé. I have had a passably good career as a writer—five books, hundreds of articles published, a number of awards and fellowships, and a small (very small) but respectable reputation. You wouldn’t even know it to look at my tax return. I am nowhere near rich, but I have typically made a solid middle- or even, at times, upper-middle-class income . . . .

Financial impotence goes by other names: financial fragility, financial insecurity, financial distress. But whatever you call it, the evidence strongly indicates that either a sizable minority or a slim majority of Americans are on thin ice financially. How thin? A 2014 Bankrate survey, echoing the Fed’s data, found that only 38 percent of Americans would cover a $1,000 emergency-room visit or $500 car repair with money they’d saved. Two reports published last year by the Pew Charitable Trusts found, respectively, that 55 percent of households didn’t have enough liquid savings to replace a month’s worth of lost income, and that of the 56 percent of people who said they’d worried about their finances in the previous year, 71 percent were concerned about having enough money to cover everyday expenses. . . .

You could think of this as a liquidity problem: Maybe people just don’t have enough ready cash in their checking or savings accounts to meet an unexpected expense. In that case, you might reckon you’d find greater stability by looking at net worth—the sum of people’s assets, including their retirement accounts and their home equity. That is precisely what Edward Wolff, an economist at New York University and the author of a forthcoming book on the history of wealth in America, did. Here’s what he found: There isn’t much net worth to draw on. Median net worth has declined steeply in the past generation—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. 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.

Wolff also examined the number of months that a family headed by someone of “prime working age,” between 24 and 55 years old, could continue to self-fund its current consumption, presuming the liquidation of all financial assets except home equity, if the family were to lose its income—a different way of looking at the emergency question. He found that in 2013, prime-working-age families in the bottom two income quintiles had no net worth at all and thus nothing to spend. A family in the middle quintile, with an average income of roughly $50,000, could continue its spending for … six days. Even in the second-highest quintile, a family could maintain its normal consumption for only 5.3 months. Granted, those numbers do not include home equity. But, as Wolff says, “it’s much harder now to get a second mortgage or a home-equity loan or to refinance.” So remove that home equity, which in any case plummeted during the Great Recession, and a lot of people are basically wiped out. “Families have been using their savings to finance their consumption,” Wolff notes. In his assessment, the typical American family is in “desperate straits."

Certain groups—African Americans, Hispanics, lower-income people—have fewer financial resources than others. But just so the point isn’t lost: Financial impotence is an equal-opportunity malady, striking across every demographic divide. The Bankrate survey reported that nearly half of college graduates would not cover that car repair or emergency-room visit through savings, and the study by Lusardi, Tufano, and Schneider found that nearly one-quarter of households making $100,000 to $150,000 a year claim not to be able to raise $2,000 in a month. . . .

In the 1950s and ’60s, American economic growth democratized prosperity. In the 2010s, we have managed to democratize financial insecurity.

If you ask economists to explain this state of affairs, they are likely to finger credit-card debt as a main culprit. Long before the Great Recession, many say, Americans got themselves into credit trouble. . . .

With the rise of credit, in particular, many Americans didn’t feel as much need to save. And put simply, when debt goes up, savings go down. . . . nearly 30 percent of American adults don’t save any of their income for retirement. When you combine high debt with low savings, what you get is a large swath of the population that can’t afford a financial emergency. . . .

So who is at fault? Some economists say that although banks may have been pushing credit, people nonetheless chose to run up debt; to save too little; to leave no cushion for emergencies, much less retirement. “If you want to have financial security,” says Brad Klontz, “it is 100 percent on you.” One thing economists adduce to lessen this responsibility is that credit represents a sea change from the old economic system, when financial decisions were much more constrained, limiting the sort of trouble that people could get themselves into—a sea change for which most people were ill-prepared....

It is ironic that as financial products have become increasingly sophisticated, theoretically giving individuals more options to smooth out the bumps in their lives, something like the opposite seems to have happened, at least for many. Indeed, Annamaria Lusardi and her colleagues found that, in general, the more sophisticated a country’s credit and financial markets, the worse the problem of financial insecurity for its citizens. Why? Lusardi argues that as the financial world has grown more complex, our knowledge of finances has not kept pace. Basically, a good many Americans are “financially illiterate,” and this illiteracy correlates highly with financial distress. A 2011 study she and a colleague conducted measuring knowledge of fundamental financial principles (compound interest, risk diversification, and the effects of inflation) found that 65 percent of Americans ages 25 to 65 were financial illiterates.

Choice, often in the face of ignorance, is certainly part of the story. Take me. I plead guilty. I am a financial illiterate, or worse—an ignoramus.

And so the hole was dug. And it was deep. And we may never claw our way out of it.

Perhaps none of this would have happened if my income had steadily grown the way incomes used to grow in America. It didn’t, and they don’t. . . . Real hourly wages—that is, wage rates adjusted for inflation—peaked in 1972; since then, the average hourly wage has essentially been flat. (These figures do not include the value of benefits, which has increased.). . .

In a 2010 report titled “Middle Class in America,” the U.S. Commerce Department defined that class less by its position on the economic scale than by its aspirations: homeownership, a car for each adult, health security, a college education for each child, retirement security, and a family vacation each year. By that standard, my wife and I do not live anywhere near a middle-class life, even though I earn what would generally be considered a middle-class income or better. A 2014 analysis by USA Today concluded that the American dream, defined by factors that generally corresponded to the Commerce Department’s middle-class benchmarks, would require an income of just more than $130,000 a year for an average family of four. Median family income in 2014 was roughly half that....

I don’t ask for or expect any sympathy. I am responsible for my quagmire—no one else. I didn’t get gulled into overextending myself by unscrupulous credit merchants. Basically, I screwed up, royally. I lived beyond my means, primarily because my means kept dwindling. I didn’t take the actions I should have taken, like selling my house and downsizing, though selling might not have covered what I owed on my mortgage. And let me be clear that I am not crying over my plight. I have it a lot better than many, probably most, Americans—which is my point. Maybe we all screwed up. Maybe the 47 percent of American adults who would have trouble with a $400 emergency should have done things differently and more rationally. Maybe we all lived more grandly than we should have. But I doubt that brushstroke should be applied so broadly. Many middle-class wage earners are victims of the economy, and, perhaps, of that great, glowing, irresistible American promise that has been drummed into our heads since birth: Just work hard and you can have it all. . . .

And while the affliction is primarily individual and largely hidden from public view, it has perhaps begun to diminish our national spirit. People want to feel, need to feel, that they are advancing in this world. It is what sustains them. They need to feel that their lives will improve, and, even more, that the lives of their children will be better than theirs, just as they believed that their own lives would be better than their parents’. But people increasingly do not feel that way. A 2014 New York Times poll found that only 64 percent of Americans said they believed in the American dream—the lowest figure in nearly two decades. I suspect our sense of impotence in the face of financial difficulty is not only a source of disillusionment, but also a source of the anger that now infects our national politics, an anger that gets displaced onto undocumented immigrants or Chinese trade or President Obama precisely because we are unable or unwilling to articulate its true source. As the Harvard economist Benjamin M. Friedman wrote in his 2005 book, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, “Merely being rich is no bar to a society’s retreat into rigidity and intolerance once enough of its citizens lose the sense that they are getting ahead.” We seem to be at the beginning of just such a retreat today—at the point where simmering financial impotence explodes into political rage.

Many Americans still remain optimistic—at least publicly. In a 2014 Pew survey revealing that 55 percent of Americans spend as much as they make each month, or more, nearly the exact same percentage say they have favorable financial circumstances, which may just mean some of them are too frightened to admit they don’t. Or perhaps they are just too financially illiterate to understand the severity of their predicament. Many of the scholars I have talked with are optimistic too. “People have this ingenuity to solve so many problems,” Annamaria Lusardi told me. “I think we are finally getting it that the brain does not work around money naturally,” Brad Klontz said, believing that Americans are realizing they have to take more control of their financial lives.

But optimism won’t negate the fact that wages continue to stagnate; that the personal savings rate remains low; and that a middle-class life seems increasingly hard to maintain. (A pre-recession survey by the Consumer Federation of America and the Financial Planning Association found that 21 percent of Americans felt the “most practical” way for them to get several hundred thousand dollars was to win the lottery.) I try to hang on to hope myself while still being a realist. Yet hope doesn’t come easily anymore, even in a nation of dreamers and strivers and idealists. What so many of us have been suffering for so many years may just seem like a rough patch. But it is far more likely to be our lives."

Summing Up

The more we know about how things really are, the better off we are.

Getting to a better reality is always a good thing.

That's because while we can't change what has happened and what is, we can change what will happen and what will be.

Hole digging is out.

Financial literacy is in.

So is personal financial responsibility.

So let's do all these things ourselves and help others do them as well.

That's my take.

Thanks. Bob.

No comments:

Post a Comment