Downward mobility, homelessness spreading to the middle class, 200,000 public employees laid off? Here are some frightening trends to keep an eye on.
By David McGraw
The promise of the American dream has given many hope that they themselves could one day rise up the economic ladder. But according to a study released those already in financially-stable circumstances should fear falling down a few rungs too. The study… found that nearly a third of Americans who were part of the middle class as teenagers in the 1970s have fallen out of it as adults… its findings suggest the relative ease with which people in the U.S. can end up in low-income, low-opportunity lifestyles — even if they started out with a number of advantages.
Though the American middle class has been repeatedly invoked as a key factor in any economic turnaround, numerous reports have suggested that the middle class enjoys less existential security than it did a generation ago, thanks to stagnating incomes and the decline of the industrial sector.
The idea that children will grow up to be better off than their parents is a central component of the American Dream, and sustains American optimism. However, Downward Mobility from the Middle Class: Waking up from the American Dream finds that a middle-class upbringing does not guarantee the same status over the course of a lifetime. A third of Americans raised in the middle class — defined here as those between the 30th and 70th percentiles of the income distribution — fall out of the middle as adults.
This spring, there were 21.8 million “doubled-up” households across the nation, a 10.7 percent increase from the 19.7 million households in the spring of 2007, the Census Bureau said. That means 18.3 percent of all households were combined households.
“They are known as the last resort. Millions of Americans are staying in budget long-stay motels as the country’s economic problems get worse. The grisly rooms are seen as the lowest of the U.S. housing ladder, only just above a cardboard box. In tiny rooms with paper-thin walls and nylon sheets, vulnerable Americans are making their homes for a few hundred bucks a month.”
“The economic downturn and the government’s deep cuts to welfare will drive up homelessness over the next few years, raising the spectre of middle class people living on the streets, a major study warns. The report by the homelessness charity Crisis says there is a direct link between the downturn and rising homelessness as cuts to services and draconian changes to benefits shred the traditional welfare safety net.”
“More than two years into the economic recovery, there isn’t yet a light at the end of the tunnel for California’s economy and stubborn unemployment. The number of job losses in the state is still much higher than the worst moments of the 2001 and 1990 recessions…. The state’s jobless rate hit 12% last month, the second worst in the nation. A broader measure of unemployment — which also includes part-time workers and people outside the labor force who have been looking for a job — is 22% in California and 24% in Los Angeles, while the national average is only 16.5%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The impact on children has been brutal: since 2007, 7% of the state’s children have had a foreclosure process started on their homes, the fourth-highest level in the nation, according to a study released this month by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. And families can rely less on welfare because state and federal budget crises have cut social services.”
“For sale or rent by distressed owner: 248,000 homes. That’s how many residential properties the U.S. government now has in its possession, the result of record numbers of people defaulting on government-backed mortgages. Washington is sitting on nearly a third of the nation’s 800,000 repossessed houses, making the U.S. taxpayer the largest owner of foreclosed properties. With even more homes moving toward default, Fannie Mae (FNMA), Freddie Mac (FMCC), and the Federal Housing Administration are looking for a way to unload them without swamping the already depressed real estate market. Trouble is, they haven’t figured out how to do that. “They’re stuck,” says Karen Shaw Petrou, managing partner of Federal Financial Analytics, a Washington-based consultant that advises banks and other clients on government policy. “They don’t know what to do.””
“It would seem so from the statistics compiled by the New York Times. The article leads in by suggesting the rich are ‘losing their home but given the talk about strategic default earlier in the year, you should wonder whether these are defaults due to distress or out of sheer financial calculation. This statistic jumped out at me: More than one in seven homeowners with loans in excess of a million dollars is seriously delinquent…. By contrast, homeowners with less lavish housing are much more likely to keep writing checks to their lender. About one in 12 mortgages below the million-dollar mark is delinquent. Why would there be this differential given the stress on budgets felt by homebuyers below the million dollar mark? It looks very much like strategic defaults at play.”
“At the end of June 2011, macromarkets.com released the results of a poll in which 108 leading economists and housing market analysts were asked to predict the direction of home prices from now until 2015. All except four of them predicted that housing markets around the country would hit bottom no later than the end of 2012 before climbing again. Only one of them thought that home prices would not hit bottom until the end of 2013. By way of contrast, a survey of consumers released in May by trulia.com and realtytrac.com found that 54% thought that a housing market recovery would not occur until “2014 or later.””
“For decades, Americans have aspired to own homes, and everyone from bankers to government officials has worked to make the dream accessible. But around the country, particularly in places hit hardest by the real estate bust, that’s changing. Legions of homeowners remain underwater on their mortgages or unable to move because they can’t sell their house. Plenty who want homes can’t buy them because credit remains tight.”
“The BLS playbook in full force today: miss expectations of 405K – check, by printing at 414K; another weekly print over 400K – check (21 out of 22 weeks over 400K), revise prior week’s higher – check (from 409K to 412K). Unfortunately, unlike two weeks ago when another blowout miss was reported, this time there is no striking phone carrier to blame it to. And as usual, those coming off their extended claims cliff keeps increasing, with 78K people dropping off EUCs and Extended claims: nearly 2 million people have been cut off from any extended government benefits in the past year. Overall, another weekly data set that confirms that next month’s NFP number will most certainly not be positive… or zero. “
“The job market is even worse than the 9.1 percent unemployment rate suggests. America’s 14 million unemployed aren’t competing just with each other. They must also contend with 8.8 million other people not counted as unemployed — part-timers who want full-time work. When consumer demand picks up, companies will likely boost the hours of their part-timers before they add jobs, economists say. It means they have room to expand without hiring. And the unemployed will face another source of competition once the economy improves: Roughly 2.6 million people who aren’t counted as unemployed because they’ve stopped looking for work. Once they start looking again, they’ll be classified as unemployed. And the unemployment rate could rise.”
“Employers are increasingly giving up on the American man. Men who do have jobs are getting paid less. After accounting for inflation, median wages for men between 30 and 50 dropped 27 percent—to $33,000 a year— from 1969 to 2009, according to an analysis by Michael Greenstone, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professor who was chief economist for Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. “That takes men and puts them back at their earnings capacity of the 1950s,” Greenstone says. “That has staggering implications.”
“Local and state governments axed more than 200,000 jobs in 2010, according to U.S. Census data that showed the growing threat of public employee layoffs to the economic recovery. According to the Census, local and state governments had 203,321 fewer full-time equivalent employees in 2010 than in 2009 and 27,567 fewer part-time employees. “
“Today, the question is: As the new unemployment “norm” rises, will the “99ers” remain just a number, or will anger and systemic dysfunction lead to the rebirth of movements of the unemployed, perhaps allied, as in the past, with others suffering from the economy’s relentless downward arc? Keep in mind that the extent of organized protest by the unemployed in the past should not be exaggerated. Not even the Great Depression evoked their sustained mass mobilization. That’s hardly surprising. By its nature, unemployment demoralizes and isolates people. It makes of them a transient and chronically fluctuating population with no readily discernable common enemy and no obvious place to coalesce. Another question might be: In the coming years, might we see the return of a basic American horror at the phenomenon of joblessness? And might it drive Americans to begin to ask deeper questions about the system that lives and feeds on it? After all, we now exist in an under-developing economy.
What new jobs it is creating are poor paying, low skill, and often temporary, nor are there enough of them to significantly reduce the numbers of those out of work. The 99ers are stark evidence that we may be witnessing the birth of a new permanent class of the marginalized. (The percentage of the unemployed who have been out of work for more than six months has grown from 8.6% in 1979 to 19.6% today.) Moreover, our mode of “flexible capitalism” has made work itself increasingly transient and precarious. Until now, ideologues of the new order have had remarkable success in dressing this up as a new form of freedom. But our ancestors, who experienced frequent and distressing interruptions in their work lives, who migrated thousands of miles to find jobs which they kept or lost at the whim of employers, and who, in solitary search for work, tramped the roads and hopped the freight cars (even if they could not yet roam Internet chat rooms), were not so delusional.
We have a choice: Americans can continue to accept large-scale unemployment as “natural” and permanent, even — a truly grotesque development — as a basic feature on a bipartisan road to “recovery” via austerity. Or we can follow the lead of the jobless young in the Arab Spring and of protestors beginning to demonstrate en masse in Europe. Even the newly minted proletarians of Ventura, California, sleeping in their cars, may decide that they have had enough of a political and economic order of things so bankrupt it can find no use for them at any price.”
“It is bad enough that President Obama is reversing his campaign pledge and supporting Bush-era trade deals with Korea, Colombia and Panama. Starting this week in Chicago, the US will be hosting the first major trade negotiations since the “Battle in Seattle” World Trade Organization talks came here in 1999. This occasion is for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with a wide range of industrialized and developing Pacific Rim countries. As part of his plan to revive the US economy and create jobs, Obama claims he will be unveiling “a trade agreement for the 21st century”.
Ironically, though, he will be pushing the same “Nafta-style” trade pacts he campaigned against, and to howls of protest from his own electoral base. Let us not forget what he said: “I voted against Cafta, never supported Nafta, and will not support Nafta-style trade agreements in the future,” Obama told Ohio voters in 2008. “While Nafta gave broad rights to investors, it paid only lip service to the rights of labor and the importance of environmental protection.”"
“American workers’ concerns about various job-related cutbacks have returned to the record highs seen in 2009…. In terms of the most significant employment risk measured, 3 in 10 workers currently say they are worried they could soon be laid off, similar to the 31% seen in August 2009 but double the level recorded in August 2008 and for several years prior.”
“Anyone can lose their job and fall behind on bills in this economy. But now that may keep them from finding new employment. This week’s credit check: Six out of 10 employers use credit reports to vet job applicants. More than 20 million Americans may have material errors on their credit reports…. Where should they turn when they’ve lost a steady paycheck, but still have to keep up with bills such as mortgage payments, student loans, and the basics like rent and food? With no money coming in, many understandably have to turn to debt. But taking on debt — and being unable to pay it back, or pay back any of the debt they may have took on when things looked better and they had a job — could be the exact thing that keeps the unemployed from becoming re-employed. In a massive Catch-22, many employers are looking to credit reports when they do background checks on prospective employees, and a bad mark due to an unpaid medical bill or lapsed student loan payment could make the difference in getting the job…. Marketplace recently told the story of Sarah Sholar, just one of those employees with bad credit who has been turned down by prospective employers. “I can’t pay my student loans because I don’t have a job,” she told them. “I can’t get a job because I can’t pay my student loans.””
“According to a new study from CardHub.com, we’re on track to increase our collective credit card debt by $54 billion in 2011. We added only $9 billion in new credit card debt in 2010, and actually reduced our credit card debt in 2009 — so this is a significant reversal. All told, Americans now have roughly $772 billion in outstanding credit card balances. “For millions, they were living in a bubble,” says Odysseas Papadimitriou, CEO of CardHub, referring to Americans living on home equity and credit card debt five years ago. “If we end up overleveraging ourselves again, it’s going to be the same thing repeated in a few years.””
“The share of federal student loan defaults rose sharply last year, especially at for-profit colleges and universities, where 15 percent of borrowers defaulted in the first two years of repayment, up from 11.6 percent the previous year. According to Department of Education data released Monday, 8.8 percent of borrowers over all defaulted in the fiscal year that ended last Sept. 30, the latest figures available, up from 7 percent the previous year. At public institutions, the rate was 7.2 percent, up from 6 percent, and at not-for-profit private institutions, it was 4.6 percent, up from 4 percent. “Borrowers are struggling in this economy,” said James Kvaal, deputy under secretary of education. “We see a strong relationship between student default rates and unemployment rates.”
“Take Aleesha Nash, a graduate of New York University. “Logging into the Federal Student Aid website,” she writes… “I see that today my balance is $104,104.63 for a percentage of the information in my head.” And there’s Jaclyn Cabral, too. Jaclyn chose to attend Elon University in North Carolina because it’s “regarded as one of the most affordable private educations.” Still, she graduated $90,000 in debt. For many of these students, paying off their loans is a nearly unsurmountable challenge. Brandon Woods, a Hampton University alum, finds himself working two jobs — and hardly making a dent in his $58,000 deficit. “
“A lawyer has told how she turned to stripping to pay bills after struggling to find a legal job in recession-weary America. The attorney, giving her name only as Carla, graduated from law school ten years ago. But after being made redundant in 2009, she had to take drastic action to avoid drowning in a sea of student loans and other debts. After working as a waitress and a cashier in a gas station, she became so desperate she took a job as an exotic dancer.”
“Instead of creating some sort of overarching institution to protect debtors, they create these grandiose, world-scale institutions like the IMF or S&P to protect creditors. They essentially declare (in defiance of all traditional economic logic) that no debtor should ever be allowed to default. Needless to say the result is catastrophic. We are experiencing something that to me, at least, looks exactly like what the ancients were most afraid of: a population of debtors skating at the edge of disaster. “
“Global food prices remain near a record high, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The index reached 231 points in August, up 26% from the same period last year. The index hit an all-time record of 238 points in February. Cereal prices rose on anticipation of a shortfall in production this year, which is expected to be 6 million tonnes less than predicted in July. The FAO’s measure looks at a range of essential foods. Those include cereals, oilseeds, dairy, meat and sugar.”
“Rising inflation means there are now just a handful of accounts that will prevent savers’ capital being eroded by the increasing cost of living. The Office for National Statistics said the cost of living, as measured by CPI, rose from 4.4% in July to 4.5% in August, meaning a basic rate taxpayer now needs to find a savings account paying 5.63% a year to beat inflation and tax, while a higher rate taxpayer needs to find an account paying at least 7.5%.”
“While the fact that a record number of Americans are living in poverty should not surprise anyone at this point, what should surprise many is that according to Table P-5 of the Census report on (Lack of) Income, the median male is now worse on a gross, inflation adjusted basis, than he was in… 1968! While back then, the median income of male workers was $32,844, it has since declined to $32,137 as of 2010. And there is your lesson in inflation 101 (which we assume is driven by the CPI, which likely means that the actual inflation adjusted income decline is far worse than what is even reported). The only winner: women, whose median inflation adjusted income over the same period has increased by 188%. That said, it is still at 65% of what the median male makes. So injustice all around.”
Pension Time Bombs
“The California state auditor issued a report last month branding the defined benefit program of the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS) a “high-risk issue.” The pension fund is the eighth largest in the world and the largest teachers’ pension fund in the US. Teachers and administrators contribute a portion of their wages to the fund each year so as to collect pension benefits when they retire. To be considered fully funded, the defined benefit program of CalSTRS must be funded by at least 80 percent. The current funding level is 71 percent. According to financial projections, in 30 years CalSTRS will be depleted of funds.”
“This year has been a nightmare for many in the industry — which controls $35 trillion, or a third of global financial assets — and funding deficits are posting double-digit rises. “We had a credit crisis and government bond crisis, and the third one we have is the pension crisis. This is the one where everything is going wrong and there’s no obvious way out,” said Kevin Wesbroom, UK head of global risk services at consultancy Aon Hewitt. The sharp retreat in stocks through the summer has hurt them again by weakening their asset positions and threatening to erode stock market recoveries seen since the equity collapse surrounding the 2007-2009 credit crisis. Recent data on pension deficits highlight the plight of many pension funds. In the United States, funding deficits of the 100 largest DB plans rose $68 billion to $254 billion in July, according to the Milliman Pension Fund Index. July marked the 10th largest deficit rise in the index’s 11 year history. Even if these companies were to achieve an optimistic annual return of as much as 8 percent and keep the current benchmark yield of 5.12 percent, their funding status is not estimated to improve beyond 93 percent by end-2013 from the current 83 percent.”
“Official estimates by the Census Bureau showing an increase of about 1 million in the number of Americans without health insurance in 2010 – to a 45-year high of 49.9 million persons, or 16.3 percent of the population, under the bureau’s revised calculation method…. Employment-based coverage continued to decline. The bureau said 55.3 percent of Americans were covered by employment-based plans in 2010, down from 56.1 percent in 2009. It was the eleventh consecutive year of decline, from 64.2 percent in 2000.”
“It’s going to be a massive problem if it comes out that families have to buy really expensive employer-based coverage,” said Jocelyn Guyer, deputy executive director at Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families. “If they don’t fix this and by ‘they’ I mean either the administration or Congress, we’re going to have middle-class families extremely unhappy with [healthcare] reform in 2014, because they’ll basically be facing financial penalties for not buying coverage when they don’t have access to any affordable options.”
“Newly published numbers from the Department of Health and Human Services show that American workers in 2010 paid average premiums of $4,940 for employer-provided health insurance to cover just themselves. That figure increased from $1,992 in 1996. Last year, the average family paid $13,871 for health insurance under employer-provided plans. For the average American household – whose median income is now about $50,000 – the rising price of health insurance is consuming a substantial part of paychecks.”
“Nearly one of every 10 midsized or big employers expects to stop offering health coverage to workers after insurance exchanges begin operating in 2014 as part of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, according to a survey by a major benefits consultant. Towers Watson also found in its July survey that another one in five companies are unsure about what they will do after 2014. Another big benefits consultant, Mercer, found in a June survey of large and smaller employers that 8 percent are either “likely” or “very likely” to end health benefits after the exchanges start. The surveys, which involved more than 1,200 companies, suggest that some businesses feel they will be better off dropping health insurance coverage once the exchanges start, even though they could face fines and tax headaches. The percentage of companies that are already saying they expect to do this surprised some experts, and if they follow through, it could start a trend that chips away at employer-sponsored health coverage, a long-standing pillar of the nation’s health system.”
“Publicly, consumer and patient advocates continue to cheer wildly for last year’s health care law. Behind the scenes, however, some worry that they’re losing a few key battles to the insurance and business communities. They point to a long-sought provision in the law that entitles patients to external reviews if insurers won’t pay for a medical service, and they charge that recent regulations limit its effectiveness. One of their biggest gripes? It allows insurers to choose their own “external” reviewers.