Illustration of a city skyline

Millennial Cities and Those Left Behind

Sumat Lam, a recent college graduate, was skeptical when his Silicon Valley employer transferred him to Austin, Texas. What he found was a high-tech mecca that defies the stereotypes of 10-gallon hats and Southern drawls.

Google, Apple and Amazon have established outposts in the “Silicon Hills” of Texas’ Hill Country. The young workers moving there are “bringing in their culture and influences from Boston and New York,” Lam told VOA News.

Taylor Hardy lives in Dayton, Ohio, but she might as well be living on a different planet.

This young nursing assistant can barely eke out a living. Her plight is shared by too many others in this former industrial hub that has been in a downward spiral that accelerated after plant closings by National Cash Register and General Motors during the last recession. The loss of high-quality blue-collar jobs contributes to Dayton’s 35 percent poverty rate – nearly three times the national rate.

Table of city rankingHardy, a single mother, and the boyfriend who lives with her, earn a total of $27,000 a year – she has $5 in her bank account. “I work all these hours, and I miss all the time with my kids to make … nothing,” she said in the PBS Frontline documentary “Left Behind America.”

The contrasting fortunes in these two cities – Austin versus Dayton – are playing out around the country. Young professionals are streaming into Millennial boomtowns from San Francisco to Boston, where growth seems almost unstoppable. But outside these hot spots are struggling Midwestern and Northeastern cities that have become deserts, devoid of opportunity for their young adult residents.

“Historically, many young American adults have left their hometowns to chase better opportunities,” said Kali McFadden, senior analyst at Magnify Money. “But not all millennials have the same work opportunities,” she said about her firm’s new city ranking of the employment available to young workers. …Learn More

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US Inequality is Feeding on Itself

The fact that the richest Americans are grabbing such a big slice of the pie isn’t exactly breaking news.

What is news is that Wall Street is getting nervous about it. Moody’s Investors Service, a private watchdog for the federal government’s fiscal soundness, has concluded that inequality has reached the point that it threatens a system already being strained by increases in the federal debt. But Moody’s also noted that inequality is contributing to slower economic growth, which further aggravates inequality.

The high level of U.S. inequality today “sets us apart” from Canada, Australia, and several European countries, Moody’s said in an October report, “Widening Income Inequality Will Weigh on U.S. Credit Profile.”

Moody’s central concern is how inequality will affect the federal budget. When the economy slows in periods of high inequality, there are more lower-income households requiring support from costly programs like Medicaid.  Federal tax revenues also decline during any downturn, leaving less money to pay for these means-tested programs and for social insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare.

The firm’s second concern is that inequality is a drag on the economy. When the middle-class is squeezed, for example, they have less money to buy consumer goods. And when the economy slows down, inequality can increase, as it did in the years after the 2008-2009 recession.

This has played out in a widening wealth gap, Moody’s said.  The typical lower and middle-income worker’s net worth – assets minus liabilities – has shrunk since the recession, while net worth rose sharply for the people at the top.

One big reason for widening inequality is the stock market. Even though the market declined sharply this month, the post-recession bull market has beefed up investment portfolios – but only for the 50 percent of Americans who own company shares or stock mutual funds.

A second contribution to a widening wealth gap, post-recession, has been housing. A home is often the most valuable asset people own, so the steep drop in house prices and the spike in foreclosures were big setbacks for people who aspired to build wealth through homeownership. …Learn More

needle popping housing bubble

Subprime Crisis Lingers for Minorities

As Americans were riveted to the spectacle of teetering Wall Street behemoths in 2008, another ruinous tragedy was beginning to unfold: a national foreclosure crisis.

chartBlack and Hispanic homebuyers were hit hardest by the foreclosures that resulted from unbridled sales of predatory subprime mortgages, which exceeded $500 billion annually at the market’s peak.

In the decade since the financial crisis, the stock market has rebounded smartly, but the damage to minority communities remains.  At the height of the foreclosure crisis, entire neighborhoods were littered with bank foreclosure sales and realtors’ signs advertising sales of the properties.

About 30 percent of black and Hispanic borrowers’ homes in total have gone into foreclosure in the years since the housing market crash, compared with 11 percent of whites’ homes.

“For [minority] families, financially destructive foreclosure events delayed and potentially derailed the dream of homeownership,” the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis concluded in a report on the continuing impact of the financial crisis.

But the damage goes deeper than that. Because home equity is often the most valuable asset that people own, the foreclosure crisis “severely damaged the balance sheets of minority families,” the Fed said. …Learn More

Medicaid Expansion Reduces Unpaid Debt

One in five Americans is burdened by unpaid medical bills that have been sent to a collection agency. Medical debt is the most common type of debt in collections.

This burden falls hardest on lower-paid people, who have little money to spare between paychecks.  These are the same people the 2014 Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was designed to help.  Some 6.5 million additional low-income workers were getting insurance coverage just two years after Medicaid’s expansion, which increased the program’s income ceiling for eligibility in the states that chose to adopt the expansion.

mapThe evidence mounts that this major policy has improved the precarious finances of vulnerable households.

A new study of the regions of the country with the largest percentage of low-income residents found that putting more people on Medicaid has reduced the number of unpaid bills of all kinds that go to collection agencies and cut by $1,000 the amounts that individuals had in collections.

The impact in states that did not expand Medicaid is apparent in Urban Institute data. Five of the 10 states with the highest share of residents owing money for medical bills – North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas – decided against expanding their Medicaid-covered populations under the ACA option. About one in four of their residents have medical debt in collections.

That’s in contrast to Minnesota, which has one of the most generous Medicaid programs in the country and the lowest rate of medical debt collection of any state (3 percent of residents), said Urban Institute economist Signe-Mary McKernan.

“Past due medical debt is a big problem,” she said.  “When [people] have high-quality health care, it makes a difference not only in their physical health but in their financial health.” …
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Why US Workers Have Lost Leverage

A 1970 contract negotiation between GE and its unionized workforce is unimaginable today.

A strike then slowed production for months at 135 factories around the country. With inflation running at 6 percent annually, the company offered pay raises of 3 percent to 5 percent a year for three years. The union rejected the offer, and a federal mediator was brought in. GE eventually agreed to a minimum 25 percent pay raise over 40 months.

“They said we couldn’t, but we damn sure did it,” one staffer said about his union’s victory.

Former Wall Street Journal editor Rick Wartzman tells this story in his book about the rise and fall of American workers through the labor relations that have played out at corporate stalwarts like GE, General Motors, and Walmart.

FiguresCritics use examples like GE to argue that unions had it too good – and they have a point. But that’s old news. What’s relevant today is that the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, and blue-collar and middle-class Americans seem barely able to keep their heads above water even in a long-running economic boom.

New York University economist Edward Wolff in a January report estimated that workers lost much ground in the 2008 recession and never recovered. The typical family’s net worth, adjusted for inflation, is no higher than it was in 1983 and far below the pre-recession peak. Granted, workers’ wages have gone up recently, though barely faster than inflation, but they had been flat for 15 years. Workers are also funding more of their retirement and health insurance.

Wartzman’s theme in “The End of Loyalty: the Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America” is that the system no longer works for regular people, because companies have weakened or broken the social contract they once had with their workers.

The loss of employer loyalty is one way to look at the state of labor today. The loss of workers’ leverage against global corporations is another. …Learn More

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Game Show Pays Off Student Loans

The student loan problem has gotten under our collective skin – so much so that a new game show revolves around it.

“Paid Off,” on TruTV, promises to pay off a share of the winning contestant’s student debt – 20 percent, 50 percent, or 100 percent – depending on how many answers he or she gets right in the final round of questioning.

“Paid Off” is as inane as any television game show. The format is more “Family Feud” than “Jeopardy,” with softball questions designed to spark as much faux competition as possible among the former students who compete. One example: name the most romantic date costing under $10: picnic, walk, Netflix movie, etc.

The show’s host, Michael Torpey, who also plays a corrections officer in “Orange is the New Black,” explains in the first episode of “Paid Off” that he created it because he and his wife struggled with student loans. He was only able to pay them off because he landed a long-shot acting job for a television commercial.

Torpey says his goal is to help debt-laden students “achieve their dreams by paying off their student loans.”  He’s right that college debt is, indeed, standing between many Millennials and the adult milestones of buying a house, saving some money, or getting married.

The average amount of debt owed by college graduates increased again last year, to more than $39,000, according to Student Loan Hero

Unfortunately, the weekly show won’t make a dent in this growing problem. …
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squeeze

Book Review: the Middle-class Squeeze

book coverMarketplace recently estimated that a family’s common expenses have increased 30 percent since the 1990s. This was based on the inflation-adjusted prices for 11 necessities and small luxuries, from food, housing, college, and medical care to movie tickets and air fare.

On the income side of the household ledger, one well-known study estimates that the lifetime, inflation-adjusted income of a typical 60-year-old man today is substantially less than it was for a man who turned 60 back in 2002. Women, who have benefitted from getting more education, are earning more, but they started out at much lower pay levels and still trail men.

These trends – rising expenses and shrinking paychecks – get to the essence of the middle-class struggle described in Alissa Quart’s new book, “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America.”

Putting faces to the numbers, she had no trouble finding workers who feel they are losing their tentative grip on the middle class. Her focus is the 51 percent of U.S. households earning between $40,000 and $125,000.

That’s not to say that Americans’ quality of life hasn’t improved in some ways. Consider the dramatic increase in the square footage of U.S. houses over the past 30 years or the enormous strides in medical technology. In today’s strengthening economy, the Federal Reserve Board reports that a majority of adults say they are doing okay or even living comfortably, and they are feeling more optimistic. Yet this doesn’t entirely square with another of the Fed’s findings: a large majority of adults would not be able to cover an unexpected $400 expense without selling something or borrowing money. …Learn More

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