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
Rich or poor, old or young, white or black, red or blue – our differences cut many ways.
But a new divide has opened up, one based on geography. Stark new evidence shows that well-paid, highly educated people have moved to high-cost coastal cities over the past decade, while lower-income, less educated people have moved out.
American cities are “grow[ing] increasingly dissimilar along socioeconomic dimensions,” said Issi Romem, a fellow at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California and economist for BuildZoom, a California website focused on development.
Gentrification is nothing new. But Romem’s analysis of U.S. intercity migration shows that gentrification occurs not just within city neighborhoods but also between cities. San Francisco is the most extreme example of what he calls “income sorting.” He estimates that the population moving into the Bay Area earns $13,000 more, on average, than the population that is moving out. People relocating to Seattle and Washington earn about $3,800 more than the people who leave.
A similar phenomenon is occurring in New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Boston, where restrictions on development, coupled with the strong demand for the limited housing stock, are pushing up house prices and driving people out, including renters who can no longer afford the steep increases in rents.
These movements exacerbate society’s already high level of inequality. As cities or regions of the country become less integrated in terms of their residents’ incomes, fewer low- and middle-income groups will enjoy the particular benefits to them of living in the midst of those who are better off.
Upward mobility is one such benefit. A famous study found that lower-income people are more likely to move up the income ladder, relative to their parents, if they live in coastal cities with higher education levels, better primary schools, and more family stability. Other research shows they will also live longer if they reside in cities with more socioeconomic diversity. …Learn More
Marketplace 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
Education is the fastest ticket to a higher income, more opportunities, and a better quality of life. But four-year college is often a tough road for the pioneering first in their families to attend.
They have at least two big disadvantages – apart from the well-known financial one. Unlike the teenagers of the highly educated professionals who usually take for granted that their children will go to college, first-generation students might not have the benefit of high expectations at home. College is outside their comfort zone, which creates psychological barriers to attending and succeeding.
A second disadvantage is that they aren’t always going to learn, through a sort of parental osmosis, to cope with higher education’s mores and attitudes or be as resilient to its challenges.
UCLA student Violet Salazar says in this video that she used to feel she didn’t fully belong, “because I am first generation or because I am Latina, and also coming from a low socioeconomic background.” She went on to organize an entire dormitory floor specifically for first-generation students to make them feel more at home. …Learn More