On the Way Down: The Erosion of America's Middle Class
Part 2: Where Did All the Money Go?
The boom in stocks and real estate, the country's wild borrowing spree and its excessive consumer spending have long masked the fact that the overwhelming majority of Americans derived almost no benefit from 30 years of economic growth. In 1978, the average per capita income for men in the United States was $45,879 (about 35,570). The same figure for 2007, adjusted for inflation, was $45,113 (35,051).
Where did all the money go? All the enormous market gains and corporate earnings, the profits from the boom in the financial markets and the 110-percent increase in the gross national product in the last 30 years? It went to those who had always had more than enough already.
While 90 percent of Americans have seen only modest gains in their incomes since 1973, incomes have almost tripled for people at the upper end of the scale. In 1979, one third of the profits the country produced went to the richest 1 percent of American society. Today it's almost 60 percent. In 1950, the average corporate CEO earned 30 times as much as an ordinary worker. Today it's 300 times as much. And today 1 percent of Americans own 37 percent of the total national wealth.
Income inequality in the United States is greater today than it has been since the 1920s, except that hardly anyone has minded until now.
Little Chance of the American Dream
In America, the free market is king, and people with low incomes are seen as having only themselves to blame. Those who make a lot of money are applauded -- and emulated. The only problem is that Americans have long overlooked the fact that the American Dream was becoming a reality for fewer and fewer people.
Statistically, less affluent Americans stand a 4-percent chance of becoming part of the upper middle class -- a number that is lower than in almost every other industrialized nation.
So far, politicians have failed to come up with solutions for the growing social crisis. Washington is still waiting for jobs that aren't coming. President Barack Obama and his administration seem to be pinning their hopes on the notion that Americans will eventually pull themselves up by their bootstraps -- preferably by doing the same thing they've always done: spending money. Domestic consumer spending is responsible for two-thirds of American economic output.
But even though Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke continues to pump money into the market, and even though the government deficit has now reached the dizzying level of $1.4 trillion, such efforts have remained unsuccessful.
"The lights are going out all over America," Nobel economics laureate Paul Krugman wrote last week, and described communities that couldn't even afford to maintain their streets anymore.
The problem is that many Americans can no longer spend money on consumer products, because they have no savings. In some cases, their houses have lost half of their value. They no longer qualify for low-interest loans. They are making less money than before or they're unemployed. This in turn reduces or eliminates their ability to pay taxes.
Turning Out the Lights
As a result, many state and local governments are faced with enormous budget deficits. In Hawaii, for example, schools are closed on some Fridays to save the state money. A county in Georgia has eliminated all public bus services. Colorado Springs, a city of 380,000 people, has shut off a third of its streetlights to save electricity.
There are many discrepancies in America in the wake of the financial crisis. On the one hand, the Fed is constantly printing fresh money, and the government spent $182 billion to bail out a single company, the insurance giant AIG. On the other hand, the lights are in fact going out in some areas, because Washington, citing the need to reduce spending, is unwilling to provide local governments with financial assistance. "America is now on the unlit, unpaved road to nowhere," economist Krugman warns.
Chanelle Sabedra is already on that road. She and her husband have been sleeping in their car for almost three weeks now. "We never saw this coming, never ever," says Sabedra. She starts to cry. "I'm an adult, I can take care of myself one way or another, and same with my husband, but (my kids are) too little to go through these things." She has three children; they are nine, five and three years old.
"We had a house further south, in San Bernardino," says Sabedra. Her husband lost his job building prefab houses in July 2009. The utility company turned off the gas. "We were boiling water on the barbeque to bathe our kids," she says. No longer able to pay the rent, the Sabedras were evicted from their house in August.
Friends and relatives had few resources to help them. Now they live in a room at the Salvation Army homeless shelter in downtown Ventura, which is run by Captain Finley.
The sudden plunge into homelessness is a reality that's difficult to understand, given the images of America we are accustomed to seeing in television series and films. They always depict homes with well-kept yards and two-car garages with basketball hoops attached to them. This America still exists, but it's shrinking. And often those who are managing to keep the illusion alive can hardly afford to do so.
Americans have been struggling with a rising cost of living for the past 20 years. At the beginning of the decade, families were already paying twice as much for health insurance and their mortgages than the previous generation did.
"To cope, millions of families put a second parent into the workforce," says Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren, who President Obama appointed to chair the congressional panel to oversee the government's bank bailout program. According to Warren, the average family has spent all of its income and used up its savings "just to stay afloat a little while longer."
Because they lacked savings, Americans began borrowing money to cover all of their other expenses, including education, healthcare and consumption. American consumer debt now totals about $13.5 trillion.
Many people threaten to suffocate under the burden of their debt. Some 61 percent of Americans have no financial reserves and are living from paycheck to paycheck. As little as a single hospital bill can spell potential financial ruin.
Chanelle Sabedra's husband has found another job, this time as a warehouse worker for a company that makes aircraft turbines. But he doesn't earn enough to get the family out of the homeless shelter. "I haven't got a new job yet," says Sabedra. Her husband's job doesn't pay enough, and the couple has now joined the growing ranks of the working poor, for whom even two low-wage jobs are insufficient to feed their families. "We need the second income," says Sabedra. "Just the baby alone is $600 a month for half-day care."
In pre-recession America, she and her husband would have had two jobs each to make ends meet. They would have worked at the cash register at Wal-Mart during the day, flipped burgers at McDonald's in the early evening and perhaps spent half the night working as a security guard or cleaning buildings. These are all low-paying jobs, hardly careers, but the combined income is usually enough to keep a family afloat. In pre-recession America, life wasn't luxurious for Chanelle Sabedra, but it was doable if they were willing to work hard enough and sacrifice enough of their lives to stay afloat.
What kind of a job is she looking for now? "Anything right now. Mostly I'm looking for retail, or just anything to get me started, but there's just nothing out there," says Sabedra.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: The Erosion of America's Middle Class
- Part 2: Where Did All the Money Go?
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