US continues to fall in upward mobility – the American dream is now a relative myth

In an article in US News called “The upward mobility ‘American Dream’ has been broken. Look at the numbers” by Bella Cangelosi, a key myth continues to fall.

The United States has long been proud to be a very fluid society in terms of social class and economic liquidity. The American Dream believes that anyone who works hard can be financially successful.

Underlying this belief is the premise of abundant opportunities and meritocracy. Immigrants who arrive often believe that they have come to a land of opportunity, in a place of equal competition that enables them to progress and succeed. Otherwise, you tend to blame yourself.

However, recent research shows that the United States today has far less liquidity and equal opportunity than the European Union and other OECD* countries.

First, the amount of economic advantage passed from one generation to the next is (higher in the US).  About 50% of the father’s income is inherited by his son. In contrast, the amount in Norway or Canada is less than 20%.

How about the rise from rags to wealth? In the United States, 8% of children raised in the bottom 20% of the income distribution can rise to the top 20% as adults. Denmark At 15%, it almost doubles

In the United States, equal opportunity is far less feasible than in other OECD countries. Life expectancy in America (trails others and is impacted by postal code). The quality of education also depends greatly on the wealth of the neighborhood in which the family lives. Also, the potential for crime victims, exposure to environmental toxins, and unmet medical needs is far greater for the poor in the United States than for all other poor people. OECD countries.

One of the reasons for the reduced mobility in the United States is that the ladder steps have grown further away, making it much more difficult to climb the ladder of opportunity. This is evidenced by rising levels of income and wealth inequality. Currently, people in the top 20% of the income distribution earn almost nine times as much as those in the bottom 20%. This difference is much greater than in the European Union and the United Kingdom. Wealth inequality is further distorted. In America, the top 5% of the population owns three-quarters of the country’s total financial assets, while the bottom 60% owns less than 1%.

Our book provides one explanation for these trends. Not well understood: America is wrong about poverty.. The United States has traditionally seen economic successes and failures as a result of individual efforts. Rough individualism and independence have defined the qualities of an American character. On the other hand, our European neighbors are much more likely to attribute poverty to structural factors such as social class and lack of work. As a result, other OECD countries are much more eager to invest in a robust social welfare state designed to help remedy some of these structural inequality.

The rest of the article can be accessed below. This is not a new phenomenon, only an underreported one. This is not a racial problem, it is an American one. We have been on the decline now for some time, we just get caught up in talking about the wrong issues and not the ones that should matter.

When US citizens look at an economic distribution charts of wealth or income, they wrong chart is thought to be the US more often than not. The one that shows higher numbers at the lower strata is the US as contrasted to other countries’ distributions. We are the country behind the others. Until we recognize this fact, we truly cannot address our problems.

*OECD = Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development

The upward mobility “American Dream” has been broken.Look at the numbers | US News – Eminetra.co.uk

Class matters, socio-economic class that is – a revisit to an old post that remains pertinent

The following post was written in 2012, but it still remains pertinent. When I hear people chastise people in poverty for not working their way out, I think of this topic.

When you read this title, there are several interpretations that come to mind. While I am a firm believer in acting in a classy way, treating others like you want to be treated, the “class” I am referring to here is socio-economic class. There is a body of work spawned by research conducted by the New York Times, which led to the publishing of a book under this same title – “Class Matters.” It also led to a revolution of thought and I would encourage you to visit “www.classmatters.org for more information.

In essence, the term class matters refers to the tenet that your socio-economic class is a key factor in your ability to ask questions of those who are trying to serve you. The higher strata of socio-economic class is highly correlated with better education and more confidence. This translates into the greater ability and lesser reluctance to question things. On the converse, those in lower socio-economic classes tend to have lesser education and more self-esteem issues. They have a greater inability and lack of confidence to question those in power or who are trying to serve them.  As a result, those in the lower classes often make poorly informed decisions as they are:

  • too scared to ask questions,
  • feel threatened if they do so,
  • feel they will show their ignorance if they do,
  • do not know the right questions to ask, and/or
  • fall into a trusting mode, whether legitimate or not, that the person serving them knows what they are doing as they are wearing a doctor’s coat or suit and tie.

To illustrate this concept using a real life occurrence, the current housing crisis we are facing has many areas of cause from the lenders to rating agencies to investment managers to developers to buyers. At the heart of the problem, we had too many developers and realtors selling houses to people who could not afford that price of house and mortgage lenders providing mortgages to people who should not have that level of mortgage or who did not fully understand the terms of the loan. The buyers did not understand what a variable mortgage is or, using one of the lender’s terms, what a “pick-a-payment” or flexible payment mortgage entailed. The concept of negative amortization is term that was not well-explained or fully understood. In “House of Cards” a line that resonates with me is lenders were providing money to people who could “fog a mirror.” Then, they packaged up all of these poor risks in collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and sold them to investors who thought they were buying a less risky product. The rating agencies did not help by stamping these CDOs with a AAA rating.

There are some who firmly believe in the concept of “let the buyer beware.” In their minds, the people who bought these houses and took out these loans should have been more aware “like I would have been.”  As a consequence, they believe the buyers should be held entirely responsible for the housing crisis. This school of thought has some merit, but misses two greater issues. First, if you have ever bought a house, you are asked to sign more papers than in any other transaction. I would wager that an exceedingly high percentage of buyers do not read every word of what they are signing. The legalese is too complex. More often than  not, they will ask the attorneys to explain simply what they are signing. I would also wager that in these transactions people actually sign papers they do not fully understand.

Second, with that context, people in a lower socio-economic class will be even more trusting of those in suits and ties. They would ask even fewer questions and understand even less of what they are signing. When the American Dream is to own a home and people in suits and ties paint a picture that you can afford this home, the buyers believed them more times than they should have. In some cases, the seller put “perfume on a pig” to dress up the sale as best as possible. Individuals were shown monthly payment numbers and did not realize those numbers could dramatically change every two years. In some cases, their income and wealth numbers were inflated to show they could afford a house and mortgage they otherwise would not. The buyers trusted people showing these numbers and signed on the many dotted lines.

Two true stories will embellish these points. The poster child for one extreme end of what happened was a builder based in Atlanta. The CEO and CFO were convicted of criminal and unethical actions they helped perpetuate with home buyers. In essence, the company-realtors representing  new developments did not represent they would make an extra bonus if you bought in this new neighborhood. They did not represent the inspector was being paid off to inflate the price of the house and show no problems existed. They did not represent that the mortgage lender they recommended was affiliated with the developer. So, along comes the buyer who does not know this, does not know to ask these questions and who sees a financial representation that they can afford this house. Even people above the lower socio-economic classes were taken in by this criminal behavior, yet the lower class people did not stand a chance.

The other anecdote took down a bank of which I was shareholder. This bank bought  a mortgage bank who had developed the concept of the “pick-a-payment” mortgage. This flexible payment mortgage concept was geared for a very astute buyer, not the masses of people who bought it. Mortgage people at this bank wondered why the CEO of the acquirer was pushing these mortgages even up to six months before the bank was destined to fail.  A mortgage person for that bank said we are having “pick-a-payment parties” to promote the sale of these mortgages. We are selling these mortgages to people who do not know what they are buying. They do not understand when they do not pay enough, their mortgage principal increases. Like with the above example, the lower socio-economic class buyers did not stand a chance. The people in higher classes suffered as well.

Yet, the class matters concept goes beyond these examples. It happens in everyday life, whether it is visiting the doctor, buying a car or something on credit or being served by the bank on other issues. We have people who will go into debt as they do not know the exposure they are adding with each purchase. In today’s world, there is a dearth of customer service. You have to be the navigator of your own customer service experience. Many people do not realize this as the case and tend to delegate the responsibility to the customer service person. We don’t ask enough questions of doctors seeking alternative treatments or payment plans. We accept the terms of a store credit card without knowing that if we fail to make one of the 30-60-90 day payments, we will pay back interest to the point of sale. We do not understand that we need to pay more than the minimum credit card payment as it will take 30 years to pay off a washer and dryer purchase. We do not ask the question, do I really need yet another credit card? We do not realize we have the power to say “no.”

I tell my children “people want your money, so you need to understand that.” Sometimes, they want it by legitimate means. Sometimes they have enticing commercials which are too good to be true. And, sometimes they will try to steal it from you online or by lying to you in person. You have to guard against this. With this backdrop, someone in a  lower socio-economic class will not ask enough questions to be served. They will take that extra credit card that arrives in the mail. They will sign up for the 30-60-90 day store plan to get a 10% discount not knowing the full ramifications of the transaction. I have also witnessed in helping homeless families, budgeting skills could be improved and asking questions about “must have” purchases are not done often enough. Sometimes these “needs” are actually “wants” and could be postponed. They do not know how to zealously navigate the use of coupons or the best times to buy products. They do not ask for the manager or supervisor when being ill-served.

This week I read a series on the inability of hospitals to uniformly offer reduction or the abatement in cost to those without health insurance and in an impoverished state. Someone wrote in that they successfully navigated payment options from one of the studied hospitals asking why couldn’t others have done that. When I read the letter critical of the people short-changed, the concept of class matters entered into my head. The people in need did not navigate the system as they did not know or have the confidence to ask the right questions. They did not relentlessly pursue options. This is exacerbated by the lack of transparency of the payment system, so it takes a concerted effort to understand what is happening even for people in higher classes. There are other examples in our society where you have to make a concerted effort to understand the details.

In closing, my hope is for more people to understand that class matters in getting proper help and service. We have to make it easier for people to ask questions, search for answers and be better served or, at least avoid being ill-served. It is OK to ask questions. As the teachers often say “the only dumb question is the one not asked.”  Please help others remember that. Offer to go with someone to the doctor to help ask the right questions. Or, encourage people to write their questions down beforehand. Encourage people to not get into credit exposure beyond their means.  Share your wisdom of purchasing or not purchasing items. Sources like Consumer Reports, BBB , Angie’s List,  http://www.cars.com are vital tools, e.g. Yet, I guess the big take away is to not assume people are like you. You may have avoided stepping  in the hole, but you would have asked more questions. Not everyone will. Offer them your help and understanding.

The biggest lie – “I created this economy”

The incumbent president likes to take credit for all things good and blame others for all things bad. This is true regardless of the extent of his role in the outcome. He boasts that he created this great economy before the pandemic and will help us get back to it. Although the economy continued to do well, to say he created it is not truthful. Given his loud chest beating on this one issue, it qualifies as his biggest lie, although other lies are further afield from the truth.

When he took the oath to his office in January, 2017, the US was on its third longest economic growth period in its history at 91 consecutive months of GDP growth. That translates into just longer than 7 1/2 years. It should also be noted for the six previous years, we had 2 million plus in annual job growth and the stock market more than doubled under his predecessor. To Donald Trump’s credit, the economy continued to grow for 36 more months, the stock market continued to climb and job growth continued until it fell with the pandemic. The recession officially started in February of this year.

Now, I wrote during Barack Obama’s presidency that presidents get too much credit and too much blame for the economy. They can provide headwinds and tailwinds, but that is about it. The “headwinds and tailwinds” remark is courtesy of conservative pundit David Brooks. The same goes with the current president. But, if people want to lay wreaths at Trump’s feet for the economy before the pandemic, they must also do the same for Obama. Obama actually inherited an economy in recession due to the housing crisis in late 2007 through mid 2009. He was sworn in January, 2009.

The incumbent president has provided some headwinds and tailwinds to help keep it going, sometimes at the same time. Here is a look at a few of these wind currents:

Tailwinds

The economy got a temporary boost from the December, 2017 tax cut that increased the debt by $1.5 trillion over the next ten years. At a time when we should have been decreasing the deficit, we increased it. So, in essence, we borrowed from our future to make our economy a little better for a little while. One economist referred to it as a sugar rush. Before the pandemic, we fell back to growth at the same level as before the election. Overall, this growth period has been the longest, but the rate of growth under both presidents has lagged other periods. It has been a slow and steady climb, again before the recession caused by the pandemic.

Cutting through some regulations also provided some stimulus for businesses, but as noted below, these will cause future headwinds. People often mix bureaucracy with regulations. We need to constantly review regulations to see if they are working and how they can be improved or rescinded, if need be. So, regulations are not necessarily bad. Bloating bureaucracy is what we must guard against. I recall a story of Erskine Bowles, who eventually became Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff. When Bowles headed the Small Business Administration, he reduced the application from 42 pages to one.

Headwinds

We must guard against debt. Dipping into debt to stimulate the economy dragging from COVID-19 is one thing, but the 2017 tax cut needed not be so severe that it increased debt. Note, many said this before it was passed, not just now. By the end of this decade, we should be beyond $40 trillion in debt on an annual revenue budget (during 10/18 – 9/19 FY) that is currently just less than $3.5 trillion, with expenses around $4.5 trillion. With the pandemic stimulus, the annual 2019-20 deficit will be around $3.7 trillion. Eventually, interest cost will rival the biggest budget items if we do not remedy this growing problem. Some poor president and congress will have to make some hard decisions as revenue is too low and costs are too high.

Letting polluting industries skate on fewer regulations will come back to haunt us. Chemical spills, polluted water and nuclear waste causes major environment concerns to people, animals, carbon eating trees/ plants and food crops. Even the best of developers and manufacturers would like someone else to pay for their shortcuts. Industries go to great pains to hide their dirty laundry. The laundry is there, it just needs to be more cleaned up. Relying on a company’s altruism is not an effective means of controlling pollution.

Tariffs on all partners cause echo tariffs from our trading partners. And, no one wins a tariff war, regardless of what the president might say. As we have become harder to deal with, buyers and sellers find other markets. The increase in farmer bankruptcies has been significant since the tariff wars started, increasing dramatically over previous levels. One farmer said, other countries sought out other sources of farm goods, so we lost a future pipeline for sales. And, just today, I read in conservative George Will’s editorial that trust in America to do the right thing has fallen to 24% and preference to America as a trading partner has fallen.

One of the business lessons I learned over the years, is if you become difficult to work with, your customers and clients will be forced to find other providers of services and products. It does not get any plainer than that. One of the best things a president can do is create new markets – Reagan, Clinton, Nixon, and Obama all were good at creating new avenues for trade. It is not surprising that Clinton had the most jobs created on his watch, with Reagan having the most jobs as a Republican president. And, Nixon for all his corruption, should be remembered well for opening up relationships with China. Trump should get credit for renewing a refined NAFTA agreement, but he hindered his efforts to compete with China when he pulled the US out of the Trans Pacific Partnership which went on without us and backtracking on deals with Cuba, Iran and the Paris Climate Change Accord, has placed the US at odds with others.

Global trade builds revenue. A country cannot shrink to greatness. And, what we are seeing today is other countries not wanting the hassles of dealing with the US as much as before. And, this is before the mishandling of the pandemic that has left the world aghast.