This excellent article on "the eroding Middle Class" by Nelson Schwartz featured in the business pages of the New York Times yesterday.
Schwartz wasted no time painting a bleak picture. After describing middle-class department stores and restaurants closing up and down the East Coast only to be replaced by high-end clothiers and upscale eateries, he delivered this hard-hitting fact about our recent 'economic recovery': "about 90 percent of the overall increase in inflation-adjusted consumption between 2009 and 2012 was generated by the top 20 percent of households in terms of income."
Whew. You read that right. Ninety percent of the growth from just the richest 20 percent of households. (What on earth could that statistic mean for the rest of us?)
Schwartz's article is based on an equally excellent paper by Barry Cynamon and Steven Fazzari entitled "Inequality, the Great Recession and Slow Recovery" which is very much worth your attention, as well.
Thing is, of course, as Cynamon and Fazzari's research points out, the middle class has been eroding for years...since the mid-1980's in fact...
I want to get one thing clear right off the bat; I don't like Red Lobster.
(There was one in my neighborhood growing up. We never went there. It was too expensive.)
But I get the idea of Red Lobster. Or Olive Garden. Or any of the somewhat "nice" restaurants that families, romantic sweeties and, well, the rest of us, might go to for an occasional splurge.
Thing is, the great recession hit everyone in the United States hard. So hard, in fact, that restaurants that had been accustomed to raking in the hard-earned dollars* (or, increasingly the bank-fueled debt, cf. Cynamon and Fazzari) from America's broad middle are feeling the permanent squeeze.
So, per the NYT, in 2014 the people have it hard, businesses that 'cater to the people' have it hard, but there's one group of people who have it great.
The top 20% of earners in America account for 61% of the overall personal consumption expenditures. (That's an awful lot of ketchup!) That's up from a mere 53.4% in 1992.
Turns out, the top 20% of households--basically those bringing in over $100,000 per year--have had it good for a very long time. And it's not just ketchup they are buying. It's education, health care, personal assistance, travel, second homes. And, as Schwartz points out, very expensive stoves and refrigerators.
We've talked about income inequality forever here. I'm not going to dwell on that tonight. Heck, President Obama isn't going to either. Barack Obama is foregoing discussing "Inequality" and officially talking about "Opportunity" now.
So following the President's lead, I'd like to take this opportunity to ask a simple question.
What kind of country do we want?
Maybe it's okay that 20% of the households represent 61% of total personal consumption.
Or maybe it's not.
I don't think a president (or any other elected official) is going to, or should, answer that question for us.
It's really up to the 80% of the country (and anyone else of goodwill who'd like to join us) to express our own agenda, our own demands.
Like many here, I beg to differ.
I'd like to start with a society with justice and fairness for everyone. I'd like to start with a society where I can walk out my door and not see senior citizens collecting cans and bottles...or mothers with children begging (corner of B'way and Pleasant Valley Blvd. Oakland...last Saturday.)
I'd like a society where strip malls aren't being taken over by Dollar Stores and Goodwills. Where my neighbors make enough money to buy quality shoes from a shoe store, quality meat from a butcher, quality vegetables from a green grocer, and have equal access to a quality public education in our schools.
But that's just me. And there are a lot of us here.
Maybe we're not all in the income group directly affected by this.
But we sure as heck better get talking about what kind of society we really want for ourselves and our children, because if we don't, it's pretty clear what's happening to the one that we are already living in.