The middle class is finding itself struggling to keep what was once seen as staples of a burgeoning working class in our country. Part of this battle has come from a system that has rewarded easy finance on the backs of the working class. Take for example residential real estate. For decades, this was probably one of the most boring and dull sectors of the economy. Residential real estate, if you were lucky, only tracked the overall inflation rate. That was the case until the banking system figured out a way to securitize bread and butter mortgages and turn them into securities for global consumption. Yet that game is now coming to a quick end. The middle class are literally being squeezed out of their homes. Healthcare costs are also cutting deeper into the wallets of most American families and many are finding that they have no coverage as unemployment is still at record levels. This decade will be a struggle for the middle class to save and prosper.
What constitutes “middle class” in the United States? If we go by the median household income the figure is roughly $52,000 per year. Some 57 million households live on $52,000 or less per year. This is based on 2008 Census data so it is very likely that figure is down to $50,000. In fact, 38 million households are receiving food assistance so some are below the poverty line.
Source: U.S. Department of Commerce
The biggest line item for most American families is housing. When housing prices expanded into a massive bubble, more Americans to keep up with the middle class ideal took on more and more mortgage debt. But without growing incomes they were seeing more of their money being funneled into servicing the mortgage debt. With the advent of interest only and negative amortization loans, the process of building equity never took place and in some cases actually grew the initial mortgage balance. Instead of saving, many middle class families saw their net worth retreat backwards. This was one really new facet in this current economic crisis. Traditional mortgages were once seen as a forced savings account because every month a portion of the principal was paid off. Once you reached the later years of the mortgage, more and more went to paying off the mortgage. That was not the case with some of the debt we saw in the last decade.
Part of the two income trap is hidden in more troubling ways. Take for example automobile costs. Most Americans with a two income household have two cars. Let us assume that both cars were bought for $20,000 each and carry a $300 monthly payment. So $600 a month right? Wrong. What about fuel? Add $100 to $200 per month depending on how much you drive. Car insurance? This will be roughly $100 per month. Car service? Try another $50 to $100 per month. So in total, many families are spending $600 to $900 per month on car costs. And people aren’t taking much home after taxes:
So the take home pay for the middle class family is $3,400 if they live in California. Subtract that $900 in auto costs and you are now down to $2,500. In places like California where the median home price went up to $500,000 any middle class family stood no chance at buying a home. Well, they were able to buy but holding on to the home was another story. Yet people bought at these peak levels and that is why we are seeing such large number of foreclosures in the state but also in other states. Even last month the number of foreclosure filings in California was near record levels. The middle class is finding it tougher and tougher to keep their head above water.
Let us run the numbers if someone were to buy a home:
The latest home price for existing home sales in the U.S. is $164,700 for the median. It is interesting to note that we are now back to January of 2009 levels and for 2009, prices did go up but went full circle back. Let us assume this family uses a FHA backed loan and is only required to put 3.5% down:
Down payment: $5,764
Mortgage payment (PITI): $1,098
So take that $2,500 left over and now subtract this amount. $1,402 is what is left over. This is the amount of money left over for food, healthcare (one illness and that is it with no insurance), and other daily good costs. What about retirement savings? That has to come from here as well. The money can go quickly. What about cells phones? Utility bills? Quickly that number dwindles. And keep in mind this is household income. As we now know many families are seeing one of their incomes disappearing and people are having a hard time finding work:
When I look at the above chart it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that many people are still in the throngs of the recession. The talk of recovery is muted by the reality of the numbers and all the average American will see is a recovery on Wall Street but in terms of their pocket book, little is funneling to them. I’ve heard from people across the country looking for work and being unable to find anyone hiring. And if they do find something, the wages are much less than what they once earned. This isn’t reflected in the data. How many people that are now marked as fully employed are in jobs that now pay less than what they once had? That is why problems even in credit cards are filtering all the way to the bottom of the bank balance sheet. People are relying on credit cards as their last lifeline and many banks are now shutting these off.
What was once thought of as middle class security is now heavily at risk:
-Secure job [no longer]
-Steady home values [no longer]
-Access to affordable education [costs are outpacing inflation]
-Healthcare costs are skyrocketing with an aging population [just look at your insurance premiums]
The middle class is really coming under an onslaught of issues. What we do in terms of financial reform and also, how we view our compact with our nation are going to be really important going forward. But if the only sure thing is protecting banks from failure, then we are seeing the fruits of that decision playing out.