It is unfortunate when intellectuals of Warren and Tyagi’s caliber have to construct their own myth in order to make important points about the pressures on working families.
Warren and Tyagi group the villains in the credit-card industry and their legislative allies with progressive thinkers who are trying to articulate a critique of materialism and consumerism that puts individual choices in the context of wage stagnation, globalization, and environmental sustainability. Juliet Schor, Robert Frank, and others don’t deserve to be lumped together with Orrin Hatch.
Dismissing the elements of truth in the over-consumption “myth” also fails to pass the common-sense test. Have the authors visited a shopping mall lately? Have they talked to 11-year-olds who have gotten into knife fights over iPods? Have they interviewed people who have declared bankruptcy and confessed that profligate spending was the cause?
I heard many such stories when I spoke recently at a course on “wealth building” that was sponsored by an African-American church in Providence, Rhode Island. Forty people gathered in the church’s basement to discuss opportunities for saving and home ownership. Among the assembled, it was a given that there was a combination of personal and structural barriers to these goals. The altar call was when people came forward to cut up their credit cards.
The conversation went something like this: Do some people make bad choices? Yes. Is there an element of personal responsibility underlying the declining savings rate and the bankruptcy boom? Sure. Does this justify the disgusting bankruptcy bill that Congress passed? No way. Is it a distraction to continually focus on individual faults? Yes, but to deny some element of personal responsibility furthers the distraction. Should we do everything we can to talk about the structural economic forces that pressure working families—and about a political program to address it? Let’s get on with it!
Warren and Tyagi do an exceptional job of explaining which costs in the family budget are staying constant or rising. Their discussion of housing costs is critical to our understanding of the structural economic pressures facing middle-income households. They astutely unpack the underlying concerns about safety and high-quality education that drive higher housing costs.
As investment leaves cities and public services, those who are able to privatize their services and security do so. As the rich withdraw from society, taking their tax dollars and political stake in the commonweal with them, it is rational for middle-class families who can also escape to join them.
But for most middle-class families, it is very expensive to purchase homes in stable neighborhoods or affluent suburbs and to privatize their education, transportation, recreation, and security expenses. As Warren and Tyagi discuss, long commutes require two cars. In addition to local taxes, a family may also pay for private security and neighborhood-association fees. This increases the fixed costs in the family budget, necessitating multiple income earners and accelerating the economic treadmill.
I know a family in Lexington, Massachusetts, that earns over $110,000 a year—twice the median income—but they still feel that they are barely surviving. Their house was expensive to purchase, so their fixed monthly mortgage payment is steep. Property taxes are high to pay for the high-quality public schools and public services. To sustain this spending, both parents drive long distances in opposite directions to earn their professional paychecks. As a result, their expenses for child care, after-school programs, and enrichment opportunities are very high. When vacation time arrives, they splurge for winter in a warm climate and summer by the sea. These are expensive adventures, but they feel that they owe it to their kids to get away from their harried lives together. As a result, they save no money and carry their credit-card balances forward month after month.
Does this family make spending choices that might be excessive? Perhaps, but most of their choices are rational given their other options. Underlying this family’s condition is the declining quality of public goods and an erosion of community services.
Warren and Tyagi mention rising taxes as a stress point on the middle class. But they carelessly fail to put this into context, potentially contributing to the anti-tax arguments of the extreme right. (This does not mean, of course, that the authors are supporters of the Bush tax-cut agenda or that they should be lumped together with anti-tax zealots like Grover Norquist.) There is an increased tax bite on the middle class. But it is a result of the radical right’s anti-government “shrink, shift, and shaft” tax agenda. For two decades, congressional tax-cutters have shifted the tax burden off wealth and onto wages, off corporations and onto individuals. The middle class is picking up the slack for both tax cuts for the hyper-rich and privatized public services. Some of the increased fixed costs of stressed-out working families are thus a direct result of the disinvestment in public goods.
A wider framework that includes disinvestment from the public sector and from private institutions that build common security has implications for the political program that Warren and Tyagi describe at the end of their analysis. I would add “defending and expanding the progressive tax system” as a means to reverse the tax shifts onto the middle class and to pay for the robust public investments that they advocate in education, health care, and disability insurance.
It is easy to blame the government and rising taxes for hardships. But we also need a better accounting of all the ways in which the private sector and corporations “tax” consumers. Bank fees, surcharges, credit-card interest, roaming rates, and late fees are just a few of the dozens of ways that corporations nickel-and-dime working people and chip away at the family budget.
It is also important to include an analysis of wage stagnation in this picture. Thirty years of wage stagnation and income inequality have been masked by three important and unsustainable changes: the increasing number of hours that families spend in the paid labor force, growing personal debt, and over-inflated home values that encourage people to think that they are richer than they really are. When the mask is removed, we find some even more stressed and stretched working families.