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Negative equity is disproportionately concentrated in the Chicago region’s communities of color, Woodstock Institute report shows

March 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Tom Feltner | Vice President
Woodstock Institute

Homeowners with mortgages in African American communities more than twice as likely to be underwater as homeowners in white communities

CHICAGO–Negative equity is disproportionately concentrated in the Chicago region’s African American, Latino, and majority minority neighborhoods, a new report from Woodstock Institute found. The report also found that borrowers in communities of color have much less equity on average than do borrowers in predominantly white communities.

View the full report here:  http://bit.ly/strugglingtostayafloat

Join us for a telephone briefing Tuesday March 27 at 10am CT:  http://stayingafloat.eventbrite.com/

The report, “Struggling to Stay Afloat:  Negative Equity in Communities of Color in the Chicago Six County Region,” used data from a major provider of mortgage and home value data to examine patterns of underwater homes in communities of various racial and ethnic compositions in the Chicago six county region in 2011. It found that:

  • Nearly one in four residential properties in the Chicago six county region is underwater, with just under $25 billion of negative equity. The average underwater property has 31.8 percent more outstanding mortgage debt than the property is worth.
  • Borrowers in communities of color are much more likely to be underwater than are borrowers in white communities.
  • Borrowers in communities of color are more than twice as likely as are borrowers in white communities to have little to no equity in their homes. In highly African American communities in the Chicago six county region, 40.5 percent of borrowers are underwater, while another 5.4 percent are nearly underwater. Similarly, 40.3 percent of properties are underwater in predominantly Latino communities and 5.3 percent are nearly underwater. In contrast, only 16.7 percent of properties in predominantly white communities are underwater, with another 4.4 percent nearly underwater.
  • Almost three times as many properties in communities of color are severely underwater compared to properties in white communities. In predominantly African American communities, 30.1 percent of properties have loan-to-value (LTV) ratios—a comparison of outstanding mortgage debt to home value—exceeding 110 percent, while that figure is 30 percent in predominantly Latino communities. In contrast, just 10.1 percent of the properties in predominantly white communities have LTVs exceeding 110 percent.
  • Borrowers in communities of color have much less equity in their homes than do borrowers in white communities, resulting in a significant wealth gap.
  •  Only about one-third of homeowners in communities of color have significant equity in their homes. In predominantly African American communities, 34.5 percent of borrowers have more than 25 percent equity in their homes, while 33.1 percent of borrowers in Latino communities have more than 25 percent equity in their homes. Fifty-five percent of borrowers in predominantly white communities have more than 25 percent equity.
  • Borrowers in communities of color have much higher average loan-to-value ratios than do borrowers in predominantly white communities. The average LTV ratio is 92.1 in predominantly African American communities and 87.4 in Latino communities, compared with an average LTV ratio of 67.7 in predominantly white communities.

Negative equity contributes to community decline by potentially leading to increased foreclosure activity, threatening the success of foreclosure prevention programs, and draining neighborhood wealth. In addition, the destruction of assets caused by negative home equity may disproportionately threaten the economic security of people of color because home equity is a larger proportion of their net worth than it is for white people.

View the full report here:  http://bit.ly/strugglingtostayafloat

The report concluded with a number of policy recommendations to reduce the negative impacts of concentrated negative equity, including:

  • Servicers should use principal reduction as a foreclosure prevention tool more broadly.
  • The Federal Housing Finance Authority should permit loans backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to be eligible for principal reductions.
  • Servicers should streamline processes for short sales.

Tom Feltner | Vice President

Woodstock Institute

29 E Madison Suite 1710 | Chicago, Illinois 60602

T 312/368-0310 x2028  | F 312/368-0316 | M 312/927-0391

www.woodstockinst.org | tfeltner@woodstockinst.org | @tfeltner

Desperately Working to Stay Afloat

February 20, 2012 Leave a comment


President, Children’s Defense Fun
Posted: 02/17/2012 5:20 pm

Levi Nation, age 12, and his sister Katherine, eight, eat Sunday dinners at their grandparents’ house in rural Kalkaska County, Michigan. They live with their parents, James and Lois, in an old trailer next door. Though both parents work, they can’t afford a better place—or health insurance or outings with the children. “Sometimes I wish we could go someplace like down to a water park or, like, the zoo,” Levi said.

At one time, the Nations owned a home. But like so many other American families, their standard of living has declined over the past decade even though they are a two-parent working family.

James’s family employment story echoes the Michigan story, as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Julia Cass learned when she met the family while on assignment for the Children’s Defense Fund. His father worked for General Motors in Flint until it offered him “a golden handshake and he took the check.” James said. James considers himself a member of “probably the last generation to be able to walk out of high school and get a decent job,” though he and his brother came too late to find well-paying work at GM and move up into the middle class.

During the earlier years of their marriage, when they were able to afford to buy a home, James and Lois lived in Durand, near Flint. He worked for 14 years in a family-owned machine shop that made tools for the aluminum wheel industry. Lois, who’d taken some junior college classes, worked as a bank teller. When Levi was born, she wanted a career she could base around a child’s schedule and went to a school for massage therapy. In 2004, they sold their house and moved to Kalkaska County, where Lois grew up. They wanted to raise their children in a safer place, and planned to live in a trailer on property Lois’s parents owned and build a home there later.

Levi Nation, 11
Levi Nation, age 12, and his sister Katherine, eight, live with their parents, James and Lois, in an old trailer in rural Kalkaska County, Michigan. Though both parents work, they can’t afford a better place—or health insurance or outings with the children. James says, “You can work your butt off and still not get ahead.”

Kalkaska and neighboring Grand Traverse County on Lake Michigan are, in part, resort areas with second homes and luxury condos. James started a handyman service and Lois had massage clients. “Then the economy kind of fell apart and I had to get a job to be sure the bills were paid,” James said. He worked as a mechanic at a farm equipment store for a few years and recently moved to a part-time job with the Village of Kalkaska as a wastewater operator. “It’s a little less money, but the commute is shorter, so it evens out,” James said. “Also, I’m hoping it will turn into a full-time job with benefits.” James earns $13 an hour and works 30 hours a week. He earns a little more than $19,000 a year.

Lois didn’t have enough clients in her massage business so she took a job at McDonald’s. “I’ve worked there four years and am just now breaking over the $8 an hour mark,” she said.

That job, too, is part-time. She says the company keeps hiring new people and spreading out the hours so that if someone leaves or doesn’t show up, they have other employees who can fill the shifts. “They think you can just come in whenever they need you, but a lot of people can’t do this because they have family,” she said. “My kids are too young to leave by themselves.” She works 15 to 25 hours a week and earns between $10,000 and $15,000, depending on how many hours she gets.

The family is working so desperately to stay afloat, Lois recently began training for a second part-time job at a credit union. She will be a fill-in person working from 20 to 30 hours a week and earning $8.50 an hour. The number of hours will vary from week to week at both jobs, but she expects to wake up at 3:30 a.m. to work at McDonald’s from 4:15 till 8 a.m. and to work at the credit union from late morning until 5 or 6 p.m. on Mondays and Fridays and half-days on Saturdays, the credit union’s three busiest days. “I’ll miss the kids’ soccer games,” she said, “but we need the money.” Because both jobs are part-time, she will receive no benefits.

Their children Levi and Katherine are covered by Medicaid, a critical safety net support for their family. But James and Lois make too much to be eligible for Medicaid themselves, but not enough to buy health insurance. James recently needed $2500 in dental work and Lois had $1200 in medical tests, for which they reluctantly used CareCredit cards; with this method, if they pay off the doctor and dental bills within 18 months, they pay no interest, but if they don’t, James said they will be charged 24 to 36 percent interest retroactive to date of service, adding, “We will pay them off somehow because we’ve worked hard to keep good credit”—to be able, someday, to get another home for themselves and their children.

The Nations receive about $80 a month in food stamps. When their children were younger they were eligible to attend Head Start. It helped a lot with the children’s development. “We couldn’t afford to pay for preschool, and if it hadn’t been for Head Start, we wouldn’t have gotten Levi diagnosed [with mild attention deficit hyperactivity disorder]. And the teacher taught me ways to work with him.” Katherine, she said, is going into third grade and already reads on the fifth grade level, “and they have to challenge her in math too because of Head Start. Every week they were sending something home on how to challenge your child’s brain and make it fun.”

Lois said they applied to Habitat for Humanity for a house but “they turned us down. They said we had more opportunities than other people because we have land and good credit.” James commented, “We’re kind of between a rock and a hard place” of being somewhat poor but not poor enough. “The way grocery and gas prices keep going up, I don’t see where we’re making that much money that we should be in between. You can work your butt off and still not get ahead.” For now, they keep going—not yet getting ahead, but working as hard as they can, and never giving up.

Follow Marian Wright Edelman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ChildDefender

States with highest foreclosure rates shift

February 17, 2012 Leave a comment
Foreclosure Today
Posted 02/17/2012
There has been a shift in states with the highest foreclosure rates. About a month ago, Nevada took the number one spot followed by Arizona, California, Georgia and Utah according to RealtyTrac. Now that the settlement is in place there are hopes of improvement among the rates but in the meantime, the rate of those in mortgage default and in need of help with foreclosure continues to shift and increase. The following stats were reported in an article on Yahoo! Real Estate.
1. Florida—
2011 foreclosure rate: 11.9%
December, 2011 unemployment: 9.9% (6th highest)
Home price change (2006Q3-2011Q3): -49% (3rd largest decline)
Processing period: 135 days

2. New Jersey—

2011 foreclosure rate: 6.4%
December, 2011 unemployment: 9% (13th highest)
Home price change (2006Q3-2011Q3): -22.6% (14th largest decline)
Processing period: 270 days

3. Illinois—

2011 foreclosure rate: 5.4%
December, 2011 unemployment: 9.8% (7th highest)
Home price change (2006Q3-2011Q3): -29% (7th largest decline)
Processing period: 300 days

4. Nevada—

2011 foreclosure rate: 5.3%
December, 2011 unemployment: 12.6% (the highest)
Home price change (2006Q3-2011Q3): -59.3% (the largest decline)
Processing period: 116 days

5. New York—

2011 foreclosure rate: 4.6%
December, 2011 unemployment: 8% (23rd highest)
Home price change (2006Q3-2011Q3): -13.6% (23rd largest decline)
Processing period: 445 days

America’s Jobs Deficit, and Why It’s Still More Important Than the Budget Deficit

February 6, 2012 1 comment


Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy,
University of California at Berkeley;
Author, ‘Aftershock’

The most significant aspect of January’s jobs report is political. The fact that America’s labor market continues to improve is good news for the White House. But as a practical matter the improvement is less significant for the American work force.

President Obama’s only chance for rebutting Republican claims that he’s responsible for a bad economy is to point to a positive trend. Voters respond to economic trends as much as they respond to absolute levels of economic activity. Under ordinary circumstances January’s unemployment rate of 8.3 percent would be terrible. But compared to September’s 9.1 percent, it looks quite good. And the trend line — 9 percent in October, 8.6 percent in November, 8.5 percent in December, and now 8.3 percent — is enough to make Democrats gleeful.

But the U.S. labor market is far from healthy. America’s job deficit is still mammoth. Our working-age population has grown by nearly 10 million since the recession officially began in December 2007 but many of these people never entered the workforce. Millions of others are still too discouraged to look for work.

The most direct way of measuring the jobs deficit is to look at the share of the working-age population in jobs. Before the recession, 63.3 percent of working-age Americans had jobs. That employment-to-population ratio reached a low last summer of 58.2 percent. Now it’s 58.5 percent. That’s better than it was, but not by much. The trend line here isn’t quite as encouraging.

Given how many people have lost their jobs and how much larger the total working-age population is now, we’ve got a long road ahead. At January’s rate of job gains — 243,000 — the nation wouldn’t return to full employment for another seven years.

When they’re not blaming Obama for a bad economy, Republicans are decrying the federal budget deficit and demanding more cuts. But America’s jobs deficit continues to be a much larger problem than the budget deficit.

In fact, we can’t possibly achieve the growth needed to reduce the budget deficit as a proportion of the total economy unless far more people are employed. Workers are consumers, and consumer spending is 70 percent of economic activity. And cutting the budget means fewer workers, directly (as government continues to shed workers) and indirectly (as government contractors have to lay off workers) and therefore fewer consumers.

Yet deficit hawks continue to circle. State and local budgets are still being slashed. The federal government is scheduled to begin major spending cuts less than a year from now. Republicans are calling for more cuts in the short term. Austerity economics continues to gain traction.

Meanwhile Congress is debating whether to renew extended unemployment benefits. This should be a no-brainer. The long-term unemployed, who have been jobless for more than six months, comprise a growing share of the unemployed. (In January they rose from 42.5 percent to 42.9 percent).

Republicans say unemployment benefits are prolonging unemployment, that people won’t get jobs if they get unemployment checks from the government. That’s claptrap, especially when there’s only 1 job opening for every 4 people who need a job. Republicans also say we can’t afford to extend jobless benefits. Also untrue. Jobless workers spend whatever money they get, and their spending keeps other people in jobs.

Government should extend unemployment benefits, and not cut spending until the nation’s rate of unemployment is down to 5 percent. Then, and only then, should we move toward budget austerity.

The job situation is better than it was but it’s still awful. The jobs deficit is still our number one economic problem. Forget the budget deficit until we tame it.

Robert Reich is the author of Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future, now in bookstores. This post originally appeared at RobertReich.org.

A good credit score did not protect Latino and black borrowers

January 20, 2012 2 comments

Economic Policy Institute
Research and Ideas for Shared Prosperity
EPI News: Read about EPI’s latest research, publications, upcoming events, and related stories
January 20, 2012

In recent years, Latino and African American consumers with good credit scores of 660 and higher have too often ended up with high-interest-rate mortgages—mortgages that are supposed to go to risky borrowers. This week’s Economic Snapshot illustrates that from 2004 to 2008, only 6.2 percent of white borrowers with credit scores of 660 and above ended up with higher-rate mortgages. Latinos and blacks with good credit scores were at least three times as likely to end up with higher-rate mortgages.

“Discriminatory housing practices are one reason why our country needs a strong Consumer Financial Protection Bureau,” said Algernon Austin, director of EPI’s Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy program.

Austin’s research on the recession’s overall impact on the economic status of African Americans continues to be a key resource for reporters. His work most recently appeared in Forbes and The Grio.

Focusing on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s pursuit of economic justice for all Americans, Forbes contributor Joel Kotkin stressed the significant amount of work that remains to be done, particularly with respect to the African American community. “While African-Americans make up 12% of the nation’s population, they account for 21% of the nation’s unemployed. Unemployment for black men stands at a staggeringly high 19.1%, and the Economic Policy Institute estimates that overall black unemployment will remain well above 10% till at least 2014,” wrote Kotkin.

The Grio columnist Monique W. Morris highlighted Austin’s research showing that African American under-and unemployment statistics dwarf their white counterparts both in good economic times and downturns. Morris wrote, “Research by Algernon Austin at the Economic Policy Institute has demonstrated the consistently high rates of under- and unemployment among African-Americans as evidence of a ‘permanent recession.’ This is true, he argues, when the economy is strong. So, when the rest of the nation is experiencing a recession, what are African-Americans experiencing? That’s right, a depression.”

Assets and the Poor: Twenty Years Later

January 6, 2012 1 comment
English: Michael Sherraden at the 2010 Time 10...

Michael Sherraden

By Bob Friedman on 12/15/2011 @ 08:45 AM

Twenty years ago, Michael Sherraden’s seminal work, Assets and the Poor: A New American Welfare Policy, appeared. It changed my life, and more importantly, the lives of tens of thousands, soon to be millions or tens of millions, of low-income people and their advocates, around the world.

Actually, I had met Michael a few months before. Rona Feit, who lead CFED’s Self-Employment Investment Demonstration (SEID), which proved that some welfare moms could escape poverty and dependency through self-employment, came into my office and said, “There’s someone here you should meet.” And so she introduced me to Michael Sherraden and his ideas. Michael told me that the work we had been doing on self-employment that first decade of CFED’s existence, was in fact, asset building. I never thought of it that way, though as soon as he said that, I was reminded of the SEID participant in Iowa, who established two more video rental businesses in addition to her first one so that she could sell them to finance her son’s education.

As Michael left, he gave me the final three (policy) chapters of Assets and the Poor, to read. But I was already sold. In truth, I was looking for other avenues to economic independence beyond self-employment, as well as a simple, powerful, practical tool to that end. I had spent most of the 80’s writing The Safety Net as Ladder: Transfer Payments and Economic Development. I had convinced myself that the income maintenance system could also serve as a ladder – if the disincentives to work, saving, education and self-employment were removed and the payments made available for economic independence. But I also realized that reforming an incomplete, complex, insufficient safety net transformed would be rickety ladder. Individual Development Accounts (IDAs), seemed to me to be exactly the simple, flexible, powerful idea I had been looking for.

It has been my and CFED’s great honor to work with Michael and the Center for Social Development, and all the individuals and institutions who found inspiration and education in Michael’s ideas, throughout the last two decades. First we worked together to popularize the idea; I will never forget Jack Kemp, then HUD Secretary, carrying around his earmarked copy of Assets and the Poor and waving it around during his speeches in the early 90s. We worried that it would all be talk and no action. So, together, and with the support of a dozen leading foundations, we created the American Dream Demonstration, which proved, with more than 2,300 poor Americans, that, given a savings match and financial education, low-income and even very poor people, would save, go to college, buy homes, start businesses and move toward economic independence. In fact, participants at half the poverty line – less than $10,000 for a family of 4 – saved about as much and at 2-3 times the rate as folks at twice the poverty line, because, as they explained to us, this was the price of stability and hope. At the beginning of ADD, there were three nascent IDA programs in the country; by the end there were hundreds, as well as Federal and state legislation.

Michael did chide me that he had never intended IDAs as a time-limited intervention (as the demonstration required) and reminded me he had recommended that IDAs begin “as early as birth.” Together, and along with other national organizations like New America, Aspen Institute’s Initiative on Financial Security, Kansas’ School for Social Welfare, and the backing of another dozen national foundations, we launched the Saving for Education, Entrepreneurship and Downpayments (SEED) Initiative, which would prove that low-income and poor children of all ages, given the opportunity, would save for their futures.

Now too, we see savings and matched savings programs spreading throughout the world, to developed and developing countries alike, building on rich historical foundations. Groups like Child and Youth Savings International and Financial Assets at Birth, are proposing child accounts for every child of the world.

In the US, the next three years are the time to take the revolution that Michael Sherraden started with Assets and the Poor, and turn it into the foundation for the Save and Invest Economy that President Obama has called for, and that we will need to turn this time of debt and economic decay into a time of opportunity and prosperity.

Thank you, Michael, for inspiring and leading us.

Why Inequality is the Real Cause of Our Ongoing Terrible Economy

September 6, 2011 Leave a comment
Robert Bernard Reich, American politician, aca...

Image via Wikipedia

Robert Reich is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

Posted, Sunday September 4, 2011

THE 5 percent of Americans with the highest incomes now account for 37 percent of all consumer purchases, according to the latest research from Moody’s Analytics. That should come as no surprise. Our society has become more and more unequal.

When so much income goes to the top, the middle class doesn’t have enough purchasing power to keep the economy going without sinking ever more deeply into debt — which, as we’ve seen, ends badly. An economy so dependent on the spending of a few is also prone to great booms and busts. The rich splurge and speculate when their savings are doing well. But when the values of their assets tumble, they pull back. That can lead to wild gyrations. Sound familiar?

The economy won’t really bounce back until America’s surge toward inequality is reversed. Even if by some miracle President Obama gets support for a second big stimulus while Ben S. Bernanke’s Fed keeps interest rates near zero, neither will do the trick without a middle class capable of spending. Pump-priming works only when a well contains enough water.

Look back over the last hundred years and you’ll see the pattern. During periods when the very rich took home a much smaller proportion of total income — as in the Great Prosperity between 1947 and 1977 — the nation as a whole grew faster and median wages surged. We created a virtuous cycle in which an ever growing middle class had the ability to consume more goods and services, which created more and better jobs, thereby stoking demand. The rising tide did in fact lift all boats.

During periods when the very rich took home a larger proportion — as between 1918 and 1933, and in the Great Regression from 1981 to the present day — growth slowed, median wages stagnated and we suffered giant downturns. It’s no mere coincidence that over the last century the top earners’ share of the nation’s total income peaked in 1928 and 2007 — the two years just preceding the biggest downturns.

Starting in the late 1970s, the middle class began to weaken. Although productivity continued to grow and the economy continued to expand, wages began flattening in the 1970s because new technologies — container ships, satellite communications, eventually computers and the Internet — started to undermine any American job that could be automated or done more cheaply abroad. The same technologies bestowed ever larger rewards on people who could use them to innovate and solve problems. Some were product entrepreneurs; a growing number were financial entrepreneurs. The pay of graduates of prestigious colleges and M.B.A. programs — the “talent” who reached the pinnacles of power in executive suites and on Wall Street — soared.

The middle class nonetheless continued to spend, at first enabled by the flow of women into the work force. (In the 1960s only 12 percent of married women with young children were working for pay; by the late 1990s, 55 percent were.) When that way of life stopped generating enough income, Americans went deeper into debt. From the late 1990s to 2007, the typical household debt grew by a third. As long as housing values continued to rise it seemed a painless way to get additional money.

Eventually, of course, the bubble burst. That ended the middle class’s remarkable ability to keep spending in the face of near stagnant wages. The puzzle is why so little has been done in the last 40 years to help deal with the subversion of the economic power of the middle class. With the continued gains from economic growth, the nation could have enabled more people to become problem solvers and innovators — through early childhood education, better public schools, expanded access to higher education and more efficient public transportation.

We might have enlarged safety nets — by having unemployment insurance cover part-time work, by giving transition assistance to move to new jobs in new locations, by creating insurance for communities that lost a major employer. And we could have made Medicare available to anyone.

Big companies could have been required to pay severance to American workers they let go and train them for new jobs. The minimum wage could have been pegged at half the median wage, and we could have insisted that the foreign nations we trade with do the same, so that all citizens could share in gains from trade.

We could have raised taxes on the rich and cut them for poorer Americans.

But starting in the late 1970s, and with increasing fervor over the next three decades, government did just the opposite. It deregulated and privatized. It cut spending on infrastructure as a percentage of the national economy and shifted more of the costs of public higher education to families. It shredded safety nets. (Only 27 percent of the unemployed are covered by unemployment insurance.) And it allowed companies to bust unions and threaten employees who tried to organize. Fewer than 8 percent of private-sector workers are unionized.

More generally, it stood by as big American companies became global companies with no more loyalty to the United States than a GPS satellite. Meanwhile, the top income tax rate was halved to 35 percent and many of the nation’s richest were allowed to treat their income as capital gains subject to no more than 15 percent tax. Inheritance taxes that affected only the topmost 1.5 percent of earners were sliced. Yet at the same time sales and payroll taxes — both taking a bigger chunk out of modest paychecks — were increased.

Most telling of all, Washington deregulated Wall Street while insuring it against major losses. In so doing, it allowed finance — which until then had been the servant of American industry — to become its master, demanding short-term profits over long-term growth and raking in an ever larger portion of the nation’s profits. By 2007, financial companies accounted for over 40 percent of American corporate profits and almost as great a percentage of pay, up from 10 percent during the Great Prosperity.

Some say the regressive lurch occurred because Americans lost confidence in government. But this argument has cause and effect backward. The tax revolts that thundered across America starting in the late 1970s were not so much ideological revolts against government — Americans still wanted all the government services they had before, and then some — as against paying more taxes on incomes that had stagnated. Inevitably, government services deteriorated and government deficits exploded, confirming the public’s growing cynicism about government’s doing anything right.

Some say we couldn’t have reversed the consequences of globalization and technological change. Yet the experiences of other nations, like Germany, suggest otherwise. Germany has grown faster than the United States for the last 15 years, and the gains have been more widely spread. While Americans’ average hourly pay has risen only 6 percent since 1985, adjusted for inflation, German workers’ pay has risen almost 30 percent. At the same time, the top 1 percent of German households now take home about 11 percent of all income — about the same as in 1970. And although in the last months Germany has been hit by the debt crisis of its neighbors, its unemployment is still below where it was when the financial crisis started in 2007.

How has Germany done it? Mainly by focusing like a laser on education (German math scores continue to extend their lead over American), and by maintaining strong labor unions.

THE real reason for America’s Great Regression was political. As income and wealth became more concentrated in fewer hands, American politics reverted to what Marriner S. Eccles, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve, described in the 1920s, when people “with great economic power had an undue influence in making the rules of the economic game.” With hefty campaign contributions and platoons of lobbyists and public relations spinners, America’s executive class has gained lower tax rates while resisting reforms that would spread the gains from growth.

Yet the rich are now being bitten by their own success. Those at the top would be better off with a smaller share of a rapidly growing economy than a large share of one that’s almost dead in the water.

The economy cannot possibly get out of its current doldrums without a strategy to revive the purchasing power of America’s vast middle class. The spending of the richest 5 percent alone will not lead to a virtuous cycle of more jobs and higher living standards. Nor can we rely on exports to fill the gap. It is impossible for every large economy, including the United States, to become a net exporter.

Reviving the middle class requires that we reverse the nation’s decades-long trend toward widening inequality. This is possible notwithstanding the political power of the executive class. So many people are now being hit by job losses, sagging incomes and declining home values that Americans could be mobilized.

Moreover, an economy is not a zero-sum game. Even the executive class has an enlightened self-interest in reversing the trend; just as a rising tide lifts all boats, the ebbing tide is now threatening to beach many of the yachts. The question is whether, and when, we will summon the political will. We have summoned it before in even bleaker times.

As the historian James Truslow Adams defined the American Dream when he coined the term at the depths of the Great Depression, what we seek is “a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone.”

That dream is still within our grasp.

[I wrote this for today’s New York Times]

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