Posts Tagged ‘white’

wealth shares

Yesterday, I looked at the enormous wealth of U.S. billionaires and the growing gap between them and the rest of the American people.

Today, I want to examine what’s happened in recent years at the bottom of the wealth pyramid.

We know that, for decades, the share of net personal wealth owned by the bottom 90 percent has been declining. It peaked at 38.5 percent in the mid-1980s and, by 2014, it had fallen to 27 percent—more or less where it started in the early 1960s.

As is clear from the chart above, most of the change occurred for the middle 40 percent (the blue area), since the bottom 50 percent in the United States has owned very little personal wealth. Its share (the red area), which reached a peak in 1987 (2.4 percent), has since fallen below zero (-0.1 percent, in 2014).

Clearly, the small and declining share of wealth owned by the vast majority of Americans challenges the fundamental presumptions and promises of the country and its economic institutions—that American workers should and would share in the nation’s growing wealth. They haven’t and, if current trends continue, they won’t.

In fact, as it turns out, there is only one dimension of American society where wealth inequality is actually decreasing: the racial wealth gap among low-income households. And that’s only because, since the onset of the Second Great Depression, the median net worth of low-income whites has been cut by nearly half—while the median net worth of low-income blacks and Hispanics has remained relatively stable.

According to an analysis conducted by the Pew Research Center of the data contained in the most recent Survey of Consumer Finances by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, there is a large gap between the median net worth of white families ($171 thousand) and both black ($17.6 thousand) and Hispanic ($20.7 thousand) families—a gap that increased between 2013 and 2016. The white-black gap grew from $132,800 to $153,500 while the white-Hispanic gap increased from $132,200 to $150,300.

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The gap between whites and both blacks and Hispanics also increased for middle-income Americans (those with incomes between two-thirds and twice the national median size-adjusted income). Thus, for example, white households in the middle-income tier had a median net worth of $154,400 in 2016, compared with $38,300 for middle-income blacks and $46,000 for middle-income Hispanics.

But for low-income Americans (those with size-adjusted household incomes less than two-thirds the median), the racial gap, while still large, has shrunk considerably since 2007, the year the most recent crash began. In that year, the white-black gap was 5 to 1 and the white-Hispanic gap almost 10 to 1. In 2016, those wealth gaps had fallen to less than 3 to 1 and 5 to 1, respectively.

As is clear from the chart above, the major reason for the decline in the racial wealth gap is the fact that the median wealth of low-income whites fell by more than half between 2007 and 2013, while the median wealth of both blacks and Hispanics decreased by much less (around 19 percent).

The cause of both the racial gaps and the decline in white wealth has to do with homeownership, the only major form of wealth held by low-income Americans. In 2007, 56 percent of low-income whites were homeowners, compared with 32 percent each for low-income blacks and Hispanics. The homeownership rate among low-income whites has trended downward since then, falling to 49 percent by 2016, but the rate for blacks and Hispanics is largely unchanged. The decline in low-income white wealth was caused by the crash of the housing market, leading to a fall in housing prices and a decline in the rate of homeownership.

Economically, then, the crash and the uneven recovery moved low-income Americans—white, black, and Hispanic—much closer together at the bottom of the U.S. wealth pyramid. Politically, those changes created losses and resentments that affected the outcome of the presidential election of 2016, which in turn have made it difficult to challenge the conditions and consequences of the Second Gilded Age.

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optimism

worry

pain

American workers, as I have argued many times (e.g., here and here), find themselves in increasingly desperate circumstances.

But of course, different segments of the American working-class experience that desperation in different ways, according to the circumstances in which they find themselves.

A new study by the Brookings Institution [ht: db] reveals that the degree of optimism, worry, and pain experienced by poor whites, blacks, and Hispanics varies according to where they live.

Some of the results are not all surprising, given what else we know about the condition of the working-class in different places within the United States. Thus, for example, the best places in terms of optimism for poor minorities are Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee (the Southern cluster of states), while the most desperate states for poor non-Hispanic whites are the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Wisconsin, Missouri, West Virginia, and Kentucky (which correspond, roughly, to the opioid and suicide belts in the heartland). A similar pattern follows for both worry and pain.

But there are some unexpected findings, at least for me, in the study. For example, the worst places for poor minorities (in terms of optimism, worry, and/or pain) include blue states like Washington, California, New York, and Massachusetts. And, as it turns out, for poor whites, the situation is desperate in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin.

The authors of the study admit that,

We cannot answer many questions at this point. What is it about the state of Washington, for example, that is so bad for minorities across the board? Why is Florida so much better for poor whites than it is for poor minorities? Why is Nevada “good” for poor white optimism but terrible for worry for the same group?

Politically, it is important to pay attention to and analyze the causes of these different placed-based levels of desperation for the various groups that make up the American working-class.

But it is also the case that overall, as I argued last November, the deteriorating condition of the U.S. working-class includes but goes beyond the obscene (and still-growing) inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth.

As both a condition and consequence of those inequalities, working-class Americans have suffered from mass unemployment (reaching 1 in 10 workers, according to the official rate, in October 2009, and much higher if we include discouraged workers and those who have underemployed), real wages that have been flat or falling for decades (now below what they were in the mid-1970s) along with declining benefits, a precipitous decline in unions (from one quarter in the 1970s to about ten percent today), an increase in the number of hours worked (both the length of the workweek and the average number of weeks worked per year), a significant rise in the incidence of “alternative work arrangements” (such as temporary help agency workers, on-call workers, contract workers, and independent contractors or freelancers), and most people think good jobs are difficult to find where they live (by a factor of 2 to 1)—not to mention increasing mortality (for the first time since the 1950s), an increase in differences in life expectancy between those at the top and everyone else, high levels of infant mortality, a spectacular growth in the rate of incarceration, and increasing indebtedness (especially for student and auto loans).

Creating new economic institutions that actually lead to improvements in those circumstances will benefit all members of the American working-class—white, black, and Hispanic.

Then and only then will American workers feel more optimistic, have fewer worries, and experience less pain, regardless of where they live.

fredgraph

Mainstream economists and politicians have answers for everything.

Lose your job? Well, that’s just globalization and technology at work. Not much that can be done about that.

And if you still want a job? Then just move to where the jobs are—and make sure your children go to college in order to prepare themselves for the jobs that will be available in the future.

The fact is, they’re not particularly good answers. And people know it. That’s why working-class voters are questioning business as usual and registering their protest by supporting—in the case of Brexit, the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the 2017 snap election in Britain, and so on—alternative positions and politicians.

On the first point, it’s not simply globalization and technology. Large corporations, which employ most people, are the ones that decide—in the context of a global economy and by developing and adopting new technologies—when and where some jobs will be destroyed and new ones created. They use the surplus they appropriate from their existing workers and utilize it to determine the pattern of job destruction and creation, in order to get even more surplus.

Thus, in April 2017 (according to the data in the chart at the top of the post), employers eliminated 1.6 million jobs in the United States. In January 2009, things were even worse: corporations destroyed 2.6 million jobs across the U.S. economy. Of course, they also create new jobs—often in different companies, industries, regions, and countries. That leaves individual workers with the sole decision of whether or not to chase those jobs, since as a group they have absolutely no say in when or where old jobs are destroyed and new ones created.

What about their children and the advice to go to college? We already know the idea that higher education successfully levels the playing field across students with different backgrounds is a myth (and sending more kids to college doesn’t do much, if anything, to lower inequality).

Now we’re learning that, when states suffer a widespread loss of jobs, the damage extends to the next generation, where college attendance drops among the poorest students.

That’s the conclusion of new research Elizabeth O. Ananat and her coauthors, just published in Science (unfortunately behind a paywall). What they found is that

local job losses can both worsen adolescent mental health and lower academic performance and, thus, can increase income inequality in college attendance, particularly among African-American students and those from the poorest families.

Their argument is that macro-level job losses are best understood as “community-level traumas” that negatively affect the learning ability and the mental health not only of young people who experience job loss within their own families, but also of the other children in states where the destruction of jobs is widespread.

So, the problem can’t be solved by forcing individual workers to have the freedom to chase after jobs and send their children to college. Nor is the predicament confined to the white working-class. In fact, the effects of job losses are similar, but even worse, among African-American youth.

That’s why Ananat argues that

white working class people and African-American working class people are in the same boat due to job destruction. Imagine the policies we could have if folks found common ground over that.

And, I would add, those policies need to go beyond the “active labor market policies”—such as “rigorous job training and active matching of worker skills to employer needs”—the authors, along with mainstream economists and politicians, put forward.*

We also need to reconsider the fact that, within existing economic institutions, employers are the only ones who get to decide when and where jobs are destroyed and created. Giving workers the ability to participate as a group in the decisions about jobs—within existing enterprises and by assisting them to form their own enterprises, would improve their own mental health and that of the members of the wider community.

Such a change would also transform young people’s decisions about whether or not to go to college. It’s not just about jobs in the new economy. It would allow them to demand, as women in Lawrence, Massachusetts did over a century ago, both “bread and roses.”

 

*Policies to help “disadvantaged workers, especially African Americans, Hispanics and rural residents,” also need to go beyond encouraging the Fed to keep interest-rates low. That still leaves job decisions in the hands of employers.

mortality

We don’t need Louisiana Detective Rodie Sanchez coming out of retirement to solve the crime against the members of the working-class currently being committed in the United States.

We already know many of the details of the crime. We also know the identities of both the victims and the serial killer. The only real mystery is, what’s the country going to do about it?

The investigation itself is being painstakingly carried out by Anne Case and Agnus Deaton (pdf). They show, with abundant statistics, that mortality trends in the United States run counter to those in other rich countries, where they have been steadily declining for decades.

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The headlines, of course, have been about one group—middle-age white non-Hispanics with a high-school degree or less—whose mortality rates, especially those attributed to “deaths of despair” (drug overdoses, suicides, and alcohol-related liver mortality), increased from 1998 through 2015.* The focus in on that group for a number of reasons, including the fact that increasing rates for them (as against blacks and nonwhite Hispanics) have all but erased the racial gap in mortality among non-college-educated Americans—and, of course, because of the prominence of “white working-class” voters in explanations of Donald Trump’s electoral victory.

But we also need to go beyond the headlines and understand that, while rates for different ethnic and racial groups in the United States have moved in opposite directions in recent decades, the rates for working-class blacks and Hispanics are still very high—and, in recent years (as can be seen, in the case of blacks, in the chart at the top of the post), they’ve also begun to rise.

That’s the real crime story. All three groups within the American working-class—whites, blacks, and Hispanics—are being killed at abnormally high rates compared to the populations of other rich countries.

And the serial killer? Case and Deaton have a much more difficult time working in this area. That’s because they follow the headlines and emphasize the differences in the long-term trend rates and lose sight of the larger picture. So, they discount the role played by income inequality and, instead, endorse Charles Murray’s story about the decline in traditional American virtues among working-class whites (which I wrote about back in 2012).

The fact is, the labor-market factors identified by Case and Deaton—which have negatively affected whites, blacks, and Hispanics with a high-school degree or less—have become more severe as inequality has soared and the social safety net ripped apart in the United States from the early 1970s onward. The upward trend for whites and the narrowing of the racial gap, as significant as they are, shouldn’t hide from view the more general problem (as I wrote about in 2015) of a large and growing gap between the life expectancies (for both men and women) of those at the top and bottom of the distribution of income in the United States.

American TV is currently captivating viewers with stories of people accused of committing horrific acts. It’s time, however, to focus on the story of an economic system that has created its own killing fields.

 

*Mortality increases for whites in midlife have also been paralleled by morbidity increases, including deteriorations in self-reported physical and mental health, and rising reports of chronic pain.

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Banksy, “Untitled” (2009)

On first glance, liberals and conservatives agree on very little these days, especially now that we find ourselves in the era of Donald Trump. But they do seem to find common ground on one thing: the so-called dignity of labor.

Let me explain. In the article I referred to yesterday, conservative Arthur Brooks invokes the “dignity of labor” as the reason anything and everything should be done to stem the fall in the labor-force participation rate of white men and get them back to work.

If its goal is to instill dignity, the U.S. government does not need to find more innovative ways to “help” people; rather, it must find better ways to make them more necessary. The question for leaders, no matter where they sit on the political spectrum, must be, Does this policy make people more or less needed—in their families, their communities, and the broader economy?

Some may ask whether making people necessary is an appropriate role for government. The answer is yes: indeed, it represents a catastrophic failure of government that millions of Americans depend on the state instead of creating value for themselves and others. However, it’s not enough to merely make people feel that they are needed; they must become more authentically, objectively necessary.

The single most important part of a “neededness agenda” is putting more people to work.

Well, as it turns out, one of Brooks’s liberal critics, Lane Kenworthy, actually agrees that working for someone else and producing more than one needs has “significant virtues”:*

It imposes regularity and discipline on people’s lives. It can be a source o mental stimulation. It helps to fulfill the widespread desire to contribute to, and be integrated in, the larger society. It shapes identity and can boost self-­esteem. With neighborhood and family ties weakening, the office or factory can be a key site of social interaction. Lack of employment tends to be associated with feelings of social exclusion, discouragement, boredom, and unhappiness. Societies also need a significant majority of people in paid work to help fund government programs.

No matter the fundamental differences in the policies they advocate, Brooks and Kenworthy are in fundamental agreement that people should believe in the dignity of work and government policy should be redesigned to make sure people—especially the members of the white working-class—get back to work.

I have already dealt numerous times (e.g, here, here, and here) with the argument that participating in wage-labor is intrinsically dignified. But the question remains, why should the government be brought in—in the eyes of by both conservatives and liberals—to make sure people are forced to have the freedom to acquire that dignity?

The answer actually lies in an unexpected source. According to Friedrich Nietzsche (in his 1871 preface to an unwritten book, “The Greek State”), the dignity of labor was invented as one of the “needy products of slavedom hiding itself from itself.” That’s because, in Nietzsche’s view (following the Greeks), labor is only a “painful means” for existence and existence (as against art) has no value in itself. Therefore, “labour is a disgrace.”

Accordingly we must accept this cruel sounding truth, that slavery is of the essence of Culture; a truth of course, which leaves no doubt as to the absolute value of Existence.  This truth is the vulture, that gnaws at the liver of the Promethean promoter of Culture.  The misery of toiling men must still increase in order to make the production of the world of art possible to a small number of Olympian men.

And if slaves—or, today, wage-workers—no longer believe in the “dignity of labour,” it falls to the likes of both conservatives and liberals to ignore the “disgraced disgrace” of labor and create the necessary “conceptual hallucinations.” And then, on that basis, to suggest the appropriate government policies such that the “enormous majority [will], in the service of a minority be slavishly subjected to life’s struggle, to a greater degree than their own wants necessitate.”

Nietzsche believed that, in the modern world, the so-called dignity of labor was one of the “transparent lies recognizable to every one of deeper insight.” Apparently, neither Brooks nor Kenworthy can count himself among those with such insight.

*This is even after Kenworthy admits “employment is not always a good thing.”

The need for a paycheck can trap people in careers that divert them from more productive or rewarding pursuits. Paid work can be physically or emotionally stressful. It can be monotonous, boring, alienating. Some jobs require a degree of indiference, meanness, or dishonesty toward customers or subordinates that eats away at one’s humanity. And work can interfere with family life.