Let the numbers tell the story of America's hollowed middle class

Census and Labor statistics paint a portrait of the U.S.

September 23, 2013|Susan Reimer

If you like paint-by-numbers, the data just released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census create a picture of the United States that is not inspiring.

We spend the biggest part of our day — 9 hours and 12 minutes — commuting and working and the other big chunk — 7 hours and 39 minutes — sleeping.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show we spend 6 minutes or less on education and talking to people on the phone. We spend three hours on "leisure," and almost all of that is watching TV.

We spend proportionally more on housing now (41 percent of our income) than we did in 1950 (26 percent). But that's because we live in larger houses: 2,000 square feet compared to 1,000 square feet.

And while both the rich and the poor spend about the same percentage of their incomes on housing, the poor are renting and the rich are building equity and getting tax breaks on mortgage interest.

We spend far less on food and clothing now than we did in 1949 — 18 percent compared to 52 percent — because modern methods have made them cheaper. But we more than doubled the percentage we spent on transportation because everybody in the family has a car — 17 percent compared to 7.3 percent of family income.

The poor spend drastically less on education, savings for retirement and insurance than the rich. But those categories represent investments in the future, and that is a luxury for the poor, who often live day to day and dollar to dollar.

In 2012, the typical household earned $51,017 — almost exactly the same as in 1988. That is almost an entire generation of stagnant wages. This is despite the fact, as Eduardo Porter pointed out in the New York Times, that the GDP per person is up 40 percent, we are living four years longer, more men and women are graduating from college, and we have astonishing new technologies at our fingertips.

But the benefits that accrue to all that productivity have gone to the richest 10 percent, who earn over half the income the country produces, Mr. Porter wrote.

Data from the U.S. Census shows that low income households are steadily increasing as a share of the population while middle and high income groups shrink or are flat. President Barack Obama and members of Congress talk about preserving and protecting the middle class, but it doesn't look like there will be one for very much longer.

The economic turnaround that is supposed to be underway has not happened for the most vulnerable — families headed by single women — and almost a third of all children now live in poverty.

The Brookings Institution reports that people are not moving. They aren't moving out of state to new jobs or across town to new houses. That is a vivid illustration of stagnation.

A couple of other interesting parts of this picture:

The greatest number of us, almost 17 percent, are employed by government. And almost the same percentage work in wholesale and retail, jobs with poor pay and benefits, and jobs that are most vulnerable to economic downturns.

Step back from this canvas and see what I see:

The United States has shifted from a manufacturing economy to a service economy and a health care delivery economy. It has done little to help the poor and the working class make the transition and instead blames them for their own bad luck.

Miserly and mean-spirited politicians have channeled their paranoia about big government and their utter distaste for this president into proposals to cut food stamps and Social Security benefits and eliminate health care reforms, and they have stubbornly refused to find a way to end the sequester that is threatening the economic security of all those government workers.

They have refused to see that now is exactly the wrong time to cut the government spending that might provide jobs until the private sector recovers enough to take over.

These politicians are among the Americans that sleep 7 hours and 39 minutes each night. Apparently it is not a troubled sleep.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com. Twitter: @SusanReimer.

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