New Fed data paint a vivid picture of two Americas

New Fed data paint a vivid picture of two Americas
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We often look to sociologists, politicians or pundits to tell us where we stand as a nation. Yet, far more incisive is the Federal Reserve’s “Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2017” published this week.

Data are powerful storytellers. The data tell a story of two Americas barely cohabiting within the same borders. One America is comprised of the people who are benefiting from a growing U.S. gross domestic product and having the lowest unemployment rate in 14 years.


This survey, now in its fifth year, had some uplifting information: 74 percent of adults responded that they were "ok financially" and living comfortably. This is 10 percentage points higher than five years ago.


The majority of survey respondents stated that they are "satisfied with the wages and benefits from their current job and are optimistic about their future job opportunities." Additionally, 95 percent of Americans have a bank account and hence are in a position to try to obtain credit if they needed it. 

Yet, the data also tell a worrisome story about a vast swath of Americans being left behind in this country’s second-largest economic expansion in its history. These Americans’ plight should worry not only those affected, but also all of us as a nation whether we are legislators, central bankers, regulators or an ordinary resident.

Their plight, especially if it worsens, will have an effect on what legislative actions and policies will be needed to improve the living standards for everyone in this nation. Even setting moral considerations aside, leaving these people behind will impact our competitiveness in decades to come. 

The job landscape has changed dramatically in the last five years, as evidenced by the fact that 30 percent of American adults are now in the gig economy. This may seem great in terms of allowing Americans more control of their leisure time.

The reality is that most people in the gig economy have to work much harder to have enough money to live, and they have to be able to cope with the risk and emotional strain of not having a stable, earnings stream.

Forty percent of adult Americans, or 100 million people, cannot cobble together $400 in cash for a medical emergency without selling a possession or going into debt. While the figure may appear better than five years ago, when it was 50 percent, the U.S. population has also grown since 2013.

Worse yet, 20 percent of adults cannot pay all of their current month’s bills in full, which means that they also get hit with penalty fees and risk being cut off from any credit. Sadly, 25 percent of American adults skipped necessary medical care because they couldn't afford it. 

When you break out African- and Hispanic-American responses, only 66 percent state that they were doing "ok financially" as opposed to 75 percent for respondents as a whole. In all other categories, Hispanic- and African-Americans on average continue to have more hardships than Caucasians. 

Most unfortunately, those 40 percent of Americans who are struggling are about to face even more hardships this year and in the foreseeable future since we are in a rising-interest-rate environment. Any variable-rate loan or credit card debt that they have already, or will take on, will be more expensive.

Late payments on credit cards in the U.S. have already been been rising, and as interest rates rise, those late payments are more likely to turn into defaults. Defaults lead to poor credit scores for those borrowers, which then shut them out of much of mainstream banking and often lead people to pay-day lenders who are barely regulated and where rates are bordering on usury.

Additionally, recent court and legal decisions are likely to make life worse for these already vulnerable groups. A recent court decision, Epic Systems Corporation vs. Lewis, compels workers into arbitration rather than allowing them to go to court when they are underpaid or discriminated.

Also troublesome are legislative changes and regulatory actions by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that make it easier to discriminate against auto loan minority borrowers and to hurt student loan holders.

The Trump administration came into power on a populist campaign that stated he wanted to take care of the working class. He even made it a point to say that he loved the "poorly educated." 

Unfortunately, similar to what happens in developing nations where populists reign, eventually the people will start to ask what has happened to the promises. Presently, the Federal Reserve data show that the Trump administration is not delivering to the very people whom he promised to help.

Mayra Rodríguez Valladares is managing principal of MRV Associates, which provides financial consulting, research and training on financial regulation issues. She has 25 years of financial regulatory experience from her time at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, JP Morgan and BT Alex. Brown. You can follow her on Twitter: @MRVAssoc.