Rosy economic data belies a harsh reality for many Americans

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To read the economic reports coming out of Washington, you might assume that the American economy is firing on all cylinders. But beneath this rosy picture is a much darker reality. 

Most middle- and lower-income Americans have not shared in the economy’s economic advances over the last several decades. If the economy slides off with job losses, many middle- and lower-income Americans will face financial difficulties that could be even more extreme than those in 2008.

Yes, the market is up, and unemployment is the lowest it’s been in nearly 50 years. But education, health care and, in many places, housing are much more expensive than they once were, even as wage growth has fallen flat.

The broader economy may be steaming ahead, but consumer borrowing, particularly student debt is at an all-time high. 

Today, 40 percent of Americans would struggle to come up with $400 in the face of a crisis, with many choosing to sell something or take a loan to come up with the cash.

Many Americans, particularly those living in America’s heartland, exist on the knife’s edge. Aggregates and averages obscure the economic turmoil that’s opened wounds in places like Dearborn, Mich., and York County, Pa.

While enhanced inequality may be the end result of these divergent trends — that’s certainly where many in Washington focus their attention — the underlying issue is disparate economic opportunity.

The sorts of jobs that were once gateways to the middle class — like manufacturing jobs that came with defined-benefit pensions — are being replaced by low-wage positions and chances to join the “gig economy.” When you set home values aside, many middle- and working-class American families have become progressively less wealthy.

In a downturn with job loss, it is hard to see how millions of customers will have the resources to repay the growing mountain of consumer debt in a timely fashion. Even if, as in 2008, the downturn’s trigger emanates from outside the banking sector, banks will still be caught up in the fray and blamed at least in part for the ensuing crisis.  

No doubt a downturn of this sort will start another wave of regulatory rebukes and public orders. An Occupy Wall Street-type reaction — fanned by millennials who freshly remember the foreclosures and student-loan debt of the last crisis — will likely follow. More national leaders will clamor for firings and clawbacks. There will be new demands for wealth redistribution, with particular venom for lenders.

But it’s not too late. To avoid the future abyss, business leaders should take proactive steps to help middle- and lower-income Americans establish firmer financial footing, taking the lead from several banks and bankers, including JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and IberiaBank CEO Daryl Byrd.

That means supporting individual efforts to acquire skills without being infected with what some call “student debt disease.” Already, public officials with political sensibilities as disparate as Democratic L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and former President George W. Bush economic advisor Glenn Hubbard are working separately to make community college affordable and accessible to wider swaths of the population.

But efforts like theirs need more support from the private sector — and it’s in the private sector’s interest to make those investments now, before the next crisis is upon us.

Next, both the public and private sectors need to improve America’s financial literacy so that hard-working citizens can avoid abuse from the likes of check cashers, pawnbrokers and payday lenders.

Moreover, employers need to work with public officials to ensure that more Americans take advantage of untapped public programs established to benefit them; programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit, which supplements low-income salaries but is overlooked by 20 percent of those who are eligible to take advantage of it.

The financial community also needs to develop more flexible ways for individuals and families to work their way out of delinquent housing and other consumer debt. 

In some cases, the solutions will weigh down a corporation’s balance sheet over the short-term. But the long-term benefits will prove well worth the investment. Bankers and industry leaders need to determine where there is consensus and how to move forward.

No matter the rosy economic picture today’s headlines indicate, the challenges ahead of the next recession are real. Facing down this risk is a matter of self-interest. Dealing with it now is a matter of considerable industry importance.

Eugene Ludwig is the founder and CEO of Promontory Financial Group, a global risk management and regulatory compliance consulting firm. From 1993 to 1998 served as President Bill Clinton’s Comptroller of the Currency. 

Tags Bill Clinton Data economy Eugene Ludwig Finance Inequality Money Student debt

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