Credit boom’s biggest casualty: U.S. lifestyles

October 7, 2010

America’s standard of living could be the main casualty of the debt crisis. For a decade the middle class made up for stagnant incomes by getting ever deeper into hock. Without housing wealth to tap, a bout of inflation is one of the few alternatives to a decade of austerity.

The right to a perpetually improving lifestyle is not in the U.S. constitution. But as far as many Americans are concerned it may as well be. So when average family income failed to advance over the past 10 years, few took it lying down. With the median income of a working family sliding from $60,700 in 2000 to $55,800 in 2009, the favorite solution was to make up for the shortfall with large dollops of seemingly cheap credit.

While much of this debt has been paid off since the financial crisis, or been erased through a flurry of defaults, household debt still stands at 123 percent of annual disposable income. This is still historically high — even at the height of the go-go 1980s American household debt only reached 85 percent of disposable income.

Paying this down further will be no mean feat. At the current rate of savings — close to 6 percent of disposable income — getting debt down to 100 percent of disposable income will take four years. And that won’t come close to restoring the $10.7 trillion of household net wealth lost since 2007.

Against this backdrop it is hard to see how Americans can avoid tightening their belts over the coming decade. Wage growth is unlikely to be much more helpful than over the previous cycle. Intensifying international competition seems to have severed the customary link between improving productivity and rising wages and high unemployment is adding an extra headwind.

Nor will most Americans be able, or willing, to repeat the trick of borrowing to bridge the income gap. Homeowners’ equity has almost halved since 2005, reducing the collateral of households by about $6 trillion. Default is no quick fix either, since it cuts consumers off from access to new credit and still carries with it a degree of social stigma.

This leaves inflation. With debtors vastly outnumbering savers in America a burst of faster price rises may be the most politically palatable way of eroding the real value of debt. Of course, even this option would leave the middle class at the mercy of pay increases. Add it up and it’s hard to see how many Americans can avoid a stagnant, or even lower, standard of living.


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p.s., America is bankrupt too.

Posted by misterliu | Report as abusive

I am sure Americans can avoid a lower standard of living by living within its means. Stop wasting money on wars and reduce military spending. Stop giving money to Israel as it does not need it, and stop giving tax breaks to so-called charities that fund or invest in settlements building. Finally, adopt a fair foreign policy in the Middle East and you will have no need to spend money on the war against terrorism as there will be no terrorism against you.

Posted by Castlecrag | Report as abusive

The warnings were in plain sight… Some even shouted from the rooftops… All to no avail.
‘They did not listen, they did not know how. Perhaps they’ll listen now’… D. McLean, Vincent….

Posted by edgyinchina | Report as abusive

Yes, indeed.
The recent government borrowing and spending binge is going to make the American hangover even longer, and more severe.

Posted by yr2009 | Report as abusive

As a member of Generation X (insert slacker stereotype here) I wonder what, of any significant value, we will inherit from the generation ahead of us? I mean seriously, the farms are all ghost town suburbs, the economy has no real ROI to speak of, and now toxic aluminum sludge is overflowing the riverbanks?!? Debt/Income crisis? …Kidstuff. As a footnote: Who’s in charge of all this mess anyway?

Posted by | Report as abusive

Unbelievable. And this is playing out globally. Stop blaming the middle and lower classes for the consequences brought on by the greed of the upper classes! No one, not our legislators, not past presidents, no one stopped the banks from issuing countless credit cards and encouraging people to “use” the inflated equity in their homes. How many commercials on television urged Americans to use credit cards for transactions for a myriad of reasons, none of which mentioned the real effect of credit card debt, indentured servitude.

Before Reagan’s presidency, there were some protections in place, AND interest on credit card debt was tax deductible. Then Reagan instituted “tax reform” and actually had the nerve to sell it as a boon to the middle class. That was the beginning of the demise of the middle class, and that agenda was resurrected with each succeeding Republican administration ending with the middle class death knell sounded by the last Bush administration. With the middle class saddled with credit card debt, the banks doubled credit card minimum payments, increased interest rates to the extent that doing business with the Mafia was looking pretty good, and then stacked on top of that outrageous fees for failing to meet the new minimum payments (which, in turn, increased the interest rates). When Congress finally decided to do something to curtail the banking industries’ greed, it was already too late. The middle class was enslaved. Now it was time to ridicule and blame them for using credit as advocated. It didn’t matter if the debt was incurred to purchase COBRA health insurance during a lay-off (due to pre-existing conditions), or to pay for a loved one’s funeral. It was easier to mock the middle class as Reagan mocked welfare recipients (the fictitious “Welfare Queen” used to engender hatred of the poor). Make them the target and object of hatred so that the real cause is obscured, and that cause is and always has been the cause of greed. The result is the first political party created by a faux news organization whose members have been conned into campaigning against their own best interests. Who would have thought that people in this country could be manipulated to the extent that they would work towards the dissolution of social security, Medicaid, and the possibility of Medicare for Everyone? Who would have thought that these same people could be maneuvered into fueling a drive to end unemployment insurance or public utilities, fire and police protection, maintaining the nation’s infrastructure? The meme was planted three decades ago when Ronald Reagan uttered the phrase “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”. It was greeted with amusement, now it will end this nation.

Posted by lswalz | Report as abusive

Castlecrag. Well stated. The best intersts of Americans have been placed on the back burner for decades – by both parties.

Congress functions almost exclusively to represent special interests, not the American people. Both sides of the aisle continue to neglect the needs of the common man while furthering the agenda of the elite plutocrats who direct U.S. policy.

I’m all for tightening my belt. I’ve been forced to do so for the last decade. What is intersting is how well those at the top are doing while the rest of us ‘belt-tighten’.

U.S. foriegn policy, driven by constant media fear mongering, orchestrated by special intersts and the ruling elite, has injected us into a ‘war on terror’ that is not only unwinable in a conventional sense, but is self fulfilling.

Wake up America. Neither party is representing you.

Posted by Publius1791 | Report as abusive

The end of the dream occurred when we transitioned from a nation built on the philosophy of hard work and personal effort to a philosophy of “entitlement” paid for by the government. The dis-connect, is that the government never has had any money — only YOURS to re-distribute. As the sense of entitlement increased from big private unions (UAW) to government employee unions, politicians compensation, and foolish expenditures on everything from war to dubious vote buying projects, we have spent ourselves to the edge of economic and social collapse. There’s time to turn this around, but it starts with the individual.

Posted by cynicalme | Report as abusive