One thing that does concern me about the PF blogosphere is that in some quarters there’s a lack of…sympathy? understanding? of the crunch that the realities of costs/income in the United States today create. For example, the infographic here makes it seem as if Americans’ money troubles can mostly be chalked up to buying expensive purses. While “living beyond our means” is definitely a problem for *some* — including me; the reason why I had the $19k of debt a year ago is primarily that I didn’t stick strictly to a budget and seek out the cheapest housing available as a grad student in a very, very expensive city; I could have found smaller, cheaper rooms in less desirable neighborhoods and probably avoided some or all of that debt — moral failure doesn’t really account for the bad ratio of spending to income that we see there.
For most Americans, the two biggest costs are health care and housing, followed in short order by commuting. Then there’s child care, and of course food. For decades, real wages have flatlined or declined in most sectors of the economy, while health care and housing (especially) have skyrocketed. In any one given case, the problem might be spending too much on vacations, drinking, or flat-screen TVs, but in the aggregate, the problem is much more structural; people working precarious jobs in a part-time, freelance, relentlessly anti-labor and cost-cutting economy are having a lot of trouble affording the basics.
This is “the decline of the middle class” in a nutshell. I’m 35 and single. I’m not talented in any of the areas where people still make a lot of money — computer programming, finance. I might get a job pretty much anywhere in the country, and that job will probably fall within a narrow salary range; at the low end, around $50K, at the high end, around $65K. In my current town, $65K for a single person buys a pretty nice life; housing’s not dirt cheap or anything, but it’s very affordable. Even on $50K it would be a pretty nice life! However, let’s say the job is in Philadelphia, Chicago, or Los Angeles — or, God forbid, New York or San Francisco or Washington DC (all places I would love to live, by the way.) Salary likely to be on the high end of that range, but in terms of housing? I can’t see how I’d avoid having to either have roommates, or find some kind of wacky S.R.O. arrangement with a hotplate (which, by the way, don’t really exist anymore), or live in a place that required a massive commute. Rent for a 1br in DC or NYC, in any kind of central location not requiring hours on public transportation, is running anywhere from $2500 to $5000 *a month*. So…not happening.
The point is that even people willing to “go where the jobs are” and to work very very hard and to live very very frugally (I don’t drink, rarely travel, use the public library, do virtually all my own cooking, hardly ever buy clothes) can *still* find themselves in a situation where the basic cost of housing is almost out of reach. And this is discounting medical emergencies, which are still the #1 cause of bankruptcy in the United States.
So, to sum up: I don’t discount the role of personal responsibility and the need to live frugally. People in debt *do* need to figure out some kind of personal solution. But I feel pretty strongly that we ought to acknowledge that rent, medical care, child care, and transportation can eat up a hell of a lot of a normal salary — and when you work at Wal-mart or McDonald’s? Well, forget about it.