Newspaper article International New York Times

The Insecure American

Newspaper article International New York Times

The Insecure American

Article excerpt

A study on the financial well-being of U.S. households shows just how little room for error there is for many people.

America remains, despite the damage inflicted by the Great Recession and its aftermath, a very rich country. But many Americans are economically insecure, with little protection from life's risks. They frequently experience financial hardship; many don't expect to be able to retire, and if they do retire have little to live on besides Social Security.

Many readers will, I hope, find nothing surprising in what I just said. But all too many affluent Americans -- and, in particular, members of our political elite -- seem to have no sense of how the other half lives. Which is why a new study on the financial well- being of U.S. households, conducted by the Federal Reserve, should be required reading inside the Beltway.

Before I get to that study, a few words about the callous obliviousness so prevalent in our political life.

I am not, or not only, talking about right-wing contempt for the poor, although the dominance of compassionless conservatism is a sight to behold. According to the Pew Research Center, more than three-quarters of conservatives believe that the poor "have it easy" thanks to government benefits; only 1 in 7 believe that the poor "have hard lives." And this attitude translates into policy. What we learn from the refusal of Republican-controlled states to expand Medicaid, even though the federal government would foot the bill, is that punishing the poor has become a goal in itself, one worth pursuing even if it hurts rather than helps state budgets.

But leave self-declared conservatives and their contempt for the poor on one side. What's really striking is the disconnect between centrist conventional wisdom and the reality of life -- and death -- for much of the nation.

Take, as a prime example, positioning on Social Security. For decades, a declared willingness to cut Social Security benefits, especially by raising the retirement age, has been almost a required position -- a badge of seriousness -- for politicians and pundits who want to sound wise and responsible. After all, people are living longer, so shouldn't they work longer, too? And isn't Social Security an old-fashioned system, out of touch with modern economic realities?

Meanwhile, the reality is that living longer in our ever-more- unequal society is very much a class thing: Life expectancy at age 65 has risen a lot among the affluent, but hardly at all in the bottom half of the wage distribution, that is, among those who need Social Security most. …

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