This article (access to which, if you don't pay for your Salon subscription with money requires you to pay for it with about 30 hectic seconds of navigating/mouse-clicking torture -- well worth it in this case) raises all SORTS of red flags for me. It lays bare a number of systems that are badly broken, and offers absolutely no silver linings or lights at the end of the tunnel.
First, this stark observation:
But this year, more children will live through their parents' bankruptcy than their parents' divorce.
Being a parent is the best predictor that a person will file for bankruptcy. Are parents more profligate than nonparents? What's wrong with this family? Since they're going bankrupt four times more often than their parents did a generation ago, I thought that this would be a story of overconsumption -- too many trips to the mall, too many designer toddler outfits, too many Gameboys.
As it turns out, all that stuff about "skip the latte and invest the money," while sound Emersonian/Franklinian advice, is actually Deck Chair Rearrangement.
Today's families are in financial trouble, because they're spending so much more on big fixed expenses -- mortgage, health insurance, car, preschool, after-school care and college.
What's happened is that the cost of being middle-class has shot out of the reach of ordinary families over the past generation.
Today's two-income family has 75 percent more income than the one-income family had a generation ago, but by the time they make four basic payments and their taxes they have less money to spend than their one-income parents.
The fact is that paying for what we as a society seem to have agreed are "the basics" is actually out of the reach of a great many families. (I'd be interested to see a similar survey about individuals -- my guess is that the percentage of individuals that can support a mortgaged-home + health insurance + auto + education expenses is pitifully small.)
Those who can afford it for awhile are always in danger of losing it -- a great many people are one paycheck away from homelessness at all times -- and the current "jobless recovery" (which I think is turning into a "jobless economy") is not lifting all boats.
Why are "the basics" taking so much effort? A couple of theories: 1) the "Coppertop" theory (see The Matrix) -- i.e., we are all batteries that keep supplying energy to the system, and we get just enough back from the system to stay alive enough to keep supplying energy etc. All of us together fuel the Big Machine, which produces wonderful results for The Few. When we no longer produce, we get flushed down the big tube (and, we must assume, fed to the surviving Coppertops). Or 2) we are seeing the effects of Toffler's Third Wave, and all of the Second Wave institutions (which still dominate) are crumbling around us -- in fact, we are in grave danger of being crushed by them. Fanciful theories as stated, maybe. Feel free to come up with your own.
Okay, we've got the institution of the Family (which has morphed so stupendously in my lifetime that we don't really have a consensus definition of the word anymore) as Ground Zero for all of the other imploding institutions.
So what kind of shape are these institutions in -- those that have led us to the brink?
Housing -- scarce, unaffordable, antiquated. We're still building houses one stick at a time -- its like having the UAW come and custom fabricate your car in your driveway -- and paying for it with a method that seems to pre-date William the Conquerer . . . and it's getting worse.
Over the past generation mortgage costs have increased 70 times faster than a man's wages.People are looking at their houses like they looked at the stock market in '99 -- their last, best, hope for security.
But the deck is definitely stacked --
In the U.S. today, you cannot buy a toaster that has a 1 in 12 chance of burning down your house. It's not legal according to the Consumer Products Safety Commission. But you can buy a home mortgage that has a 1 in 12 chance of costing you your house.
See the article for lots of pithy quotes about how rapacious the banking industry is these days...
Health Insurance -- expensive, fleeting, frustrating. Loads of advances in the health field, but only a small (and shrinking) part of the population can feel secure here. Because health insurance is tied almost entirely to employment, you're not just a paycheck away from losing your house, you're a paycheck away from losing medical care (for your kids too).
Work -- Hard to find, impossible to keep. You have to make your own "job" (but good luck being able to afford health insurance, even if you can make enough money to keep the house). The analysis in the article about "two people working doubles the chances for disaster" is a little weak. It's more complicated than that -- but I think that what the author is trying to say is that, having two people working does not provide more security if it takes all of both their earnings to survive.
Unfortunately, what with all of the other institutions in crisis/flux, you just have to have somebody at home some of the time to handle what refer to in my family as "lifeshit." It's what happens -- kids get sick ("I'll stay home to take care of them because I have a good leave program and we don't lose a day of your income"); parents/siblings/other family members in distant places need care; the car breaks down; you have to spend a couple of days making the rounds of the doctors' offices for tests; and on and on . . . It's just lifeshit. . . It was ever thus, but we now have such a precarious income/outflow situation that we can't take the time to handle it. Until something big breaks. Then it's not just part of life -- it's a full-blown disaster.
Education: do you have any idea how competitive/expensive/stressful getting a toddler into preschool is in a major metropolitan area? Yeah, yeah, "I believe that children are the future, etc." but I look around and see that, while there's a lot a yakking about how schools are in crisis, I see precious little original thinking. "Hey, let's keep the same hundred-year old method that built the basic industrial society, and if it seems to not be working, we'll just drug the kids!"
Of course, the list above is nowhere near comprehensive -- I look at my parents, and my children, and see whole new worlds of issues blossoming. Note that I don't include stuff like climate change, plagues, and interruption of the food supply in my rant. Not because they don't scare me, but because they don't seem to be "institutions" as such....
So, this article is a little window into the "Braced for Impact" world. There is not a single viable solution to any (let alone to all) of the problems listed above issuing from the lips of the folks running for office. The Deck Chair Rearrangement Committee is hard at work on the bridge of the good ship Titanic, and they can't even come up with a sound plan for the frigging chairs!
I can't help but wonder, "what happens when enough people feel enough pain?" I don't think it's going to take too much longer to find out.
White-knuckled indeed . . .