Sunday, October 28, 2007

Is the Latte Effect Really The Problem?

Shopping malls and retail stores are always packed, and there is a new restaurant on every corner. Everyone seems to be wearing designer shoes, jackets and jeans and sipping $4 lattes. Credit card commercials are constantly promoting splurging and, U.S. consumers have been more than happy comply.

So what's the problem? Why do so many middle class Americans with so much stuff say they feel so squeezed? If they are consumed by debt, isn’t it their own fault? I have always thought that many times we are responsible for the financial situations that we find ourselves in. After doing some reading on the topic I now wonder if our personal needs and consumption choices are really the problem.

Bankruptcy law expert and Harvard University Professor Elizabeth Warren spent a lot of time crunching the consumer spending numbers for her popular books, "The Fragile Middle Class” and “The Two-Income Trap.” In both, she makes this point: Despite all those $200 sneakers you hear about and the long lines at Starbucks, consumers are actually spending less of their income — much less — on discretionary items like clothing, entertainment and food than their parents did. In fact, after taking care of essentials like housing and health care, today’s middle class has about half as much spending money as their parents did in the early 1970s, Warren says.

The basics, our life essentials, now take up close to three-fourths of every family's spending power (it was about 50 percent in 1973), leaving much less left over at the end of the month.
Even though household incomes have risen about 75 percent since 1970, most of that they say, is the result of a second earner, generally a woman, joining the work force. In many cases that added income has been swallowed by rising fixed expenses, such as child care and housing costs, because many people try and buy more house than they can actually afford. The average family now pays at least twice as much for housing compared to what our parents paid in the 1970s.

Four in 10 Americans don't have even one month's worth of savings for use in case of an emergency, according to a survey by HSBC Bank published in 2006. And even with two incomes built into the family budget, the odds of a household getting hit by a layoff have doubled in the last generation. The combination of high housing debt, rising health care costs, lack of savings and greater exposure to unemployment has left many families in a dangerous financial position.

I see the biggest problem being that the largest portion of our budgets are spent on fixed costs like housing, has risen much faster than wages and inflation. That means mortgages, more than lattes, are the source of many of our financial problems.

I now think that the "latte factor" is only being used as a way to distract people from the real changes in the economy.

No comments:

Post a Comment