I've always held vivid memories of this image, which I remember seeing in Otto L. Bettmann's book, The Good Old Days -- They Were Terrible! While some critics accused Bettmann of going overboard with his debunking of the Gilded Age, published in 1974, the book's most cogent points focus on the glaring income inequalities that characterized the era. That's why this particular image and its caption ("Corporate greed octopus gobbles up freight for Great Railroad while unemployed handlers look on") remains so haunting, and so compelling, more than a century later.
I felt inspired to start this post after doing some research on Edith Wharton's novel, Ethan Frome (1911), of all things. The title character's frustration with his limited resources is an important subtext of the story, which focuses on his failed attempts to start a new life with his lover, Mattie, outside the confines of his marriage. In researching the story, I came across numerous references to The Working Girls Of Boston (1884), which marked a serious attempt by the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor's to document female workers' conditions.
Suffice to say, the conditions these "working girls" endured were horrendous -- including arbitrary bosses, cramped work areas, lengthy schedules, little time off and poor ventilation -- so we need not belabor the point here. In 1880, the bureau reported that the average working girl in Boston earned $269.07 per year. However, once she finished subtracting $261.30 for necessities (food, clothing, shelter and medical care), she took home a whopping $7.77 in discretionary income...and you wonder why everyone frowns so heavily in those 19th century sepia-toned photographs!
While nobody's suggesting that we're back in the Gilded Age -- actually, most wiseguys like yours truly argue that we're at Roaring Twenties levels of inequality -- it's no stretch to suggest that Americans are faring poorly overall in the Discretionary Income & Savings Sweepstakes. One point that the Suze Ormans of the world overlook in all their endless lectures to the groundlings -- y'know, "waste not, want not, why buy that latte when you can put it away on a condo, yada-yada-yada" -- is that, after 30-plus years of flat wages, people have little or no money left to save.
One indicator of this trend is evident from a Bankrate.com survey cited in the following Huffington Post article (see link below, or click the actual survey link for the full gory details). The figure that leaps out is this one: about 25 percent of the adults surveyed by Bankrate between June 6-9, 2013, had no cash reserves for emergencies, while roughly half said they had three months or less of funds -- well shy of the six months that experts recommend. By contrast, 72 percent of those making $75,000 per year or more had at least three months' of emergency savings, compared to 35 percent making less than that sum.
Granted, it's a small survey pool, but those are stark figures, by any measurement. The frustration is fully evident from the comments of interviewees like Kim Norton, who told the Huffington Post: "I rob Peter to pay Paul; I don't spend my money frivolously on crap; I just make sure my kids have what they need. I get really wound up thinking about how you just can't get ahead." That does seem rather unlikely for someone working "part time as a research coordinator through a temp agency" (emphasis ours), as the story suggests -- need we say more?
In many ways, that little tidbit aptly sums up where we are now, along with the never-ending parade of dubious ads from crappy for-profit colleges, gold buying shops and structured settlement purchasing outfits like JG Wentworth...do these images speak to an economy in recovery? The jury's still out on that one, we suspect.
If you're like the great majority, you're probably writing enough checks to float a raft -- noting which companies run to the bank immediately, versus which ones wait a couple days, or even a week, God forbid -- while you pray for the roof not to cave in. Needless to say, though, don't expect any lift from the political classes, because they're having too much fun to care about helping the groundlings to any meaningful degree.
As we've stated here previously, the few measures that the Obama administration has proposed -- a year-long mortgage moratorium here, begging the House of Representatives to extend unemployment there -- have been too weak, timid or half-hearted to benefit people on a massive scale. And, in real terms, whatever Obama propounds now will essentially come too little and too late, since those guys in colonial drag (The Tea PartyRepublicans, basically) have no incentive to make those dreams happen. As the old joke goes, there's a reason why second-term presidents suddenly start talking up their foreign policy accomplishments.
What's often missed in these debates, however, is that these yawning disparities bear the hallmarks of policy. In Washington, access is power, and you can tell who wields it by who's actually sitting at the table. It isn't the inner city resident whose neighborhood lacks a decent supermarket...or the retired firefighter whose pension isn't fully funded...or the senior citizen having to choose between food, or medicine...or the contract worker piecing shit job upon shit job together for the privilege of surviving another day, never mind another week.
As one of my close friends observes, it's as if Ronald Reagan won a seventh presidential term, because the trends that began when he arrived on the scene in 1980 -- help the rich get richer, let the poor stay poorer, hollow out what's left of the middle class -- are more firmly entrenched and noxious than ever. The jabbering continues apace, while relief for the average person seems farther away on the horizon than ever, amid continuing choruses to "pull yourself up by your bootstraps". However, as the customs man says at Heathrow Airport, "there's just one small matter": your bootstraps were cut long ago, when nobody was looking. --The Reckoner
"Sometimes history takes things into its own hands." --Thurgood Marshall, Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court (1967-1991)
"Consolidation becomes the fourth chapter of the next book of their history. But this opens with a vast accession of strength from their younger recruits, who, having nothing in them of the feelings or principles of ’76, now look to a single and splendid government of an aristocracy, founded on banking institutions, and moneyed incorporations under the guise and cloak of their favored branches of manufactures, commerce and navigation, riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry." -- Thomas Jefferson (A/K/A "The Guy On The Two Dollar Bill")
Links To Go (As Always...Read 'Em And Weep Some More, Eh):
Bankrate.com: June 2013 Financial Security Index Charts:
Can Singing Vikings Solve Your Cash Crunch?
The Economic Policy Institute:
A Decade Of Flat Wages:
The Key Barrier To Shared Prosperity And A Rising Middle Class
The Huffington Post:
75 Percent Of Americans Don't Have Enough Savings
To Cover Their Bills For Six Months: Survey: