The cost of Christmas got me thinking about the “culture of wealth” in America. This past holiday season in NYC I noticed that “High Street” is booming, while “Main Street” is still struggling; luxury stores on Madison and Fifth Avenue were packed as Americans have returned to flaunting designer shopping bags and iPads. (FYI: I read that there were roughly 3.2 million Millionnaires in America in 2009… so, according to the new 2010 US Census with a population of 308,745,538, 1% of the US are Millionnaires.)
It seems to me there is a great divide: those Americans whose wealth is tied to jobs and property (homes): me. And those whose wealth is tied to intellectual capital and capital markets: also, a little bit me if you count intellectual property. It makes me wonder which of these two ends of the spectrum have more faith in the system: those who rely on it or those who invest in it?
In order for the majority of Americans to realize some sort of democratic “American Dream,” everyday Americans and businesses need to be able to get loans and mortgages. But today getting a loan is very difficult for average Americans. I’m in the process of getting a mortgage right now and 40% down-payment is commonplace: that’s an awful lot of cash to have on hand to get a loan!
This leads me to ponder what happens to a society when people can’t afford to own their homes? Are we creating a “culture of homelessness”? What happens when our “homes” are tentative? How do our lizard brains respond to the sense of temporary, and feeling of transientness and lack of long-term security that comes when “the cave” can no longer be counted on? After all, shelter is a basic need (Maslow), along with food, clothing, breathing, defecation, urination… really basic. Not having the basics is extremely stressful and distracting.
Apparently, 25% of Americans between 18-29 years old have moved back in with their parents. <50% all adults expect their children to have a higher standard of living than theirs, and more than a quarter say it will be lower. What does the American Dream look like when, as Bill Moyers put it, “the audacity of hope is replaced by a paucity of hope”?
And what about the truly homeless? Right now there are 2-3.5 million American who do not have a place to sleep tonight. 71% of the homeless are in the cities, 21% in the suburbs and 9% in rural areas. 29% of adults in homeless families are working (and yet still homeless). The main causes of homelessness in America are loss (job loss, home foreclosure, loss of public assistance, divorce) and escape (drug/alcohol abuse, domestic violence and again, divorce).
Unemployment in November jumped to 9.8%. I read that more than half of all workers today have experienced a spell of unemployment or under-employment, taking a cut in pay/hours. Wow, a good portion of America is on a slippery slope downwards. Where iPads, and lazing around watching TED videos, aren’t a reality because the stress and distraction of fulfilling basic needs dominate.
As we enter a new year, and a new decade, there is a lot of talk in my circles about American culture moving from one of democracy to one of plutocracy. When I see a huge disparity between rich and “average” Americans (who’s median income is $46,326) I’m reminded of the maldistribution of wealth, status and opportunity I witnessed in Asia and Africa… and wonder if American culture is regressing, instead of progressing? I wonder if we are at a “critical transition” point moving away from democracy? I know the American Dream ‘aint what it used to be.