Beneath the hood of our humming economy are middle class American households in financial precariousness. Wall Street has recovered since the financial crisis, but Main Street is still struggling to get back on its feet.
When considering the health of our macro-economy, that assertion may seem like a farce, and conservatives may call criticism of the flourishing economy under our “supreme leader” heresy. Although I’d be remiss to not clarify that my contention is what belies a booming economy is a financially ill-prepared American working class.
Statistics support the hypothesis that in the event of an economic downturn, many Americans would be in dire financial straits.
To numb the ire of hardline conservatives, many macro-economic statistics point to a strong economy that any nuanced opinion could not be without. One of the most important measures of the overall health of the economy is GDP growth. Fueled by corporate tax cuts, GDP growth was an astounding 4.2 percent during the second fiscal quarter of 2018. For reference, the quarterly GDP growth rate hasn’t been that good since the third quarter of 2014 when it was at 5 percent.
The unemployment rate, unadjusted for structural or underemployment, hit a 49-year low at 3.7 percent in September 2018. With a labor market as hot as it has been over the past few quarters, American workers have had more choice in where they work. There’s more opportunity to transition careers without fear of finding a job.
Furthermore, individual taxes have gone down thanks to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Moreover, nonfarm employee wages have been increasing. Since hitting a trough in 2012 at 1.51 percent, nominal wage growth hit nearly a decades long high at 2.92 percent in August. Median household income peaked in 2017 at $61,372, having rebounded substantially since 2010 when it was $49,276.
So, why would I be so pessimistic on economic outlook when macro numbers are so overwhelmingly positive? Is it that I hate to see President Donald Trump succeed?
Of course not, but I wish the president would take a closer look at the financial health of the average American household. Household debt has skyrocketed to a record high, having eclipsed $133,000 per household and $13.3 trillion total.
Student loan debt per household has more than doubled in the past decade up $2,900 from October 2007 to October 2017. Total student loan debt has ballooned to an unsustainably high level at over $1.5 trillion total with default rates currently at 10.8 percent. Experts predict that by 2023, a harrowing nearly 40 percent of borrowers are expected to default on their student loans.
Credit card debt has also risen since 2013. Car loan debt reached $4,520 as of October 2017 from a $2,950 trough in 2010. While households can service debt while the economy is doing well, how well will they be able to pay their mounting bills when the economy experiences a downturn? Only 54 percent of households could cover a $400 emergency bill without selling something or borrowing money. Yikes.
Unfortunately, American households are soon to be put to a test of financial resiliency.
Between the trade war and the Fed raising interest rates, most economists predict that the U.S. financial market will experience a market correction by the end of 2020. Optimistic predictions are for 2021 and pessimistic predictions are for 2019. Those are the two main factors, but the U.S. markets have a variety of foreign headwinds facing it, such as China’s slowing economic growth and Italy’s debt crisis.
While tax cuts provided a temporary boost to the overall economy, those effects will eventually wear off amidst unfavorable domestic and foreign market influences. Amidst a decelerating economy, Americans will be in an increasingly precarious financial position.
Interest rates will rise, which will make it harder for American households to service debt levels that are at record highs. The labor market will tighten as companies pull back on employment, possibly leading to layoffs and making it harder to get hired once fired.
Ignorance is bliss. The American public seems almost entranced by macro-economic figures disseminated by agenda-driven political actors and pundits, but few see the cliff ahead.
Patrick Gagen is a 21-year-old mass communication and finance senior from Suwanee, Georgia.