Poverty in cities, although unfortunate, is relatively common and difficult to eradicate. More uncommon is financial instability among the middle class who can’t (yet) afford to live in Orange County and settle down in that homogenized, comfortable, sometimes-insipid middle ground of the suburbs. For some it represents a jump-off point of the American Dream, yet for a growing percentage, it’s turned out to be somewhat of a nightmare. Here’s why and what the middle class can do about it.
The Atlantic recently ran a stark and sad commentary about people living in suburbia—particularly Atlanta—struggling to make ends meet. The reporter told of watching kids get off the bus, in the middle of a suburban neighborhood, but instead of walking up a driveway to their four-bedroom house, they trotted to an extended-stay motel where their parents live.
In a post at a popular parenting blog with The New York Times, a woman describes the American Dream-turned nightmare she and her family are living in the suburbs:
Our struggle remains hidden to those around us. We live in a beautiful tree-lined neighborhood. From the outside, our home does not appear any different from the others. We may not have the latest and the greatest, but none of that matters in the larger scheme of things […] My husband and I walk a tightrope in a constant balancing act trying to figure out if we should pay the phone bill or put gas in the car. Surely, we are not the only ones trying to stay afloat in the current economy, but I cannot tell who is walking a path similar to ours. Suburban poverty does not jump out and slap you in the face. It is the silent stigma we carry with us.
According to “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America” by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution, in the 2000s, more people lived in the suburbs than in cities. As of 2011 that number was 16.4 million. According to CNN Money, “76% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck” and nearly one quarter have zero savings.
It’s Not All Your Fault
There are three main reasons suburban paradise might feel more like purgatory.
1. You’re unemployed or just recovering from unemployment due to the economic downturn. Even factcheck.org says, “Despite improvements in recent months, the number of those who have been out of work for at least 27 weeks — the so-called long-term unemployed — is still more than 3 million, and 382,000 higher than when Obama took office. The average number of weeks that the unemployed have been without work also has continued to decline.” My dad owns a business that took a hit in 2008. Despite having little debt and a hefty savings cushion, he is still recovering from that period—some seven years later. (Factcheck.org also says, “Even for those who have jobs, wages have risen so slowly they have barely kept up with historically low rates of inflation.”)
2. You’re upside-down on your home. If you purchased a home before the 2008 real estate crash but now desperately need to sell, chances are you’ll lose money. Lots of folks for reasons beyond their control had to keep their home, move elsewhere, and pay either two mortgages or at least one mortgage and rent. Ouch.
3. You’re taxed like a fiend. According to the Heritage Foundation, current tax rates hover around 18 percent. “The top 10 percent of income earners paid 68% of all federal income taxes in 2011 while earning 45 percent of all income. The bottom 50 percent paid 3 percent of income taxes but earned 12 percent of income.”
It’s Not All Your Government’s Fault, Either
Money is a lot like health. Most people underestimate the calories they consume and overestimate how much they’ve exercised. Likewise, a lot of people look around, see their friends driving nice cars, living in large homes, and taking exotic vacations, and think, “Hey, if Jim can afford it, so can I!” Truth be told, Jim probably can’t afford much of his lifestyle, and neither can you. If you’re living in the ‘burbs, employed and going out to a nice dinner after payday, then eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches by the 14th, try these three things to avoid becoming a suburban statistic.
- Write down what you spend for a month, or look at last month’s history using your online bank account (especially if you use your debit card a lot). Break these things into categories and see where you’re over-spending.
- Reprioritize your spending. Pay fixed bills like your mortgage, electric, and water bills first. Then analyze your grocery, cable, and cell phone bills, and the “dining out” category. I know you’re all, “She’s going to make me cut my Starbucks habit and go camping for vacation instead of to Bermuda.” You bet your sweet bippy. A $5 latte is the biggest scam next to “Vote Obama for Hope and Change.” Brew your Joe at home or splurge occasionally and save anywhere from $240 to $1,200 per year. Just. On. Coffee.
- Start putting your “Goodbye Starbucks” money towards a small savings account for emergencies, then use it to pay down your debt. If you were so far in the red that you’re still squeaking by, it’s time to cut more expenses, downsize, or earn additional income.
Oh, and you can vote some politicians into office who might actually decrease the size of the federal government and therefore your tax burden, but that’s another piece.