Sunday, April 13, 2008

Where We're Going To

A friend who lives near Astoria, Oregon sent an email yesterday asking how spontaneous I felt. "If you get in your car by 1," she said, "you'll be here around 4:30 and can BBQ with me and my neighbors in this great garden. There's a creek just behind the garden and we can walk to the beach." I felt spontaneous. I girled up the twins with dresses and clean hair and we drove. The beach near her house was spectacular. You could see Haystack a few miles down the coast, jutting up out of the water like some sort of a forbidden island.

As we drove through the neighborhood, she pointed out some of the large, beautiful, and seasonally occupied homes owned by the wealthy while she described the hard scrabble existence of many locals. It was an apt metaphor for an economy where the top 5% bask in excess while most of us work harder and with less result just to stay even.

A recent state-by-state report by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities on the acceleration of income inequality confirms what anyone can see.
Low- and middle-income families have reaped few gains since the late 1990s, despite the recent years of economic prosperity. Average incomes actually fell by 2.5% for those in the bottom fifth of the income scale and rose by just 1.3% for those in the middle fifth. Meanwhile, incomes climbed 9% for those in the top fifth.

“Before the recent downturn hit, our economy was generating solid income gains. The problem was that high levels of inequality meant these gains failed to reach middle- and low-income families, whose living standards stagnated or even declined,” said Jared Bernstein, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and co-author of the report. “As we head into an economic downturn, these families are ill-prepared to weather the storm.” ...

Within the top fifth, the lion’s share of the income growth of the past two decades went to those at the very top. In the 11 states large enough to permit this calculation, the incomes of the top 5 percent of families rose by more than $90,000 on average. This is greater than the income growth of the top fifth of families as a whole in these states — and dwarfs the income growth among the bottom fifth of families in these states. The average income of the richest 5 percent of families is now more than 12 times that of the poorest families.
Since the 90's in Washington State, average income for the bottom quintile fell by 4.2%, while the top quintile's income grew by 11.8%. Income growth for the middle is stagnant.

Measured over the last two decades the gap is even more striking. While incomes rose for the bottom fifth by 5.5%, they rose for the top fifth by an incredible 41.3%. These numbers are adjusted for inflation and do not include capital gains income. The real picture, then, is even more extreme, especially when you look at incomes for the upper range of the top 5%, which are growing faster than anyone's.

These are just statistics. Where you see the real damage is in places like Astoria, where prime real estate gets snatched up as an investment/amenity for the rich while locals struggle with the resulting inflation. Or Seattle, where a downtown condo boom has sparked a war on the visible poor in this once liberal city.

My friend was right about the drive. It took about three and a half hours to get there. Going home, I wasn't so lucky. I took a wrong turn in Astoria and wound up driving to Seattle by way of Portland. At around 2:30 a.m., a major accident on I-5 near Tacoma brought all five lanes to a standstill for more than half an hour. Rich and poor alike sat in their cars, watching a sea of flashing lights as one ambulance after another crept by in the breakdown lane.

As a State Trooper finally waved us through the single lane that eventually opened, I pondered the accident as overly-stretched metaphor for the middle-class. Here we are, bystanders on a road that seems to have no exit. Unspeakable horror looms. The girls slept in the backseat, unaware of what was ahead. And meanwhile, there we all sat, resigned and stuck in place, not going anywhere ourselves.

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