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Personal Finance: Please, Mr. President, I want some more

Michelle Singletary
Thursday, September 23, 2010; 11:40 AM

During a recent town hall forum, President Obama fielded questions about when people could expect more - more jobs, more money from their investment returns AND more assurance that the American Dream isn't unreachable these days.

A 30-year-old audience member bemoaned the fact that despite holding a law degree, he can't find a job. He used loans to go to law school with the intention of going into public service, he said.

"I can't make the interest payments on those loans today, let alone think about getting a mortgage, having a family, having even a marriage," the man said during the forum broadcasted by CNBC. "I really want to know, is the American Dream dead for me?"

"Absolutely not," Obama promised. Obama then went on to give a rather long and rambling explanation of how we have the best universities and yadda, yadda, yadda. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who tuned him out at this point.

"For all the problems that we've got, as tough as things are right now, we are still the country that billions of people around the world look to and aspire to," Obama said.

Okie dokie. Not his best answer, but what else could he have said to the guy? "No problem, my man, I'll erase your student loans, give you a government job, and hook you up with a wife."

During the program there was at least one moment in which I wanted to throw something at my television. That came when Anthony Scaramucci, managing partner of hedge fund SkyBridge Capital, asked the President of the United States to stop "whacking" Wall Street folks.

"Listen, I represent the Wall Street community," Scaramucci said. "We have felt like a piƱata. Maybe you don't feel like you're whacking us with a stick, but we certainly feel like we've been whacked with a stick."

Of course, not all those who work on Wall Street are worthy of our wrath, but come on! Scaramucci's comments were ridiculous. Wall Street executives played a huge part in pushing us into the economic mess Obama is trying to clean up.

"There's a big chunk of the country that thinks that I have been too soft on Wall Street," Obama shot back.

Really, that's all you got, Mr. President? This was the time to really give Scaramucci and his rich buddies a presidential smackdown. But that's what I think. What about you? Here's this week's Color of Money Question: What do think of President Obama's defense of his efforts to fix the economy?

Watch the video of the forum or read the transcript. Then send your response to colorofmoney@washpost.com and put "Town Hall Thoughts" in the subject line.

Sobering Statistics

Recent data released by the Census Bureau found one in seven Americans, about 44 million people, lived in poverty in 2009, the highest level in half a century.

More working-age adults lived in poverty, while the number of poor people 65 or older fell, largely as a result of increases in Social Security payments. Also, more than 51 million Americans lack health insurance, and a greater-than-ever percentage of those who do have insurance are getting it from the government, reported Post writer Carol Morello.

The Post's Michael A. Fletcher reports that the data has sparked finger-pointing from Republicans and Democrats. Meanwhile, Vickie Koth, executive director of Good Shepherd Alliance, a food pantry in Virginia, hopes people will learn from the current economic slump.

"A lot of the community is really seeing this issue for the first time," she said," Koth told Morello. "Once this turns around, I hope that people will remember what we went through so that our communities will be more open to serving those around us who are in need."

I hope so, too.

Wealth-Building Bind

As the value of people's 401(k)s dwindle, many families remain on edge about their ability to save what they need for retirement.

In Families struggle to build nest egg in wake of recession, Post writer Ylan Q. Mui reports how many people have less confidence in their investments as future financial gains are being affected by today's economy.

"People have been hit with a double whammy," said Jack Reutemann Jr., who runs the personal finance advisory firm Research Financial Strategies in Rockville, Md. "Sometimes I feel we're running a financial emergency room."

A recent Gallup survey found that the percentage of working adults who think their 401(k) portfolio will be a major source of retirement income dropped from 52 percent in 2007 to 45 percent this spring.

Debt Defeater

I hope you tuned into my live video chat last week where I congratulated Donna Colon of Glen Allen, Va. for getting rid of $191,000, including her mortgage, in nine years.

If you have paid off some debt and want to be recognized, send your story to colorofmoney@washpost.com.

Put 'Debt Defeater' on the subject line. Be sure to include:

-- Your name

-- City and state

-- How much debt you've erased (the total amount)

-- How long it took you to get rid of the debt

-- How you got rid of the debt

-- Finally, tell me how it feels to be rid of that debt burden.

Responses to Color of Money Questions

Last week, I wanted to get responses to two Color of Money Questions for the week.

The first question was prompted by a New York Times article, "How Debt Can Destroy a Budding Relationship." I wanted to know what you thought of someone bringing a huge amount debt to a relationship.

Here are some responses:

"I had $40,000 left on my student loan when my husband and I decided to tie the knot," wrote Teresa Woods of Iowa. "We sold his house, paid off the debt, and then used the residual as a down payment on our new house. $40,000 is not $170,000, but if you're attaching a price tag on love, then it must not be love."

"I figure everyone comes with baggage," says Kimberly Melgoza of Houston, Tex. "For some it just may be financial. My husband had an enormous amount of debt when we got married but I never held it against him. He didn't have any kids, baby mama drama, ex-wives or crazy family issues. I picked my battle and chose to deal with financial debt over drama."

One reader, who asked not to be identified, is struggling with a spouse how does hold her responsible - and only her - for debts she brought into the marriage.

"I've been married a little over one year and my husband refuses to put my name on anything until my debts are clear," the woman wrote. "He knew of my tax debt before we got married. However, he talks of his plans to retire in less than two years. I thought that getting married, we would pool our debts and pay them off together even if it meant my debts were more I would pay more on the loan but he does not even want to do that. Perhaps this was a marriage that should not have been. So much for, 'for better or for worse, for richer or poorer.'"

The poor dear (pun intended).

In the second Color of Money Question, I wanted to know your thoughts on proposed legislation sponsored by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) that would require federal workers with tax debts to be fired if they haven't made repayment arrangements.

Here's what some of you thought:

"Getting rid of workers is rather harsh," said Jackie Bland of Reston, Va. "At least garnishing a federal employee's wages to force them to pay up is reasonable. There are plenty of folks who would love to have their job who are law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. For that matter, it probably should be imposed on any 'government employee' whether it be federal, state or local."

"Yes, workers who work for government should be required to show fiscal responsibility as a requirement for continued employment and that would include being current on their taxes," says Carole Gleeson of Marana, Ariz. "If they are not, they need to work elsewhere."

Lorraine Li of Farmington, Conn. doesn't think employees should be let go.

"If you are talking about holding every employee to higher standards, everyone in the financial sector should be held to that standard as well," she wrote.

Upcoming Events

- Today, 7:30 p.m.: I'm appearing at the 2010 Fall for the Book Festival in the Johnson Center lower level (in Dewberry Hall South) on the Fairfax campus of George Mason University.

--Saturday, October 2, 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.: Come see me at the Boulevard at Capital Centre, located at 900 Capital Centre Blvd., Largo, Md., 20774. For more information, go to www.capitalbookfest.org.

--Thursday, November 4: I will be facilitating the Money Madness session at the Essence Women's Conference located in New York City at the Marriott Marquis. For registration and ticket information, go to www.essence.com/ewc.

Tia Lewis contributed to this e-letter.

You are welcome to e-mail comments and questions to singletarym@washpost.com. Please include your name and hometown; your comments may be used in a future column or newsletter unless otherwise requested.

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