Still, a recently released Gallup poll revealed that not only do a solid majority (59 percent) of Americans believe their own personal economic situation is improving, but an even greater number (74 percent) think they will be in an even better position a year from now.
They aren’t convinced yet that the economy is broken. Still, something is clearly not right with American life.
A few weeks ago I wrote about “Why We Can’t Sleep,” Ada Calhoun’s new book about the increased pressures and anxieties plaguing middle-aged women. She attributes them to the intensifying demands placed on women both personally and professionally, even as societal and government support recede.
I thought about the book again while looking at the unemployment numbers Friday morning, and reached out to Erica Groshen, an economist with Cornell University and the former head of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Her contention? It’s not simply about the number of jobs — it’s about a falloff in job quality and what benefits those positions provide. “One of the ways companies have strengthened their balance sheets has been by delegating more risk to workers,” she told me. “You bear much more risk in terms of your health-care costs, your pension and your hours.”
“Feeling insecure is a rational response.”
Think of it this way: Jobs are more plentiful and average hourly wages are rising slowly, but the conditions we work under are not all that great. Laws and regulations make it difficult for workers to join together and unionize. Shift workers literally don’t know what they will earn week to week, yet need to be available to work all hours on demand.
When it comes to health care, it’s not simply that costs and deductibles continue to rise, often past Americans’ ability to pay the bills. Earlier this week, Lauren Weber at Kaiser Health News reported on the increasing problem of insurance companies giving approvals for tests, procedures and medications only to retroactively yank them, leaving consumers on the hook for thousands of dollars in expenses, with little in the way of recourse.
There are increased demands on families, too. Rising medical costs are colliding with a growing population of seniors, and Medicare does not pay for many of the expenses associated with long-term care. The result? A survey released last year found that half of adults assisting their elderly parents cut back on their own personal spending as a result of the financial burden. An equal number said they earned less money on the job as a result of their responsibilities to elderly relatives.
You can think of any number of such economic issues, which we mostly see as our own individual burdens. But that’s not true: They are multigenerational, and the financial effects cascade through families. The age cohort with the fastest growth in student loan debt? It’s not millennials (though they do owe higher amounts overall); it’s people over the age of 60. They’re swamped not just by their own lingering college tuition expenses, but by the need to help their children and grandchildren pay for higher education.
These are not the things we contemplate when we talk about the economy. They are, all too frequently, viewed as personal-finance problems. American society tells us we are supposed to manage them on our own and suggests that we are failures if we cannot.
But this is absurd. A good economy is about more than having a job. It’s about being able to afford the health care we need and knowing how many hours we will work during a given week. If you think about it this way, you don’t need to convince people that the economy still doesn’t work. They are, all too often, living it.