No quick fix for our debt addiction

By Chuck Bentley

Many hoped to come away from the first presidential debate [of 2012] with renewed optimism for a solution to the fragile condition of our nation’s fiscal health. Unfortunately, I came away less optimistic.

Just as divorcing couples are notorious for finger pointing, politicians running for office (or those in office for that matter) are no less contentious. But perhaps it’s time to step away from the rancorous debate over debt—arguing about who spent first or more—and consider that our national addiction has now spread to even the most humble households.

no quick fix for our debt addiction

Bill Gross of PIMCO may have put it best when he said that we’re a nation run by fiscal drunks. That should now be obvious to all. Less obvious, and possibly more troubling, is that this unbridled binge spending is now practiced by the least among us. The poor are getting poorer when measured by their debt.

A national crisis in spending beyond our means reaches from the White House to the home front. Recently, the Labor Department noted that the bottom fifth of Americans spent more than double their incomes (through things like credit cards, drawing from savings, and payday loans). In a healthy budget, debt payments should not be more than 5 percent of monthly spending. But the Economic Policy Institute reports that in 2010, about one-fourth of the poorest fifth of households were spending more than 40 percent of their income servicing debt.

The middle class isn’t doing much better, according to the American Payroll Association, which reports that people making less than $40,000 a year also spent more than they made, as did their elected leaders.

The infamous national debt only adds to this personal financial stress. Uncle Sam has saddled every American man, woman, and child with more than $51,000 in federal debt. That debt load is more than the average mean wage for Americans, reported as $45,230 in 2011 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This is a dire picture for all of us. No cost of living increase and certainly no partisan quick fix can address this crisis.

“Since the economic recovery started in June 2009, household incomes are down 5.7 percent, the Sentier (Research) data show, and they are down more than 8 percent since Obama took office,” noted Investor’s Business Daily this month.

On the rise is poverty and unemployment:

“Earlier this month, the Census Bureau released its annual report showing that the number of people in poverty was nearly 3 million higher in 2011 than in 2009, an increase of 6 percent,” reported John Merline in Investor’s Business Daily. One result of such a shift is that 15 percent of Americans—a record high—are on food stamps.

The economy is flat-lining with little more than 1 percent growth with unemployment at more than 8 percent for more than 43 months. But for certain key groups the realities are much harsher.

“About 1.5 million, or 53.6 percent, of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 last year were jobless or underemployed, the highest share in at least 11 years,” reported The Associated Press. Too many graduates are moving back home to room with parents, finding that their dreams of a career can’t be realized … but that their student loan payments are still due.

Their cohorts returning home from military service aren’t doing any better. The Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2011 reported that the unemployment rate among veterans was 12.1 percent — a poor welcome for those who put their lives on the line for the nation.

The economy has not been creating enough jobs to address the demand from incoming workers. Nor will it anytime soon. A Business Roundtable survey released in the past week indicates that about 34 percent of U.S. CEOs plan to cut jobs in the U.S. over the next six months, up from 20 percent a quarter ago because of concerns over rising tax costs, in particular the fiscal cliff looming ahead in 2013.

To deal with its own money crunch problem, the federal government is set to impose a tax that will impact nearly 90 percent of Americans, according to the Tax Policy Center.

In a recent analysis, they reported: “The fiscal cliff threatens an unprecedented tax increase at year end. Taxes would rise by more than $500 billion in 2013 — an average of almost $3,500 per household — as almost every tax cut enacted since 2001 would expire. Middle-income households would see an average increase of almost $2,000.” While politicians in Washington are struggling to address this coming crisis, it’s difficult to have much faith in their abilities to compromise before the financial ax falls.

For many Americans, struggling with reduced salaries and opportunity, increasing debt and higher costs for food and fuel, coming up with $2,000 more in taxes will be a real hardship. Conducting business as usual is a serious error in the face of the economic challenges we face.

Only those unfamiliar with the scope of these problems thinks we can continue our present economic course. For three years, the federal government has operated without a budget — that’s bad for America and just as catastrophic for families, who are following in Uncle Sam’s foolish footsteps.

Any good credit counselor will tell you to evaluate your income and spending, be sure they balance and live within your budget. Is it any wonder why we’ve lost our way?

On the whole, it’s a grim picture facing America. We need a change at the grass-roots level where, frankly, I have more hope for self-discipline than from our political leaders. Both sides of the political aisle have thus far shown themselves impotent to take substantial corrective measures.

Regardless of which candidate is elected president, after this election, it will be time for real bipartisan efforts to set a new course for America, because this current economy is a house of cards stacked far too high. But don’t hold your breath. Rather, be sure you’re facing your own financial challenges with sober judgment and taking appropriate measures without finger pointing or blaming someone else.

Originally posted 10/11/2012.