Of the takeaways exposed during the recent partial government shutdown, the most alarming is the precarious financial condition of a huge segment of our professional population.
When Elaine Streno, Executive Director of Second Harvest of East Tennessee, told me about calls her organization received from federal employees who had missed their first paycheck, I was initially dismissive. Someone misses one paycheck and the first thing he does is call a food bank? I can think of a number of phone calls to make after missing the first of an unknown number of paychecks, but the food bank would not have made my top ten.
Then I spoke with the wife of an FBI agent. She was helping organize a popup food pantry at her church for unpaid federal workers. She would be both a volunteer and a recipient of the collected groceries. A young PhD friend at the Environment Protection Agency sold plasma in order to pay bills. At least two furloughed employees went to work at Déjà vu Showgirls in Nashville.
It’s an obvious indicator of an unhealthy lack of savings if two missed paychecks compel someone to work as a stripper. Americans are under-saved and over-borrowed.
The median Millennial household has saved $2,340, including amounts held in 401(k) plans. Those born before 1965 have a median savings of $24,280, again inclusive of all retirement accounts. Those figures are bad, but they are even worse for a large segment of society. Only 52 percent of Americans have any type of retirement account. The percentage of retirees with an outstanding mortgage is at an all-time high. The median savings among households earning less than $40,000 annually is zero, explaining why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez couldn’t afford a DC apartment until she began receiving her Congressional salary.
The root causes of this situation are numerous and complex. It is not as simple as blaming evil capitalists and politicians for decades of stagnant wages. The qualitative definition of middle class has significantly improved. The average American household has three television sets, up from about one TV in 1980. The number of mobile devices in America exceeds our population. Americans currently own approximately two vehicles per household, twice the 1980 rate.
Another underlying cause has been the access to increasingly low-cost debt since 1982. For almost 40 years, interest rates have trended downward, encouraging borrowing and refinancing among consumers, businesses and the government.
The long-term consequences of stretched living standards won’t likely be experienced until retirees, near-retirees and over-borrowed government entities are faced with the duel challenges of declining income and higher interest rates. Or a couple of missed paychecks.
David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management. A version of this piece originally appeared in the USA TODAY NETWORK.