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End of fantasy ride ahead

Middle Class Sharecropping
Why Most Families Aren’t Getting By

“Test Track” is one of Epcot’s more popular rides, simulating in about two minutes the extremes that GM puts its vehicles through before they’re ready for market. The ride ends with a violent 15-second loop at 60 miles per hour around a track. But we can’t leave before walking through a show room featuring GM’s latest models. Strange sight: In a place where you’d expect to see the cars of tomorrow — the hybrids, the flex-fuelers, the reformed guzzlers teetotaling toward energy sobriety — every single one of the six or seven vehicles I saw had in-city gas-efficiency of between 12 and 18 miles per gallon, and only marginally better highway mileage. Stickers estimated every single car would cost at least $3,000 a year in gas alone, based on the average 15,000 miles a year we drive, and on $2.80-per-gallon gas (I paid 40 cents per gallon more at a station on LPGA Blvd. last Thursday).

That GM is a lumbering company losing market share to a future it has yet to imagine isn’t news. What struck me was that sticker price on a year’s worth of gas. It doesn’t hit you that way when you’re filling up at your usual station, even when the bill adds up to $40 for a lousy 12 gallons or so. But if a two-car, two-job family drives anywhere near the average mileage for a year, the total adds up to at least $6,000 — the equivalent of a family’s health insurance premiums for a year. That’s $12,000 right there, a quarter of the median household income of $48,200.

Numbers like that begin to explain the disconnect between the two economies we’re living through. Here’s what the White House says in its latest economic “fact sheet”: “October 2007 marks record 50th consecutive month of job growth… 8.31 million jobs created since August 2003 in longest continuous months of job growth on record… The economy has now experienced six years of uninterrupted growth, averaging 2.8 percent a year since 2001… after-tax per capita personal income has risen by 12.7 percent — an average of over $3,800 per person — since President Bush took office.” And so on.

We should be dancing in the streets. Then why, on average for all seven years of Bush’s presidency, have just 12 percent of Americans rated the economy as getting better (compared with a 52 percent average during Clinton’s last five years)? Why have those saying that their financial situation worsened averaged 38 percent, (compared with 26 percent saying so during the Clinton years)? The numbers Bush’s White House Fact Sheet don’t show answer the questions.

Wish Upon a Budget

Annual budget for a family of four, with a median household income of $59,894. The budget assumes two incomes and home ownership. Figures are in 2007 dollars.

  • Food: $682 a month, or $8,187 a year.
  • Mortgage, property taxes and insurance, household maintenance, utilities and furnishings: $1,460 a month, or $17,520 a year — an extremely conservative estimate, considering that some mortgages alone these days, based on the mean price of a house, would exceed that figure.
  • Clothing: $2,742 a year.
  • Gas for two cars: $6,000.
  • Car payments, insurance, maintenance: $6,445.
  • Health insurance premiums, based on the current average for a family: $6,050.
  • Out-of-pocket health and dental care: $2,827.
  • Education: $1,562.
  • Personal and payroll taxes: $9,085.
  • Total: $60,418
  • Deficit: $524

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Kaiser Family Foundation, GM.

Take that household income figure again, but instead of the overall mean, take as a base the median family income in the United States: $59,894, which assumes the middle class comforts of two jobs, two incomes, two cars. Then start subtracting the average cost for traditional budget items, as listed by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and adjusted for 2007 dollars, even though the numbers lowball reality. (See the sidebox for a detailed breakdown of the budget.)

The total? $60,418. We’re already in a $524 deficit, and that’s assuming the household indulges in no alcohol, no entertainment, no vacations, no cable television, no subscriptions, experiences no medical emergencies, saves not a dime and — most unrealistic of all — has no credit card debts to finance. Add some or all those costs into the equation, and the deficit grows into the thousands. Which explains the nation’s revolving debt load (not including mortgages and car payments), now approaching $1 trillion, or an average of more than $8,100 per household. It also explains the sort of choices families must make daily to make ends meet. Go without insurance? Skip on a better college education? Let the house fall into disrepair? Take on a third job? A fourth credit card? Every question implies that there is no longer a valid connection between the economy’s rosy numbers and the real life of the average American family, whose nominal wealth is mortgaged to subsistence living with no room for crises. The middle class paycheck, in sum, is spoken for before it enters the house.

Despite the economic unease, the National Retail Federation’s latest survey has the average shopper promising to spend $923 this holiday season, up 24 percent from 2003. It’s admittedly ironic to think of this economic disconnect while ambling about at Disney, where a single day can easily cost a family of four $600. Judging from Disney’s latest figures ($1.71 billion in profits at its theme parks alone), the place isn’t lacking for visitors. But Disney is as symbolic a place as any for what carelessly fuels and ails American consuming: It’s where debts come true. Sooner or later, the fantasy ride ends.

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