Saturday, 31 October 2015

Debt And Social Welfare Failures Are Fuelling Wealth Inequality In America: The American Inequality Series #2



The phenomenon of easy access to credit and the debt has been a key factor in the stability of the USA’s modern economy. Borrowing plays a huge role- consider the housing market, whose dependence on the lending industry has drastically increased in the past 50 years; between 1949 and the turn of the millennium, the mortgage debt to household income ratio rose from just 20% to 73%. 

There are many reasons for this phenomenon of ‘credit addiction’- the principle of these being increasingly easy access to credit, changing consumer decisions and the squeezing of incomes. Let’s analyse these and see which contributes most, if at all, to American wealth inequality.

Credit addiction has without doubt been encouraged by the financial sector in America. The subprime market’s recent catastrophic explosion exemplified how open credit has become in the US. The subprime market emerged from a restricted financial industry- previously, banks had to take great care in selecting who they could lend to, to minimise the likelihood of future unpaid debts. This process was rigorous- any previously outstanding debts, or missed payments would almost rule you out of contention for a mortgage.

The subprime market sought to open a whole new world of profitability- opening the door to credit to these individuals who were previously deemed unsuitable to receive a mortgage. The industry boomed- at its peak in 2005 the subprime industry had granted $625bn of loans, contributing to over a trillion dollars in loans made by subprime lenders between 1994 and 2007.

Their open availability made subprime mortgages incredibly attractive- a complex arrangement between financial institution and bond traders meant banks were in little danger if mortgages were to go unpaid. They could benefit from cheap loans, avoiding the traditional risks associated with defaulting customers.

Unsurprisingly, the result was devastating- the recent subprime crisis had severe implications on homelessness for example. According to the National Coalition for the Homelessness (NCH), there were 342,038 foreclosures of US properties in April 2009 alone- a third higher than the already high foreclosure figure of April 2008.

The authorities have also played a role in this disaster- attempting to kickstart the economy following the dot-com crash of 2000, the Federal Reserve cut long term interest rates from 6.5% to just 1%- former Chairman of the Fed Alan Greenspan admitted that this move “fundamentally engendered” the development of the doomed housing bubble whose explosion caused this economic trouble.
One could argue Western society has developed a culture of debt-accumulation. Availability of finance on any consumer product, from a blender to a Mercedes, has encouraged people to be less financially responsible. You no longer need to take a single heavy hit on your bank account to purchase a car- finance allows the (greater) cost to be spread over a few years. As a result, prices in the short term are lower and thus customers are more likely to be seduced to purchase a car that is beyond their financial boundaries.

Additional interest payments make the situation worse- Jeremy Vohwinkle of GenerationX Finance describes new car purchasing as borrowing money at a high rate of interest to invest it in a stock guaranteed to lose value rapidly. Yet March 2014 saw the average amount borrowed by American car buyers surpass $27,000 for the first time ever. 

The wealthy are not so reliant on financing- cash purchases ultimately cost less and often cars do not represent a significant enough hit on a millionaire’s finances that he has to take a loan for it. 

The ever-present temptation of taking loans, trading short term gain for a greater long term loss, to cover purchases such as cars and more significantly homes, has driven down the economic prosperity of much of the poor and middle class.

Debt has also been piled on by the US’ social welfare system (or lack of one). Take the medical system- a NerdWallet survey found that Healthcare bills were the primary cause of personal bankruptcy. Healthcare is special in this regard because unlike a house or a car, we usually have no choice as to whether we need it or not. After a car accident, one cannot choose not to go to hospital- they are taken by emergency services, and often they wake up to the bill- which they must pay, as they’ve already been treated.

This unlucky 20 year old got charged $55k for an appendectomy.
Even after insurance contributions, he had $11k left to pay.
One could argue that health insurance solves this problem- but even ignoring its ever-rising price (family health insurance topped $16k for the first time ever last year) over 10 million fully insured Americans aged 19-64 are expected to face bills they will be unable to pay in the near future. Plus, as the picture on the right shows, even health insurance can leave a substantial bill for the individual to pay. This idea of healthcare being financially unattainable is something that, while far from being exclusive to the USA, is pretty much unheard of in similarly developed countries like the UK and much of Europe.

These problems are mostly faced by the poorer of society. Like an overly expensive house or car, it adds to personal debt. However, usually being an involuntary expenditure, it can be even more damaging.
Mohammad Lone Editor