Why the middle class isn’t making it.

This article shows why a middle class income can no longer sustain a middle class standard of living. It originally appeared on the Zero Hedge web log, and was forwarded to me by my friend Daniel Brandt.

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IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO ‘GET BY’ IN THE UNITED STATES

Submitted by Graham Summers of Phoenix Capital Research

While the market cheers on the fantastic job “growth” of March
2010, the more astute of us are concerned with a growing tide of
personal bankruptcies. March 2010 saw 158,000 bankruptcy filings.
David Rosenberg of Gluskin-Sheff notes that this is an astounding
6,900 filings per day.

This latest filing is up 19% from March 2009’s number which
occurred at the absolute nadir of the economic decline, when
everyone thought the world was ending. It’s also up 35% from last
month’s (February 2010) number.

Given the significance of this, I thought today we’d spend some
time delving into numbers for the “median” American’s experience in
the US today. Regrettably, much of the data is not up to date so
we’ve got to go by 2008 numbers.

In 2008, the median US household income was $50,300. Assuming that
the person filing is the “head of household” and has two children
(dependents), this means a 1040 tax bill of $4,100, which leaves
about $45K in income after taxes (we’re not bothering with state
taxes). I realize this is a simplistic calculation, but it’s a
decent proxy for income in the US in 2008.

Now, $45K in income spread out over 26 pay periods (every two
weeks), means a bi-weekly paycheck of $1,730 and monthly income of
$3,460. This is the money “Joe America” and his family to live off
of in 2008.

Now, in 2008, the median home value was roughly $225K. Assuming our
“median” household put down 20% on their home (unlikely, but it
used to be considered the norm), this means a $180K mortgage. Using
a 5.5% fixed rate 30-year mortgage, this means Joe America’s 2008
monthly mortgage payments were roughly $1,022.

So, right off the bat, Joe’s monthly income is cut to $2,438.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, the average 2008
monthly food bill for a family of four ranged from $512-$986
depending on how “liberal” you are with your purchases. For
simplicity’s sake we’ll take the mid-point of this range ($750) as
a monthly food bill.

This brings Joe’s monthly income to $1,688.

Now, Joe needs light, energy, heat, and air conditioning to run his
home. According to the Energy Information Administration, the
average US household used about 920 kilowatt-hours per month in
2008. At a national average price of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour
this comes to a monthly electrical bill of $101.20.

Joe’s now down to $1,587.
Now Joe needs to drive to work to make a living. Similarly, he
needs to be able to drive to the grocery store, doctor, etc.
According to AAA, the average cost per mile of driving a minivan
(Joe’s a family man) in 2008 was 57 cents per mile. This cost is
based on average fuel consumption, tires, maintenance, insurance,
license and registration, and average loan finance charges.

Multiply this cost by 15,000 miles per year and you’ve got an
annual driving bill of $8,550. Divide this into months (by 12) and
you’ve got a monthly driving bill of $712.

Joe’s now down to $877 (I’m also assuming Joe’s family only has ONE
car). Indeed, if Joe’s family has two cars (one minivan and one
sedan) he’s already run out of money for the month.

Now, assuming Joe’s family is one of the lucky ones (depending on
your perspective) they’ve got medical insurance. Trying to find an
average monthly medical insurance premium for a family in the US is
extremely difficult because insurance plans have a wide range in
deductibles, premiums, and co-pays. But according to eHealth
Insurance, the average monthly premium for family policies in
February 2008 was $369.

So if Joe has medical insurance on his family, he’s now down to
$508. Throw in cell phone bills, cable TV and Internet bills, and
the like, and he’s maybe got $100-200 discretionary income left at
the end of the month.

This analysis covers all of the basic necessities of the average
American household: mortgage payments, food, energy, gas, driving
expenses, and medical insurance. It also assumes that Joe:

1) Didn’t overpay for his house

2) Made a 20% down-payment of $45K on his home purchase

3) Has no debt aside from his mortgage (so no credit card debt,
student loans, etc)

4) Only has one car in the family and drives 15,000 miles per year

5) Keeps his energy bill reasonable

6) Does not eat out at restaurants ever/ keeps food expenses
moderate

7) Has no pets

8 ) Pays for health insurance but has no monthly medical expenses
(unlikely with two kids)

9) Keeps his personal budget under control regarding cable TV, Internet,
and the like

10) Doesn’t spoil his kids with toys, gadgets, trips to the movies, etc.

11) Doesn’t take vacations.

Suffice to say, I am assuming Joe maintains EXTREMELY conservative
spending habits. Personally, I know NO ONE who meets all of the
above criteria. However, even if the above assumptions applied to
the average American, you’re still only looking at $100-200 in
“wiggle” room for spending per month!

If Joe:

1) Overpaid on his house

2) Didn’t have a full 20% down payment

3) Owns two cars

4) Eats at restaurants

5) Splurges on heating & A/C bills

6) Has any medical expenses aside from monthly premiums

— he is running into the red EVERY month.

I also wish to note that my analysis didn’t include real estate
taxes and numerous other expenses that most folks have to pay. So
even if you are extremely frugal and careful with your money, it is
impossible to “get by” in the US without using credit cards, home
equity lines of credit or burning through savings. The cost of
living is simply TOO high relative to incomes.

This is why there simply cannot be a sustainable recovery in the US
economy. Because we outsourced our jobs, incomes fell. Because
incomes fell and savers were punished (thanks to abysmal returns on
savings rates) we pulled future demand forward by splurging on
credit. Because we splurged on credit, prices in every asset under
the sun rose in value. Because prices rose while incomes fell, we
had to use more credit to cover our costs, which in turn meant
taking on more debt (a net drag on incomes).

And on and on.

Does this mean the market is about to tank? Not necessarily, stocks
have been disconnected from reality since November if not July.
Bubbles (and we ARE in a bubble) take time to pop and this time
around will be no different.

Best Regards,

Graham Summers

END

Click on this for the original version of the article on the Zero Hedge web log.

Click on this for the Zero Hedge home page.

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One Response to “Why the middle class isn’t making it.”

  1. Anne Tanner Says:

    Unless I missed it, the analysis didn’t include clothing. Families with children have to buy clothing–not to keep up with their children’s peers but just to keep up with their growth. Thank heaven it’s so fashionable now to buy clothes in deep discount places!

    Like

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