Reminder: only about one-third of American adults have a college degree

Coverage of a recent study about life expectancy and education provided this reminder about education levels in the United States:

Photo by Ekrulila on Pexels.com

About one-third of Americans have a four-year college degree, and they are living longer and more prosperous lives while the rest face rising death rates and declining prospects, said researcher Angus Deaton, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Center for Health Policy and Economics.

According to QuickFacts from the Census with July 1, 2019 estimates, 32.1% of American adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

For a good segment of Americans, college is the expected path that follows after high school and also leads to future opportunities, particularly regarding jobs. But, many American adults did not or do not follow that path and this has all kinds of consequences. At the least, it can provide a reminder to current college students and instructors that college is an opportunity and/or blessing, not just something to be endured for later outcomes. More broadly, that degree can separate workers in the job market, lead to subsequent educational opportunities, and, as this study suggests, interact with health.

In a land of driving, both a bifurcated housing market and car buying market

Americans like to drive and have structured much of daily life around driving. This means many people need a reliable car to get to a decent job, which then enables them to buy a decent home in a place they want to live. But, what if both the house and car buying markets do not provide a lot of good options at lower prices? From the auto industry:

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Yet that increase was nothing next to what happened in the used market. The average price of a used vehicle surged nearly 14% — roughly 10 times the rate of inflation — to over $23,000. It was among the fastest such increases in decades, said Ivan Drury, a senior manager of insights for Edmunds.com.

The main reason for the exploding prices is a simple one of economics: Too few vehicles available for sale during the pandemic and too many buyers. The price hikes come at a terrible time for buyers, many of whom are struggling financially or looking for vehicles to avoid public transit or ride hailing because the virus. And dealers and analysts say the elevated prices could endure or rise even further for months or years, with new vehicle inventories tight and fewer trade-ins coming onto dealers’ lots…

Charlie Chesbrough, senior economist for Cox Automotive, predicted a tight used-vehicle market with high prices for several more years…

In recent years, automakers had set the stage for higher prices by scrubbing many lower-priced new vehicles that had only thin profit margins. Starting five years ago, Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler (now Stellantis) stopped selling many sedans and hatchbacks in the United States. Likewise, Honda and Toyota have canceled U.S. sales of lower-priced subcompacts. Their SUV replacements have higher sticker prices.

On the housing side, builders and developers have devoted less attention to starter homes. It can be difficult for some workers to find housing near where they work. The ideal of the suburban single-family home is not attainable for all.

On the driving side, cars are not cheap to operate and maintain. Moving to the suburbs and many American communities requires a commitment to driving to work. A reliable car at a reasonable price could go a long ways to keeping transportation costs down and freeing up household money for other items.

These issues require longer-term planning and attention: how can people with fewer resources still obtain decent housing and decent transportation options? COVID-19 may have exacerbated these issues but the article about the auto industry suggests these trends were already underway; car prices were on the upswing. Trying to tackle density issues or providing more mass transit are difficult to address in many communities and regions. A conversion to electric cars in the next decade or two sounds good but imposes new costs on drivers.

In the meantime, those with resources can likely pick up better options for both cars and homes. These choices can then have positive cascading effects on future spending and outcomes.

To get richer, get the right job and then “buy a home in a neighborhood with a lot of zoning restrictions”

David Brooks looks at which professions provide a higher likelihood of getting into the 1% and then how to get even richer once you are there:

Photo by Vincent Gerbouin on Pexels.com

Once you’ve made some money, there’s one more way to get richer. Buy a home in a neighborhood with a lot of zoning restrictions. For example, 84 percent of the land in Charlotte, N.C., and 94 percent of the land in San Jose, Calif., is zoned for detached single- family homes. These restrictions keep the supply of housing low and jack up the value of homes for people wealthy enough to already own one.

My main message is that if you want to get rich, don’t invent a new and useful product, start a company and try to sell it. That seems risky. Put the effort into entering a clubby line of work in which legislators and professional associations are working to make you rich. It’s easier!

While the majority of the argument is about particular professions, I think the connection between jobs and exclusive homes is this: in both cases, the structures are set up to enrich those that can participate. Just as regulations and structures may privilege particular careers, zoning in the United States is often meant to protect single-family homes. If a homeowner can purchase a residence with particular features and in a specific setting, the zoning helps ensure that the property will be worth more in the future. The homeowner is responsible for some upkeep and updating – and may even go so far as to pursue a teardown – but the protections for the property are almost enough in themselves to let the investment grow in worth just be sitting there.

Connected to this, the zoning for single-family homes restricts the number of residences in that immediate area. More density does not necessarily mean lower property values; numerous urban centers – such as Chicago and New York – are home to new tall buildings whose units are only available to the super-wealthy. At the same time, proximity to amenities and particular neighborhoods are desirable and fewer residences there can help drive up the value of existing properties.

To some degree, many Americans are hoping for this to work for them. Go to college and get a good degree from a good school to gain the right skills, qualifications, and access to social networks. This leads to a better job with higher pay. Then, purchase a home in a reputable community where prices will continue to rise. Wait a few decades and let the pay, home investment, and other benefits accrue. This may not lead to being rich but it reduces anxiety about later decades in life.

Of course, the system could be set up in other ways. Do Americans want homes to be investment vehicles? Should there be such differences in pay and compensation across fields or job positions? Is zoning about the good of the community as a whole or about particular land owners? Combating existing patterns is no easy task, particularly in times when any discussion of inequality can quickly get heated.

Monopoly, racism in Atlantic City, and ongoing effects

The board game Monopoly papered over racism and residential segregation in the city and its legacy in that city and in New Jersey is ongoing:

Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com

For white Americans, “Atlantic City, like all mass resorts, manufactured and sold an easily consumed and widely shared fantasy,” Bryant Simon, a history professor at Temple University and the author of Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America, told me. “Southernness is used to sell that fantasy in the North,” he explained, pointing to marketing that focused on the stereotypically white, southern luxury of hiring Black laborers to shuttle visitors around in rolling chairs, wait on their tables, or otherwise serve them. Jim Crow, Simon said, existed everywhere. Around the time that Monopoly was taking hold in Atlantic City, ballots there were marked “W” for white voters and “C” for “colored” voters, Simon said. It would take countless demonstrations and protests and a long struggle by the city’s Black residents to secure their civil rights, but the Monopoly board records a world of ubiquitous racism.

Although Black residents and tourists could work at hotels such as the Claridge, between Park Place and Indiana Avenue, they were not permitted to dine or lodge there. Some hotels even offered white guests the option of having only white workers wait on them. Black employment was largely limited to the tourist industry, as political and municipal jobs were reserved for white residents.

Atlantic City’s Boardwalk staged minstrel shows, but Black people were largely barred from attending any form of entertainment on the famed Steel Pier. Schools in the area were segregated, clerks at many hotels did not check in Black tourists, and what antidiscrimination laws were on the books were not enforced, Simon said. If Black residents were found to be on a beach that wasn’t designated for Black patrons only, “it wasn’t just like they were run off,” Simon said. “They would be arrested. The police enforced segregation in the city.”…

The impact of the decisions made during Monopoly’s heyday is still felt today. Atlantic City is a “redlined epicenter” of the state, according to the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and it leads the state in foreclosures. The rate of white homeownership in New Jersey stands at 77 percent, but Black homeownership is scarcely half of that, at 41 percent. A typical Black family in New Jersey has less than two cents for every dollar of wealth held by a typical white family.

Monopoly is meant to be fun. Until it is not quite the same when we know more about the city behind the game. The game ignores the racial and housing discrimination elements of real life while the winner is a good capitalist who rode real estate luck and development to the top. Few, if any, games deal with this dimension of social life even as the patterns are long-established.

Similarly, the effects of these past actions are long-reaching. The wealth gap in the United States as a whole between white and Black households is roughly 9-10 to 1 so this larger gap in New Jersey is even more troubling. The state also has a long legacy of limited affordable housing as well as racial tension, illustrated in the Mount Laurel case and ongoing clashes in suburbia (see examples here and here).

Creating the antidote to Monopoly may only be able to go so far to remedy the historical record and improve conditions in New Jersey. Yet, at least knowing that there is more behind the story of Atlantic City and those who were not intended to be included in the game can help us remember which narratives carry the day – and which others could.

The spatial impacts of Amazon

A review of a new book about Amazon highlights the geographic impact of the influential company:

Photo by Sergei Akulich on Pexels.com

In some of MacGillis’s stories, the connection to Amazon is so tenuous as to be almost indiscernible; the characters’ problems seem to arise more from larger forces, such as globalization, gentrification, and the opioid crisis, than from any one corporation’s influence. A young man from small-town Ohio—alienated by his experience in D.C., where he starts college—returns home and enters Democratic politics. After scoring a local success, he runs for Congress, determined that the party not write off his opioid-ravaged, Trump-supporting region, but he fails to drum up more than a couple of union endorsements. A gospel singer who became a cultural force in Seattle during the ’80s watches as her neighbors are pushed out of the city’s historically Black Central District one by one.

Local energies may have been sapped for many reasons, yet in the coastal cities that MacGillis visits, Amazon’s disproportionate ability to further enrich and empower already thriving places and workers is glaring. Familiar though they are, evocations of the six-figure salaries and amenities available to young Amazon programmers—a café catering to their dogs, meeting space in a giant replica of a bird’s nest—acquire new salience set against Torrez’s experience. And the sense of entitlement on display in the company’s search for a second headquarters site is breathtaking. Local officials across hard-knock America prostrate themselves for a chance to host it. In the end, Amazon chooses the suburbs of the nation’s capital—already one of the wealthiest areas in the country—and walks away having amassed a great deal of useful regional data provided by eager bidders who probably never stood a chance.

In the less glamorous pockets of the country—the rural areas and small cities where MacGillis has spent so much time as a reporter—Amazon’s role in making economic hardship more entrenched is no less stark. In El Paso, Texas, Amazon has aggressively marketed itself to the city government as a go-to source for office supplies—which has pushed local purveyors to open up online storefronts on Amazon; a large cut of their sales goes to the corporation. In York, Pennsylvania, the headquarters of the once-fashionable Bon-Ton department store has been made extinct by Amazon and the broader retail consolidation it represents. The crisis of unemployment that has ensued is one that Amazon exploits, finding able bodies for its warehouses in nearby towns.

On his home turf of Baltimore, MacGillis explores most intimately the ebbing of human fulfillment that has accompanied Amazon’s promise of high-speed customer service. He profiles Bill Bodani Jr., who spent most of his working life at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point complex, outside the city. In the early 2000s, a serious injury forced him to retire in his mid-50s, around the time that foreign competition and other factors pushed the company into bankruptcy. Eventually, the Sparrows Point plant shut down and Bodani’s monthly pension payment was cut from $3,000 to $1,600. Now 69 years old and back at work as a forklift driver in a 22-acre Amazon warehouse, he returns every day to the exact same piece of land. The peninsula has been rebranded—it’s called Tradepoint Atlantic now—and has become what MacGillis calls an “all-purpose logistics hub” that houses, among other facilities, an Amazon fulfillment center.

While Amazon is not the only major corporation that could claim to have a a large impact on so many places in the United States (think Walmart, McDonald’s, and a few others), it’s particular reach and impact might just be unique. With an ability to reach millions of customers in their homes, tech workers in a lot of locations, and fulfillment centers spread across the country, Amazon reaches across multiple sectors and job segments.

This means that its impact on particular places could be quite disparate. Take the Chicago region as an example. Like many places, Chicago wanted Amazon HQ#2. This would add to both office workers in downtown Chicago as well as many more in fulfillment centers around the region. Yet, Amazon’s locations received more money from some poorer suburbs.

Each of these Amazon locations, high-tech or not, has the potential to shape the character of communities. Consider the fate of places like Elwood, Illinois that rely on warehouses and distribution centers. Is an Amazon fulfillment center a good trade-off in the long run? Does the chase for a new headquarters or some higher-quality jobs in corporate offices encourage communities to offer tax breaks and more? What kind of local citizen is Amazon – does it participate in and contribute to local activities, do its buildings and its footprint positively contribute to civic life?

Amazon my be global but it is local for many communities. How it interacts with these numerous local contexts may help decide its long-term fate.

The current holy grail of sports: cheaper labor with stars, MVPs on rookie contracts

Sports leagues have always had a few teams with a lot of money and a willingness to pay players. See the leaked details of Lionel Messi’s contract. These teams with resources tend to do well as their resources allow them to regularly compete for titles and pay to rectify mistakes.

Photo by Fabricio Trujillo on Pexels.com

But, for the majority of teams, there is a regular pattern now: look for players on the cheap. Keep labor costs down. Do not pay too much for past performance. Sometimes this is due to limited resources, sometimes it is about ensuring profits, sometimes it has to do with salary caps or structures that try to ensure competitiveness.

This can occasionally lead to magical runs. The Leicester City title in 2015-2016 defied all odds. In baseball, teams like Tampa and Oakland regularly compete on the cheap and ship away players when they become too expensive. The Detroit Pistons could win an NBA title in 2004 without a major star. Tom Brady can be found in the sixth round.

But, these are rare. Without stars – who often are paid a lot of money – it is hard to compete year after year. Everyone hopes to strike gold now with a top pick, to find good fortune with home-grown talent, or to find diamonds in the rough missed by others. Hence, we see tanking and massive rebuilds as teams tear it all down and trust they can put together the right combination. This is the holy grail: have young players at a reasonable price and then hope it happens.

If it does not, teams often follow patterns. The Rockies pay to send the best third baseman of his generation to the Cardinals. The Lions and Rams paid big contracts to #1 overall drafted quarterbacks and now they swap them amid disappointment. The Blackhawks won multiple championships but now are burdened by big contracts paid to aging stars. Once these players command big money, it limits what else the franchise can do.

In each league, only one team can win it all each year. This would be true even if everyone spent all they could. But, when that does not happen, it is easy to see the interest in keeping labor and operational costs low as an impediment to winning. Even as the public debates inequality, the inequality in sports is real and affects outcomes and wages.

Homes as investments in continually increasing national median home values

The national median house value kept going up through November 2020:

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Despite a global pandemic and an economic downturn, U.S. home prices pushed new boundaries last year: The national median sale price for existing homes hit $310,800 in November, marking 105 straight months of year-over-year gains, according to data from the National Association of Realtors.

This could reinforce the now common viewpoint that homes are investments. Increasing median values for over eight suggests reinforces the idea that homes generally go up in value. Except for big economic crises – think the burst housing bubble of the late 2000s – houses accrue value over time. Even COVID-19 could not derail this.

This is often viewed as a good thing. Homeowners like that their homes are increasing in value because they can make more money when they sell. Communities take this as a marker of status. Realtors and others in the housing industry benefit. No one wants a drop in housing values across the board. (Of course, this is the median so the values can differ a lot by location.)

The commodification changes how owners, developers, and communities think about houses. They are not just the private spaces to escape the outside world – an established idea in the American Dream – but goods to profit from. An increasing value must be good and steps in other areas should be taken to protect home values.

This has numerous effects. It encourages Americans to invest resources in buying housing when that money could be put to use elsewhere. It contributes to single-use zoning where homes are protected from any other possible uses. It can exacerbate the inequality gap between those who can buy homes and those who cannot or between those with homes in places where the values keep going up versus those with homes in places with stagnant values.

Evidence that some have done well during COVID-19, many others have struggled

Socioeconomic data released recently highlights the ongoing bifurcated effects of COVID-19. Start with increasing levels of inequality as the wealthiest did well:

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

According to a report by Thomson Reuters Foundation, billionaires including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Tesla founder Elon Musk have seen their wealth soar during the COVID-19 pandemic while the world’s poor face years of hardship, charity Oxfam said on Monday as it demanded steps to tackle inequality…

It could take more than a decade to reduce the number of people living in poverty back to pre-crisis levels, Oxfam said. Meanwhile, the collective wealth of the world’s billionaires rose $3.9 trillion between March and December 2020 to reach $11.95 trillion, the report calculated. The 10 richest men saw their net worth increase by $540 billion in the same period, Oxfam said.

The poverty rate in the United States had its highest annual increase with some groups more affected than others:

Economists Bruce Meyer, from the University of Chicago, and James Sullivan of the University of Notre Dame found that the poverty rate increased by 2.4 percentage points during the latter half of 2020 as the U.S. continued to suffer the economic impacts from Covid-19.

That percentage-point rise is nearly double the largest annual increase in poverty since the 1960s. This means an additional 8 million people nationwide are now considered poor. Moreover, the poverty rate for Black Americans is estimated to have jumped by 5.4 percentage points, or by 2.4 million individuals.

The impact of jobs lost globally during COVID-19 go far beyond the economic crisis of the late 2000s:

Four times as many jobs were lost last year due to the coronavirus pandemic as during the worst part of the global financial crisis in 2009, a U.N. report said Monday.

The International Labor Organization estimated that the restrictions on businesses and public life destroyed 8.8% of all work hours around the world last year. That is equivalent to 255 million full-time jobs – quadruple the impact of the financial crisis over a decade ago…

The drop in work translates to a loss of $3.7 trillion in income globally — what Ryder called an “extraordinary figure” — with women and young people taking the biggest hits.

And this is on top of the differential health impact of COVID-19.

It will both take some time to fully assess the effects of COVID-19 and then some time to interpret and act on the findings. As data and studies are released, as various parts of society reckon with the fallout, and people respond, themes and narratives will develop as to what happened and what it means.

Getting back to “normal” or pre-COVID conditions will surely be a goal. Yet, if COVID-19 did significantly alter economic and social conditions, will returning to “normal” be acceptable or will there be calls for a bigger response? It is not as if inequality was a non-issue before COVID-19.

All of this highlights that even with all the advances of the modern world, it is a struggle to keep up with the rapid social change and think about the future. This hints at the problems of complex systems and the ongoing human experience of living through difficult experiences.

The architectural view of Chicago’s Plan for Transformation for public housing

In an interview for Chicago, former architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune Blair Kamin responded to a question about how public housing in Chicago has turned out:

Cover of the 2000 report on the Plan for Transformation.

Overall, though, I would say the Plan for Transformation has been a disappointment. It took far too long. It built too little housing. The overall aim of integrating very poor people into their communities and the city at large has not been fully achieved. The continued segregation of Chicago by race and class continues. I guess you could say that the series helped set the agenda or some of the reforms that occurred, but I’m sure not satisfied with the outcome.

For low-income housing to succeed, it doesn’t need to be an architectural showplace. It just needs to do the basics, right. It needs to provide shelter, it needs to provide community, it needs to provide integration into the broader society, so [that] people can climb the ladder, economically and socially, if they want to. It doesn’t need to win a design award, although good design certainly can be a part of its success.

I do think it’s really important to say that design is not deterministic. In other words, better buildings will not make better people. Design is part of the equation of integrating the very poor into the city. But it can’t do it all by itself. It’s naive to think that. It needs to be combined with social service programs, and other things – schools, families that are supportive – in order for it to succeed. Design can open the door to success, but it cannot achieve that on its own.

And the corollary is true, too. You can’t blame bad design for the failures completely. You can’t completely blame bad design for the failures of high-rise public housing. The failure has had to do as much withe federal policy that was well intentioned, but foolish. Concentrating lots of very poor people and a vast high rise development, like the Robert Taylor Homes or Stateway Gardens, was an invitation to disaster. In a way, it doesn’t matter how the buildings are designed. The design simply accentuated the social problem these high concentrations of poverty.

Kamin highlights multiple important elements at play: how much replacement housing was actually created, the larger social issues still very present in Chicago (“segregation…by race and class”), and the role of design. I’ll comment briefly on each.

First, this was one of the fears of public housing residents as the Plan for Tranformation was getting underway: if high-rises are torn down, will they be replaced and by what? The Plan for Transformation has not delivered on the number of units promised. The issue of the high-rises may have been addressed but the issues simply morphed into different issues.

Second, is the issue really public housing or is it ongoing inequality in Chicago? As luxury buildings keep going up, conditions in many Chicago neighborhoods have not improved. Public housing has never been particularly popular in the United States but neither has actually acknowledging and addressing the deeper issues of why some city residents might have a need for public housing or why affordable housing is in short supply.

Third, considering the full set of forces at work in a particular context – design, social forces and processes, relationships, power dynamics, the organizations and institutions involved – is very important. If segregation by race and class is present in Chicago, certain institutional actors have particular vested interests, and the design all need to be considered, how might this change constructing buildings in the first place?

With all this said, I hope conversations about public housing and affordable housing in Chicago are not solely relegated to discussions of past decisions and poor outcomes.

The Simpsons portrayed a (rare?) comfortable working-class family life

If television helps provide viewers reference groups to compare themselves with, The Simpsons suggests working-class Americans can have a decent life:

Photo by Jonathan Petersson on Pexels.com

The 1996 episode “Much Apu About Nothing” shows Homer’s paycheck. He grosses $479.60 per week, making his annual income about $25,000. My parents’ paychecks in the mid-’90s were similar. So were their educational backgrounds. My father had a two-year degree from the local community college, which he paid for while working nights; my mother had no education beyond high school. Until my parents’ divorce, we were a family of three living primarily on my mother’s salary as a physician’s receptionist, a working-class job like Homer’s…

The Simpsons started its 32nd season this past fall. Homer is still the family’s breadwinner. Although he’s had many jobs throughout the show’s run—he was even briefly a roadie for the Rolling Stones—he’s back at the power plant. Marge is still a stay-at-home parent, taking point on raising Bart, Lisa, and Maggie and maintaining the family’s suburban home. But their life no longer resembles reality for many American middle-class families.

Adjusted for inflation, Homer’s 1996 income of $25,000 would be roughly $42,000 today, about 60 percent of the 2019 median U.S. income. But salary aside, the world for someone like Homer Simpson is far less secure. Union membership, which protects wages and benefits for millions of workers in positions like Homer’s, dropped from 14.5 percent in 1996 to 10.3 percent today. With that decline came the loss of income security and many guaranteed benefits, including health insurance and pension plans. In 1993’s episode “Last Exit to Springfield,” Lisa needs braces at the same time that Homer’s dental plan evaporates. Unable to afford Lisa’s orthodontia without that insurance, Homer leads a strike. Mr. Burns, the boss, eventually capitulates to the union’s demand for dental coverage, resulting in shiny new braces for Lisa and one fewer financial headache for her parents. What would Homer have done today without the support of his union?

The purchasing power of Homer’s paycheck, moreover, has shrunk dramatically. The median house costs 2.4 times what it did in the mid-’90s. Health-care expenses for one person are three times what they were 25 years ago. The median tuition for a four-year college is 1.8 times what it was then. In today’s world, Marge would have to get a job too. But even then, they would struggle. Inflation and stagnant wages have led to a rise in two-income households, but to an erosion of economic stability for the people who occupy them.

This critique hints at broader patterns of how television depicts the working class. The 2005 documentary Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class discusses how television tends to minimize the difficulties of working class life. The Simpsons fits some of these patterns: Homer still somehow keeps working despite his mistakes and anti-intellectualism, the family does not really get ahead, and the family seems happy-go-lucky. Shows with working class characters rarely challenge the economic and social systems that constrain working class Americans.

Similarly, The Simpsons falls into the mold of many sitcoms in television history where there are happy endings and the characters end with good relationships. Despite all the controversy about the show in its early years, the show is at its heart a typical sitcom. While the show does poke fun at many people and aspects of American life, at its basis is a loving nuclear family living in a single-family home with Homer having a steady job. The Simpsons is not a critique of working class life in the United States. Perhaps the portrayal of Mr. Burns best critiques the systems that keep the Simpsons in place.

One place for wiggle room in this critique may be the location of Springfield. The show has been very careful to not reveal where Springfield is within the United States. Homer’s income might be meager but cost of living does differ by region.