How a foreclosure can slow momentum toward the American Dream

The effects of foreclosures after the burst housing bubble may be long-lasting for many individuals and households:

A foreclosure is a one-time event, but for many families it’s something that never ends, wrecking years of their lives and the hopes they once had. The story of the Santillans’ foreclosure illustrates the way that the recession changed the American economy, and for millions of Americans, forever changed their lives. Some nine million families lost their homes to foreclosure or short sale between 2006 and 2014. But many lost more than that: They lost their momentum, too. Families like the Santillans had been moving up a ladder towards the American Dream, and fell off into a deep pit. They’re still at the bottom of the ladder a decade later, trying to get back to where they had been…

A foreclosure set them back them even further. Academic studies point to the many negatives associated with foreclosure: Families in foreclosure have more frequent emergency-room visits and worse mental-health outcomes. Their children do worse in school and have higher truancy rates. They are more likely than other families to rely on the social safety net. Losing a home can also mean becoming disconnected from the community where you lived, and the connections that might have helped you find a new job or get a loan, Roberto Quercia, the director of the Center for Community Capital at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told me. It’s for these reasons that many of those families are still struggling today. White families had largely recovered financially from the Great Recession by 2013, according to the Federal Reserve, while even today, the median income for black and Latino households has still not reached 2007 levels…

But they learned what many American families did during the financial crisis—that while America prides itself on being a place where people can climb up the economic ladder, it’s also a place where people can fall fast, and far. “We just can’t forget, that in any given moment, things can change,” Karina told me. This has implications beyond the fates of these individual families. The American economy thrives when people are in the jobs they want, being as productive as they can, and when they feel financially stable enough to make purchases that will raise their standard of living. The aftermath of the foreclosure crisis and recession means that many families have not felt secure like that in a long time.

Three points stick out to me:

  1. Social mobility in public conversation usually means moving up the class ladder but people also can fall down that ladder, particularly with major changes like loss of a job, foreclosure, or a major medical issue.
  2. It will be interesting to see how long it will take to truly recover from the burst housing bubble. Ten years? A full generation or two?
  3. There has long been a gap in homeownership and wealth between whites and both Latinos and blacks. The foreclosure issues only seem to have exacerbated these issues as whites as a whole have recovered while blacks and Latinos have not. How will these long-lasting ill effects of foreclosures affect inequalities between racial and ethnic groups?

“[American] Dream Hoarders”

A Brookings Institution scholar examines the upper-middle class and how their choices separate themselves from the middle class:

A great, short book by Richard V. Reeves of the Brookings Institution helps to flesh out why these stories provoke such rage. In Dream Hoarders, released this week, Reeves agrees that the 20 percent are not the one percent: The higher you go up the income or wealth distribution, the bigger the gains made in the past three or four decades. Still, the top quintile of earners—those making more than roughly $112,000 a year—have been big beneficiaries of the country’s growth. To make matters worse, this group of Americans engages in a variety of practices that don’t just help their families, but harm the other 80 percent of Americans…

The book traces the way that the upper-middle class has pulled away from the middle class and the poor on five dimensions: income and wealth, educational attainment, family structure, geography, and health and longevity. The top 20 percent of earners might not have seen the kinds of income gains made by the top one percent and America’s billionaires. Still, their wage and investment increases have proven sizable. They dominate the country’s top colleges, sequester themselves in wealthy neighborhoods with excellent public schools and public services, and enjoy healthy bodies and long lives. “It would be an exaggeration to say that the upper-middle class is full of gluten-avoiding, normal-BMI joggers who are only marginally more likely to smoke a cigarette than to hit their children,” Reeves writes. “But it would be just that—an exaggeration, not a fiction.”

They then pass those advantages onto their children, with parents placing a “glass floor” under their kids. They ensure they grow up in nice zip codes, provide social connections that make a difference when entering the labor force, help with internships, aid with tuition and home-buying, and schmooze with college admissions officers. All the while, they support policies and practices that protect their economic position and prevent poorer kids from climbing the income ladder: legacy admissions, the preferential tax treatment of investment income, 529 college savings plans, exclusionary zoning, occupational licensing, and restrictions on the immigration of white-collar professionals.

As a result, America is becoming a class-based society, more like fin-de-siècle England than most would care to admit, Reeves argues. Higher income kids stay up at the sticky top of the income distribution. Lower income kids stay down at the bottom. The one percent have well and truly trounced the 99 percent, but the 20 percent have done their part to immiserate the 80 percent, as well—an arguably more relevant but less recognized class distinction.

The anxiety of being upper middle class: never quite wealthy enough to have all the goods and experiences of the highest group and always striving to stay above the normal/middle people.

Four quick thoughts:

  1. There is a certain lifestyle to be had here. See, my post a few days ago about a healthy lifestyle may have had some merit…
  2. As described here, many of the efforts appear aimed at avoiding downward mobility. In other words, there is some point in income, education, and lifestyle that cannot be crossed going the wrong way. But, there must be people who have this happen through events like losing a job or a major illness. What happens to them? For the “average” upper middle class person, what really are the odds that they would fall down a rung?
  3. There is a suggestion from the author that Americans shouldn’t and/or can’t just ask the 1% to sacrifice; the top 20% need to sacrifice as well. To put it mildly, this would not go over well. Given their anxieties as well as their tendencies to pull up the bridge after crossing the moat, efforts like affordable housing or school integration or significant increases in taxes will be met with opposition. They would use the rhetoric of the middle class – “we worked hard to get here – anyone could do it” – while pushing hard to protect their own status.
  4. Is the ultimate goal of this group to become truly wealthy? Most of them won’t have that opportunity and must know it. Or, is the goal is to simply not be middle class and have some more advantages than most people? Perhaps it really is about the children: is this the group that more than any other tries to give their kids every advantage as a supposed act of sacrifice?

Americans not so sure playing field is level, American dream attainable

Data from recent years suggests fewer Americans think they can get ahead:

Surveys continue to show that Americans, in large numbers, still believe in many of the tenets of the American dream. For example, majorities of Americans believe that hard work will lead to success. But, their belief in the American dream is wavering. Between 1986 and 2011, around 50 percent of those polled by Pew consistently said they felt that the American dream was “somewhat alive.” However, over that same time period, the share who said it was “very alive” decreased by about half, and the share that felt it was “not really alive” more than doubled…

The majority of Americans once thought the playing field was more or less level. No more. Back in 1998, a Gallup poll about equal opportunity found that 68 percent thought the economic system was basically fair, while only 29 percent thought it was basically unfair. In 2013, feelings about fairness had reversed: Only 44 percent thought the economic system was fair, while 50 percent had come to feel it was unfair. Another 2013 poll found that by an almost two-to-one margin (64 to 33 percent), Americans agreed that “the U.S. no longer offers an equal chance to get ahead.”

Perhaps as a result of all of this, there are signs that the very idea of the American dream is changing. The American dream has long been equated with moving up the class ladder and owning a home. But polling leading up to the 2012 election revealed something new—middle-class Americans expressed more concern about holding on to what they had than they were with getting more. Echoing these concerns, Pew reported in 2015 that when asked which they would prefer—financial security or moving up the income ladder—92 percent selected security. This is a seven percentage point increase since just 2011, when 85 percent selected security over economic mobility.

And while majorities of Americans continue to say that home ownership is a key part of the American dream in general, when a survey asked people which things were the most important to their personal American dream, only 26 percent selected “owning a nice home” as a top choice, while 37 percent chose “achieving financial security” and 36 percent chose “being debt free.” In a 2013 Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll that asked respondents to define what it means to be middle class, 54 percent of respondents chose “having the ability to keep up with expenses and hold a steady job while not falling behind or taking on too much debt,” and only 43 percent defined being middle class as earning more, buying a home, and saving…

Three thoughts:

  1. Presumably, the economic crisis of the late 2000s contributed to this but so likely have other trends such as a declining amount of trust in social institutions and the decades-in-the-making changes brought about by economic globalization.
  2. Some have suggested that these numbers mean Americans no longer want these traditional markers of the American dream – like owning a home. More precisely, the surveys suggest Americans are more pessimistic about their own chances of owning a home. But, if the economy turned around (wages started going up, more good jobs became available, etc.), I suspect many Americans would go back to earlier behaviors. Maybe this would change if the pessimism and economic trouble continues. Yet, Americans have shown a willingness in the last century or so to consume at high levels when economic times are good.
  3. There has never truly been an “equal chance of getting ahead” in the United States. There have been times – such as after World War II – when prosperity was more broadly shared among the population and the gap between the rich and the poor shrank. Additionally, perceptions of this matter beyond the social realities. If people feel that social conditions are unequal, they can be unequal indeed.

DuPage County one of the best counties for poor kids to move up

A recent study by two economists shows DuPage County is one of the best in United States for social mobility for those who start toward the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder:

On the other extreme, poor children raised in DuPage, Illinois, have the best shot at climbing the economic ladder. The Chicago suburb is home to several large corporations, including McDonald’s and Ace Hardware, and is one of the nation’s wealthiest counties. Children from poor families in DuPage grow up to earn 15%, or $3,900, more than the national average by the time they are 26.

To conduct the study, Professors Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren looked at tax records for more than 5 million children whose families moved from one county to another between 1996 and 2012. Their analysis showed that where children are raised does have an impact on their chances of moving up economically. In addition, the younger a child is when he or she moves to a neighborhood with more opportunity, the greater the income boost. Neighborhoods matter more for boys than for girls.

Chetty and Hendren did not say why neighborhoods have such an impact on children’s success. But it did find that counties with higher rates of upward mobility have five things in common: less segregation by race and income, lower levels of income inequality, better schools, lower crime rates and more two-parent households.

The duo, along with Harvard Professor Lawrence Katz, also released Monday a second study that examined the impact of a federal program from the mid-1990s to move low-income families to better neighborhoods. It found that children who relocated when they were younger than 13 made 31% more, on average, than their peers whose families were not given vouchers to move. The relocated children were also more likely to attend college and less likely to be single parents.

DuPage County is not the most diverse place  nor is the most integrated but it is pretty wealthy, has a number of good school districts, and has lots of jobs (across a range of sectors). It also has a reputation of being quite conservative and wasn’t that open to non-whites in the decades after World War II. Yet, I don’t find it too surprising that it would be a good place for social mobility though I imagine this might differ quite a bit across communities within the county.

The second study mentioned above looks at the Moving To Opportunity program which didn’t have immediate influence for adults who move but may just have good long-term impacts for kids. Read more about the latest findings here.

DeSean Jackson illustrates how black Americans often retain ties to poorer neighborhoods, regardless of class

Jamelle Bouie highlights sociological research that shows blacks in America tend to live closer to and have ongoing social ties with poorer neighborhoods compared to whites:

The key fact is this: Even after you adjust for income and education, black Americans are more likely than any other group to live in neighborhoods with substantial pockets of poverty.

As sociologist Patrick Sharkey shows in his book Stuck in Place, 62 percent of black adults born between 1955 and 1970 lived in neighborhoods that were at least 20 percent poor, a fact that’s true of their children as well. An astounding 66 percent of blacks born between 1985 and 2000 live in neighborhoods as poor or poorer as those of their parents…

How does this stack up to white families? Here, Sharkey is indispensable: Among white children born through 1955 and 1970, just 4 percent live in high poverty neighborhoods. Or, put another way, black Americans live with a level of poverty that is simply unknown to the vast majority of whites…

“When white families advance in economic status,” writes Sharkey, “they are able to translate this economic advantage into spatial advantage by buying into communities that provide quality schools and healthy environments for children.” The same isn’t true for black Americans, and some of the answer has to include present and ongoing housing discrimination. For example, in one study—conducted by the Department of Housing and the Urban Institute—black renters learned about fewer rental units and fewer homes than their white counterparts…

This can have serious consequences. Youthful experimentation for a white teenager in a suburb might be smoking a joint in a friend’s attic. Youthful experimentation for a black teenager might be hanging out with gang members. As Mary Pattillo-McCoy writes in her book Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril Among the Black Middle Class, “Youth walk a fine line between preparing for success and youthful delinquent experimentation, the consequences of which can be especially serious for black youth.”

Even as the details of the DeSean Jackson situation trickle out, the overall point is clear: blacks and whites in America continue to live in different neighborhoods and this has consequences for adult life. One consequence is that blacks tend to live in poorer neighborhoods, regardless of class, and a second is that social ties between wealthier and poorer neighborhoods often continue even when economic opportunity allows one to move elsewhere (see the work of Robert Sampson in Great American City for his social network analysis of social ties of residents who leave poorer neighborhoods – and also where they tend to end up).

All together, the impact of on-going residential segregation is not as simple as living in different places. The social conditions of different places is related to all sorts of disparate outcomes including housing options, educational attainment, safety and crime rates, economic opportunities, and life expectancy. We should not be surprised if we see this play out in arenas like the NFL which apparently has some divided opinions about how it should be addressed (one team releases a good player, another eagerly signs him).

Access to cars helps poorer residents achieve better life outcomes

Cars are expensive to own and operate yet a new study suggests they can help poorer residents:

Housing voucher recipients with cars tended to live and remain in higher-opportunity neighborhoods—places with lower poverty rates, higher social status, stronger housing markets, and lower health risks. Cars are also associated with improved neighborhood satisfaction and better employment outcomes. Among Moving to Opportunity families, those with cars were twice as likely to find a job and four times as likely to remain employed.

The importance of automobiles arises not due to the inherent superiority of driving, but because public transit systems in most metropolitan areas are slow, inconvenient, and lack sufficient metropolitan-wide coverage to rival the automobile.

More research is needed to determine if the relationship is causal or associative, that is, whether the car is the catalyst or if there is something deeper at work, of which the car is simply one manifestation. Cars are expensive to purchase and to maintain, even more so for families with severely limited resources. A low-income household that is somehow able, inclined, or afforded the opportunity to buy a car might also do many other things to get ahead. Motivation, opportunity, or both could be key.

Yet our current findings are enough to raise important questions.

For example, should government welfare programs facilitate automobile access or ownership? In some states, a car would push families over the asset limit for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, making those families ineligible for help.

In a society that often structures space around cars, this is not too surprising, particularly for poorer residents in suburbs and more sprawling areas. Yet, as this summary notes, providing cars is not necessarily easy (expensive) or desirable in the long run (perpetuating problems with cars like pollution and sprawl).

This could lead to some interesting consequences for poorer Americans. If they are increasingly in suburbs or are pushed out of walkable urban neighborhoods by gentrifiers, having to have a car is another barrier to moving up the economic ladder. In other words, walkable neighborhoods – think New Urbanism –  are the rage amongst urban millennials and others who want vibrant mixed-use neighborhoods. But, their quest for such spaces may not leave much room who would really benefit the most from cheaper transportation through walkability and mass transit.