New Orleans In reckoning with the daily, survival and success struggles of low-and-moderate income families given the myriad of challenges they face, sometimes the experts stumble over the obvious in one of those, “Oh, yeah!” moments that we all have. Reading a recent copy of Shelterforce magazine, there was an article called “Is Financial Unsteadiness the New Normal” by Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider which offered a case study of just such a moment. They examined the demands of financial security for lower income families closely and argue that in addition to looking at income, especially annual income, and assets, as paltry as they are, we need to look at cash flow to understand the full dimensions of citizen wealth for such families. Now, we can all say together, “of course!”
In dealing with the crises facing such families in our increasingly inequitable society, economists have long noted that assets have fallen to hardly above zero for many families, especially in the wake of the clawback of home ownership for minorities. The Pew survey folks have found that 41% of all households have less than $2000 in liquid savings. Other reports have noted that many families do not have the liquid resources to deal with a financial crisis of even $400 without help from family, friends, or lady luck.
The authors point out that looking at their US Financial Diaires Study Households of about 235 families in California, Mississippi, Ohio-Kentucky, and New York City they found some discomforting information,
“…we found…evidence of a lot of volatility within the year. On average, families in the study had more than five months a year when income was 25 percent above or below their monthly average. For example, a household making $36,000 a year isn’t necessarily making $3000 a month. Based on our data, for more than five months a year, that family will earn less than $2250 or more $3750.”
All of which makes it hard to save and hard to spend and contributes to the problem. The irregularity of a families’ income stream means the issue for many is more “illiquidity than insolvency.”
The issue is so severe that the author’s cite a report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Pew people that 85% of the 2000 households surveyed would prefer financial stability over “moving up the income ladder.” In essence, people are voting give me stability rather than stress even if it means less cash and a lower lifestyle: a good bird in hand, rather than who knows what in the bush.
The authors found that this illiquidity creates a snowball effect on other issues as well. These are not problems solved by the bankers favorite stopgap of “financial literacy” programs either. People are very well informed that they have irregular income, and given the rise of the contingent employment and informal employment economy, they know there are going to be ups and downs. When I was organizing hotel housekeepers and other hospitality employees, all of them knew they were going to be hurting for money in the New Orleans summer as well as over Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays when the room count was down, but that didn’t mean they could grow other dollars on different trees, though many tried, more fail.
The authors correctly point out that this makes budgeting horrific, and exacerbates the affordable housing dilemma for low-and-moderate income families. You can forget about home ownership if your income never gets to the point where you can create a down payment. Of course the home ownership model for citizen wealth for lower income families is already severely challenged, if not destroyed, but recognizing the role of cash flow puts another nail in the coffin of that dream rather than in the beams of a new house.
Representing school workers in Texas who have an option of choosing to receive their money year round rather than just during the school year, our union can see that some employers have long understood the simple facts of cash flow, but clearly as Morduch and Schneider point out, that’s not enough to start seeing a solution to the problem even if underscores the continuing crisis. This is a “new normal” or a clearer picture of the old normal hardly matters, it’s a huge barrier for millions of families and getting bigger, not smaller.