Our Kids Aren’t the Only Ones Suffering From Inequality. We’re Failing Our Parents Too!

You wouldn’t know it to read the news these days, but the Baby Boomers are in trouble.

Rarely does a day go by that the Baby Boomers aren’t blamed for something. They’re bankrupting Social Security. They caused the Great Recession. They’re hogging all the money.

Well, I’m here to tell you that you’ve got the wrong culprit. Most Baby Boomers don’t have nearly as much money as you think they do. You’re rounding up the many to prosecute the few. That’s just bad police work.

This is a plea for the parents out there. They raised us and fed us, they taught us and nursed us, they brought us into this world, and for the most part, they tried to make it better for us. And we are failing them.

We are failing our parents.

We have a strange sense of obligation in this country. We talk a lot about what we owe our children but very little about what we owe our parents. The future is sacrosanct; the past quickly forgotten.

And we should talk about our children. Because we’re failing them too.

Pick up a copy of Robert Putnam’s new book Our Kids, and you’ll see all the ways we’re failing them:

  • More and more kids are growing up with one parent instead of two. The single parent is less likely to find a job. They have less time to spend with their kids. As a result, their children perform worse in school, exhibit more behavioral problems, and experience more anxiety and depression.
  • More and more kids aren’t eating dinner with their family. They aren’t having conversations with their parents. They don’t know the alphabet when they start school. And they never catch up!
  • More and more kids are living below or near the poverty line, where they “experience severe or chronic stress,” making it harder to concentrate, “cope with adversity, and organize their lives.” They are more likely to be neglected, discouraged, abused, and traumatized. And they have permanent brain damage!
  • More and more families can’t keep up with the rising cost of childcare. They send their kids to low-quality daycare. They have less time available to spend with their kids. And when they do spend time with them, their financial worries make it harder for them to be patient, focus, and nurture.
  • More and more students are falling behind their peers in school. Their parents don’t have the time or knowledge to help them. Their schools don’t have the fundraising capability to make up the difference. Their teachers are demoralized. Their classmates are disruptive, discouraging, and even violent. Extracurricular activities are either unavailable or too expensive to participate in. College is even more expensive. And if they do make it to college, it’s one with lower graduation rates and a future of higher unemployment and lower earnings.
  • More and more kids don’t trust people. They don’t have mentors to teach them about life. They don’t have youth organizations to keep them safe and healthy. They don’t have programs to show them how to apply for college or budget their money. They don’t have contacts to help them find a job. And they think their vote doesn’t matter, so the problem just keeps getting worse!

For Putnam, this is where the story ends. And who can blame him? Kids are an easy sell. No one can blame them for their lot in life.

But what happens when they become adults? We don’t like to talk about that part. Affordable housing, food stamps, incarceration, labor unions, mandated health insurance, Medicaid, Medicare, the minimum wage, paid leave, progressive taxation, public jobs, Social Security, unemployment insurance, welfare — that’s the controversial stuff. Better not to touch those subjects. Kids deserve a helping hand, but adults? We’re not so sure.

The problem is, those adults were kids once upon a time too, and when they were, many of them had it just as bad. And now, after heaping disadvantage upon disadvantage on them for twenty years, they’re expected to compete on the same playing field as everyone else. It’s as if they were running a race, and their peers were given a twenty-year head start — and we criticize them for not catching up!

These adults deserve equalizing policies every bit as much as their kids.

Long-Term Unemployment by AgeThe young and the old aren’t so different after all. It’s the wrong contrast. Even if we wanted to take money from the old and give it to the young, it wouldn’t work because they don’t have it!

The Baby Boomers are trillions of dollars short of the wealth they need to retire without a “drastic lifestyle change.” Over half of them will get most of their income from Social Security, and one in four will have nothing but Social Security. For those who got laid off during the Great Recession, they’re having a much harder time getting rehired than younger generations. And because they were the ones who were holding mortgages when the bubble popped, their homeownership rate has nosedived so badly that Trulia’s chief economist Jed Kolko calls them “the lost generation of homeowners.”

Clearly, inequality affects Americans of every age — and that is why you cannot cure what ails the children without treating the parents, for the ailment is not generational. It is economic, and it perpetuates itself down through the generations.

So, yes, by all means, let’s talk about inequality of opportunity for our kids because that’s where it all starts. But let’s also remember that those kids grow up, and when they do, it doesn’t get easier. The scars of childhood last a lifetime.

We tend to overlook those scars and place blame on those who have fallen behind in the race. But for those of us who have been given a head start and don’t reach back to offer them a hand, the real failure rests with us.

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This op-ed was originally published on the Huffington Post.

The Poor Don’t Lie and Cheat Any More Than the Rest of Us

Those no-good, dirty, rotten poor people. They lie, and they steal, and they spend our money.

Or so I’ve been told by readers since my last op-ed column, where I did the math proving that government benefits aren’t generous enough to make people want to be poor.

But you’re just doing the legal math, said one reader. What about what goes on under the table? Surely all that welfare fraud is proof that poverty can be the good life, if only you have the gumption to bilk the taxpayer.

Food Stamp Error RateFirst of all, the government has conducted investigations of fraud in programs like welfare and food stamps, and they’ve found it to be shockingly low. Less than 2 percent of the programs’ budgets get ripped off. That’s lower than the private sector, where the average business loses 5 percent of its annual revenue to fraud.

Second, and perhaps more surprising, investigators have found that the majority of government fraud is committed by the middle class and the rich, not the poor!

After Hurricane Katrina, for example, the investigative reporter Eric Schnurer discovered that most of the $500 million lost to fraud did not go into the pockets of the poor people who lost their homes but rather to the “shifty contractors” who were supposed to be rebuilding the homes.

Similarly, reports Schnurer, “Medicare and Medicaid fraud is largely committed not by patients — very few people are trying to rip off taxpayers to obtain unneeded spinal taps or root canals — but by providers: unscrupulous (or sometimes just incompetent) doctors and hospitals billing for procedures the patient didn’t need or didn’t receive.”

Throw in another $100 billion a year in defense contractor fraud, and you quickly find that fraud is more likely to make the rich richer than it is to make the poor want to be poor. It’s redistribution alright, but the wealth is moving up, not down, the ladder.

Once upon a time, I might have been surprised by these findings, but in writing my new book Letter to the One Percent, I found a consistent pattern in the research literature. Psychologists have conducted many experiments on the rich and the poor, and they’ve found that the rich are less likely to have empathy for other human beings. They’re more likely to break the rules and feel that they’ve earned the right to do so. They’re less likely to think of the moral consequences of their actions, especially when money is involved, and they’re more likely to put their own needs ahead of others’.

The notion that the poor are uniquely morally deficient, it turns out, is completely backward. They’re actually more virtuous, on average, than the rich.

And yet, we have politicians who assume that the poor are less trustworthy and therefore less deserving of our help. On the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, they took to the floor of Congress and criticized “single mothers” and “deadbeat dads” for dropping out of school and having babies and cheating the system. Then they proposed a budget that would cut government benefits for tens of millions of Americans.

Meanwhile, in Florida, they’re fighting a recent court decision that struck down a law requiring drug testing of all welfare applicants. But they don’t seem concerned about corporate executives who apply for billion-dollar subsidies. They’re not clamoring for drug testing doctors who receive Medicare payments or retirees who receive Social Security checks or Congress members who receive six-figure salaries.

Why? Because they assume that the poor are more likely to waste taxpayers’ money on drugs. Well, I’ve got news for them: The rate of illicit drug use is no higher among the poor than it is among the rest of us, and the rate of alcohol addiction is actually lower.

Human nature is human nature. There are liars and cheaters in every walk of life. But the facts are irrefutable: The poor are not poor because they lie and cheat, nor are they responsible for high taxes and mounting debt. If anything, they have contributed less to fraud and waste than the rest of us. The next time you hear Senator Marco Rubio and his Republican colleagues say otherwise, remember: That’s a stereotype, and it’s wrong.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Huffington Post.

Do the Math: People Don’t Choose to Be Poor or Unemployed

Long-Term Unemployment HistoryGod, I wish I were poor.

And unemployed. That’s the good life. Poor and unemployed.

I mean, just look at all the cool stuff you get. Medicaid and welfare. Food stamps and unemployment insurance. And don’t forget public housing.

This stuff is so awesome that it’s like a “hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” That’s what Paul Ryan says, at least, and as the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, he’s supposed to know these things, right?

According to Ryan and his fellow Republicans, if I have unemployment insurance, I’ll never want to work again. Senator Rand Paul says it will cause me “to become part of this perpetual unemployed group.” With an average benefit of $269 per week, I’ll be living on Easy Street.

This is a common belief. There’s an email making the rounds from a 54-year-old consulting engineer who makes $60,000 a year and has to pay $482 a month for health insurance under Obamacare, but that’s not his biggest complaint. He’s really upset that his 61-year-old girlfriend who makes $18,000 a year only has to pay $1 a month for health insurance.

He thinks she has it so easy that she can afford to pay more, but he’s wrong.

On average, Americans earning $18,000 a year pay more than $3,000 in taxes, so she really only has $15,000 leftover to pay her expenses. She lives in Monterey, CA, where the average rent and utilities add up to $15,000 a year. So, after paying taxes, rent, and utilities, she’s completely broke. She doesn’t have money for food, let alone health insurance.

The consulting engineer thinks people will choose her lifestyle over his. “Heck, why study engineering when I can be a schlub for $20K per year?” he asks. (Nice way to talk about your girlfriend, by the way.) To which I’d like to reply: If being a “schlub” is so attractive, why don’t you do it? Why don’t you quit your engineering job and join the “$20K per year” club?

For that matter, why don’t we all quit our jobs right now and start collecting unemployment insurance? How far do you honestly think we can stretch $269 a week?

I’ll tell you how far: It would cover less than half of the basic necessities for the average American family.

That’s why unemployment makes you more likely to have to borrow money from a friend, withdraw money from your retirement savings, and have trouble paying your medical bills, rent, and mortgage. It makes you more likely to have a stroke or heart attack, lose self-respect, have difficulty sleeping, and seek professional help for anxiety and depression. It makes you more likely to kill yourself, kill others, and drink yourself to death.

And if you’ve been unemployed for more than a few months, most employers won’t even look at your résumé. It doesn’t matter how qualified you are. It’s like you don’t exist anymore.

The last time it was this bad, with long-term unemployment close to 3 percent of the workforce, was the peak of the 1980-81 recession. Back then, the federal government kept extended unemployment insurance in place for almost two more years, until the long-term unemployment rate fell close to 1 percent. In fact, that’s been standard operating procedure for every recession in the modern era, including 1990-91 and 2001. But now, with long-term unemployment as high as it’s been since World War II, Republicans have killed the emergency unemployment insurance program, and they’re fighting Democrats’ efforts to restore it.

They don’t seem to care that there are 2.9 applicants for every job opening. They don’t seem to care that people on unemployment insurance actually spend more time searching for work than their fellow unemployed who are ineligible for benefits. They’re sticking to their story.

On the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, many Americans are still operating under the assumption that people choose to be poor and unemployed, that they’d rather be lazy than rich, that they can afford the basic necessities of life. But the numbers tell a different story.

I don’t wish I were poor. Or unemployed. And I sure don’t wish it on anyone else. If you did the math, neither would you.

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This op-ed was recently published in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Huffington Post.