Are you fed up with hearing about the trouble our nation’s economy is in ? I sure am. Well: if so, the solution is simple: consumers, whose buying represents two-thirds of the entire economy, just don’t have enough money to support their part of it all. This especially holds true in the big cities, into which almost everything economic is now concentrating : good jobs, lots of them; shopping, night clubs, restaurants; residence, transportation, innovation. In the big cites, everything is booming — except wages, other than for the lucky.
In Boston today, $ 3,000 to $ 4,500 a month rents, for tiny apartments, has become almost the norm. Few are the neighborhoods in which a house can be bought for less than $ 600,000; close to Downtown, the price is more likely to be $ 899,000 or even $ 1,000,000 and up. No one earning less than $ 100, 000 a year can afford these rents; few who earn less than $ 150,000 can afford to buy.
As with real estate, so with everything else. A decent meal now costs at least $ 20 if you add a tip; $ 27 to $ 30 if you add wine or beer. You can’t get to a Downtown restaurant, in any case, without shelling out $ 20 to $ 25 for parking. Nightclub entertainment costs $ 30 to $ 60. Clothing purchases in Downtown malls or single stores will run you $ 100 to $ 2500, more often the higher end than not. Food isn’t cheap: at least $ 700 a month for two. Then there’s utilities : $ 99 (plus taxes) for a cell phone line, $ 172 for any cable TV other than basic $ 200 for electric service, $ 125 for gas heat. Food, home furnishings, haircuts, the MBTA — add these, as well as home repair. Cars ? Some do without, but if you have a car, there’s the monthly finance charge, an insurance bill at least $ 200 a month, and parking, if you can find it.
Assuming you earn enough to pay all of these — the above bills add up to about $ 6200 a month after taxes; add taxes and the paycheck total looks like close to $ 10,000 a month — how are you going to buy anything else ? Granted that your city life funds restaurants, car dealers, car financers, utility companies, night club employees, clothing retailers and manufacturers, is that all there is ? Who will buy house repairs, summer camp for the kids, boats, vacation trips, furniture ? Who will pay for child care ? Doctor and dentist bills ? The kids’ education ? And savings : who will have money to save ? After all, the median family income in Boston is about $ 62,000 a year. Yet the expenses I have listed require double that.
Then there’s those who earn less than the median. The state’s minimum age right now stands at $ 11/hour. A current proposal would raise that to $ 15/hour by 2022. At $ 15/hour, a worker without overtime earns $ 600 a week, $ 31,200 a year. Two minimum wage workers living together barely manage the median income. That sounds OK, but at $ 62,000 a year — $ 5166 a month — said family can afford a rent no higher than $ 1800 a month, which means living in Boston’s barest neighborhoods, in which City services are skimped and few people have stay at home time to care for kids. $ 5166 a month also means a barebones life :
—> taxes, 1200 a month; rent, 1800; cell phones for two, $ 189; cable TV, $ 172; utilities, $ 300; clothing, $ 300; food, $ 700; transportation (MBTA), $ 80. That leaves about $ 400 a month with which to fund repairs, kids’ sports, emergencies, maybe a weekend vacation. It does not allow a car, or health care co-pays, or Christmas, any entertainment at all. Or savings. I also did not allow for purchase of a laptop or for wi-fi hot spots.
Most of all, the $ 15/hour minimum wage doesn’t offer those who earn it much opportunity to buy in the discretionary economy. You go to any mall and marvel at the plenteous goods on offer, not to mention services: but who can buy them very often ? Our economy isn’t fulfilling its potential if all that it supplies to the vast majority of consumers is basic needs. Discretionary spending allows innovative goods and services to prosper. It allows creators’ skills to advance. It allows for savings, investment, development. Our economy needs to find a way to put more money — MUCH more money — into the paychecks of most workers. And not just our money economy. People who earn more — who can enjoy the discretionary economy — feel better about themselves and thus enjoy better health, longer lives, participation in the community, a bit of the tastes of freedom.
One can, it is true, move away from the big cities into small cities with a much cheaper economy. Fall River is a perfect Massachusetts example. Rents there are less than half of the Boston price; buying a house costs almost two-thirds less. Yet there is no way even for a Fall River to buy goods and services in the wider economy. These cost the same wherever they are on offer. If you pay $ 900 rent, as is typical for Fall River, or buy a house for $ 125,000, you definitely can afford to earn less. But you’ll still have to pay the same price for cell phones, cars, utilities, food, clothes, and vacation as you would pay in Boston. And if you choose Fall River’s much cheaper housing costs, while maintaining a Boston job at a Boston paycheck, you have a 55 mile commute in the morning and back at night, which means a car and gasoline and car insurance, not to mention three hours every day wasted on the road.
There has to be a way to up the median Boston income to $ 90,000, and to raise the minimum wage to $ 21/hour, without having landlords, restaurants, and real estate speculators jack up the market accordingly. If City life is not to drive out those who earn modest salaries, we have to achieve this. Extend the earned income tax credit ? Perhaps that. Somehow we must allow the vast majority of residents to afford the innovation economy.
—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere