Excerpts from What It’s Worth: Food for Thought (Part 1)
The Great Recession dramatically demonstrated how extraordinarily vulnerable the majority of Americans are—not just those who already were precarious even before the housing bubble burst, but also so many others who are “keeping it together” on the surface, but are actually in danger of teetering over the edge with an unexpected provocation.
At the level of the individual and family, the consequence of poor financial health is catastrophic. But the collective size of this malaise (70 percent of U.S. households are savings-limited, income-constrained or debt-challenged) should be downright alarming for the nation. Jared Bernstein from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities writes in the new book, “What’ It’s Worth” that there is “strong evidence that inequality, income stagnation and under-regulated finance interact in ways that have led to bubbles and busts that damage the larger economy.”
That’s one reason why NeighborWorks America has chosen to focus on “creating economic opportunities” in 2016, focusing all four of its Wednesday symposia at its training institutes on different aspects of the theme. It’s also why our CEO Paul Weech contributed a chapter, and why we believe “What It’s Worth” is such an important book to read and share far and wide. (It does for financial capability what we plan to do for community development in our own book, to be released in December.)
Because it is long, and also to whet your appetite, I thought I would share my “CliffsNotes” version of a few of the suggested solutions to various aspects of the financial crisis among America’s communities and families, which will hopefully stimulate discussion and debate (and lead you to puruse the full book for more detail). Note that for purposes of this summary, I focus on those that do not involve federal or state policy changes, or modification in the way financial institutions operate. Below is the first installment, followed by two more!
Findings from the ‘Diaries’
From Jennifer Tescher, Center for Financial Services Innovation, and Rachel Schneider, Center for Financial Services Innovation: “The Real Financial Lives of Americans”
Schneider is one of the coordinators of the U.S. Financial Diaries project, which was featured at NeighborWorks’ August training institute on “Building Pathways to Financial Resilience.” She and Tescher offer several key observations that are important for those offering financial education and coaching:
- Cash flow is as important an indicator as annual income. Households with seemingly sufficient income get into trouble when the timing of their expenses don’t match the inflow of funds. For families participating in the diaries project, about 60 percent of spending spikes were not accompanied by an income spike in the same month. One-quarter of expense spikes occurred when a household’s income was below its median.
- Access to financial services (facilitating bank accounts as an alternative to payday loans) is important but insufficient.
- Borrowing and saving are opposite sides of the same coin. What the authors mean by this is that the cheapest possible access to funds is not the sole determinant of why people choose to borrow vs. save, although that is the criterion traditional economists expect them to use. For example, although the use of personal savings is free, they require self-discipline to accumulate and provide the peace of mind that comes with knowing the funds are there. Thus, some people will borrow even when it doesn’t appear to make sense, just to preserve that “security blanket.” In contrast, sometimes people borrow for nonessential purchases, in return for the immediate gratification and the ability to build a credit history—despite the fact that it comes with a fee and the anxiety of a future obligation. The bottom line: When deciding when to borrow or save, people appear to take both the psychological and financial cost into account.
- Financial progress is complex, unpredictable, and often messy. Practitioners tend to look at household savings balances over time, caution the authors, and are disappointed when they don’t see steady growth. However, looking at point-in-time savings balances or expecting a constant upward trajectory misses the fact that people are indeed saving.