Editorial: On being poor and rich in these United States

Tuesday, August 19, 2014
To see how Americans are doing in today’s economy, the Federal Reserve went looking this past year in a place things are supposed to be OK: suburbia. Researchers more often study conditions in the inner city or the country, perhaps believing the space in-between, which so many call home, is a harbor from hardship.

No so. A report from the Boston Fed last week found that two million people in New England who live in the suburbs struggle to make ends meet. And unlike those in cities also scrapping by, people in the suburbs do not have easy access to services that help the poor. One in four families in New England’s suburbs use food stamps, the report says, a fact that cracks the image of suburban abundance shaped by generations of television shows.

Not having enough money in the suburbs to pay your bills is common enough to have a nickname — “SUV poverty.” Researchers looked not just at those living in poverty, defined as an income of $24,000 a year or less for a family of four, but at those making up to $50,000 a year also pressed to meet expenses.

Wages are flat across America. Though the Great Recession officially ended five years ago, not many are feeling a bump up. From 1979 to 2013, median worker wages rose by 7.9 percent while productivity climbed 64.9 percent. The economy kicked out loads of value in those 34 years, but just a fraction of it went into paychecks.

The Fed’s survey does more to confirm than reveal. A Brookings Institution report found earlier that suburban poverty rose 25 percent from 1999 to 2008. Across the Valley, people make frequent use of this region’s strong food security network, at survival centers supplied by, among other sources, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

The study does provide a unified sense of what most ails New England’s struggling middle class. Staff members of 200 community organizations provided data that enabled the Fed to rank the problems faced by the suburban poor: a lack of jobs, costly housing and expensive, or unavailable, transportation. Long-term unemployment is yet another problem as common in the suburbs as anywhere else, the report determined.

Meanwhile, in another galaxy ....

In tough times, who doesn’t appreciate access to a shopping bargain? Helping people find them is the mission of a 2-year-old magazine called DuJour. The first deal comes with the subscription. It costs nothing to receive the glossy DuJour four times a year. A bit of largesse from the Gilt Groupe, its publisher? Hold the phone. Not just anybody can get on this mailing list. To receive free copies of DuJour, recipients must meet at least five of these seven criteria: 1. Net worth over $5 million.

Well, we have six more chances.

Criteria 2 through 7: A house worth over $1.5 million; average annual income over $250,000; liquid assets of $1 million; online annual spending of at least $10,000; offline yearly spending of at least $100,000; and donations to philanthropies of at least $10,000 a year.

Some no doubt own houses in the suburbs, but they live in a different America.

The New York Times reported last week that 250,000 people were welcomed into DuJour’s financial circle — based on its first outside audit — and receive free access to both the magazine’s print and digital versions. Millions more get newsletters and insider tips on fashion markdowns. DuJour’s readers are “fashion-forward” types willing to spend heavily to show it. That’s why a 50-percent discount on a $3,000 Ralph Lauren Black Label suit, for instance, carries such allure. Only Gilt Groupe customers get the discount … from fashion companies that crave a pipeline to fashionistas.

Everybody loves a discount. Perhaps that just goes to show: the rich are people too.