On November 22nd, the Asset Building Program hosted a panel of experts to discuss how Americans are faring in the years since the Great Recession according to different measures. Speakers from Wider Opportunities for Women, the Half in Ten Campaign, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and Pew’s Economic Mobility Project joined moderator, Rachel Black, for a discussion of current data and indicators, who’s falling short according to these measures and by how much, and policy ideas for making progress.
Rachel Black noted in her introduction that, two years past the worst recession since the Great Depression, hardship is still pervasive. Income-based measures may not go far enough in capturing the multidimensional needs that contribute to a family’s wellbeing and present a limited tool for prescribing solutions. This event used multiple indicators to illustrate poverty, mobility, and economic security to better depict how families are really doing today.
Matt Unrath, Director of the National Family Economic Security Program at Wider Opportunities for Women, discussed WOW’s efforts to capture family wellbeing by creating Basic Economic Security Tables (BEST), which indexes family budget items and projects the necessary income that families would have to earn in order to cover those expenses. (http://www.wowonline.org/usbest/ ) Unrath highlighted a lack of affordable housing, accessible transportation options, and quality child care as major barriers to economic security for low-income parents, and particularly single parents.
Melissa Boteach, Manager of the Half in Ten Campaign, articulated the importance of defining an income threshold below which no family should fall, but also expanding the scope of families with access to critical supports necessary to avoid hardship. She highlighted findings of their new report, Restoring Shared Prosperity, http://halfinten.org/indicators which evaluates how families are faring at the national and state level according to a set of key indicators and three areas where policymakers should focus in order to improve those outcomes: creating good jobs, strengthening families, and promoting economic security.
Next, Indivar Dutta-Gupta from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities discussed the dynamics of inequality. Income inequality, he argues, damages our democracy by making our political process less representative of and less responsive to the needs of people on the low-end of the income spectrum. Additionally, rising income inequality has created a divergence in life expectancy for people at opposite ends of the income spectrum. Progressive taxation, support for worker benefits, and expanding health care access are among the strategies Dutta-Gupta looks to for improving inequality.
Erin Currier, from Pew’s Economic Mobility Project highlighted the importance of relative economic mobility as a key indicator. The data show that many Americans remain stuck in the income category they were born into, particularly at the high and low end of the income spectrum, a phenomenon known as “stickiness at the ends.” While Americans agree that government should support economic mobility, existing strategies target middle and higher income people primarily through the tax code. This leaves lower-income families unable to take advantage of these opportunities to move up the income ladder.
The concluding discussion expanded on the topics detailed in each presentation. The panelists talked more in depth about how income inequality and poverty hurt the United States’ economy and global competitiveness. They also addressed the importance of considering wealth inequality and how opportunities for asset building tend to be concentrated at the top of the income spectrum. Additionally, the panel fielded audience questions about the impact of rising health care costs and the value of using a material deprivation lens to analyze United States poverty.