THE SHRINKING MIDDLE CLASS


In the last blog I commented on the Donald Sterling, Thomas Sowell and Clive Bundy comments the week before. I wonder if letting the hate out just a way to keep us from looking at the bigger picture from a political (and maybe business) perspective? And should utilities we concerned? The answers may be yes, and yes an dhere is why. An August 2012 Pew Research Center report noted that only half of American households are middle-income, down from 61 percent in the 1970s. The shift was downward, not upward as the very rich (0.1%) control 58% of the wealth in the US. In addition, median middle-class income decreased by 5 percent in the last decade, while total wealth dropped 28 percent. The need for social programs, despite cutbacks and revisions to the welfare programs in the Clinton era, have increased – since 2000 Medicaid has increased from 34 million people to 54 million in 2011 and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) from 17 million to 45 million in 2011. Keep in mind that income drives qualification for these services so it means that incomes are down for millions in America. The increase in people needing help is no surprise since there is an ongoing increase in the number of lower-wage service jobs like food preparation, retail and service industry, but the number of middle-class occupations, like teaching and construction, have declined. Since 2010, the State of Florida has added 400,000 jobs, impressive except that the vast majority are service and retail jobs that pay just above minimum wage. The job growth in low wage jobs does not replace the loss of middle income jobs which is why 47% of households did not earn enough to pay income tax in 2103. It is not because they don’t want to, it’s because they don’t get paid enough. And we have tens of millions of these low wage jobs that don’t pay enough for the recipients to pay taxes. Just the opposite of what some of the political discussion would have you believe.

The loss of wages is felt locally more than nationally. It means that local officials hear about costs more because water, sewer, power, etc competes for an ever larger portion of the shrinking paycheck. So we see more attention paid to affordability indexes, the ability to pay. The concept of affordability is to take your annual water and sewer bill and divide it by the average or median local income. The goal is water plus wastewater is under 3.5% of the median income. Keeping the percent low is great and easy when people are making more money, but creates a lot of difficulty when the incomes are static or dropping. An our costs are rising due to the increasing need to maintain and upgrade infrastructure that has been neglected since 1980 (the annual investment is under 1.4% for most of the US infrastructure for the last 30 years. We need to invest above 2.3% to keep up according to GAO).

When income drop, costs become more important, and local water and sewer costs are often easier targets to limit than groceries, rent, power, telephone, cable or other services that are not subject to local official votes. So it is in all of our interests to work with local officials, colleges, vocational schools, public schools et al. to attract or build a economy that features higher income jobs, to get everyone employed, and to provide training, infrastructure, outreach, health care and other help to establish a competent, highly skilled workforce in a community. That means that utilities must support the local efforts to effect social change in the community, to help meet the needs of residents not just with water, but with respect to the local economy as well. Does that mean we are actually agents for social change?

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