Living financially on the fault lines

Published: Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 6:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 6:20 p.m.

Sometimes it helps to see the data that prove the uneven financial ground you're standing on is occupied by a lot of other people as well.

So while the results of a study released recently by the Rockefeller Foundation aren't surprising, the conclusions are nonetheless sobering. Americans have been shaken by economic tremors that have left them both deeply worried about their financial situation and suffering from the hardship, according to findings in "Standing on Shaky Ground: Americans' Experiences with Economic Insecurity."

OK, you might ask, why should I care about this study and others like it?

There are two reasons. First, the study is another reminder of how vulnerable everyone is.

Secondly, the report finds that people are on shaky ground because of repeated economic earthquakes.

It's going to take a lot of work to come up with fiscally sound policies to allay the insecurity that people are feeling about their jobs and health care costs. So what can you do until then?

Once the current economy improves, I'm not so sure enough families will remember how bad it got and fortify their financial situation going forward.

We are a country of consumers with short memories. Once the good times get rolling, I suspect that many people will again overspend and not save enough. They will again load up on debt. Credit card companies are already increasing preapproved credit card offers. During the last quarter of 2009, U.S. households received 398.5 million offers for plastic, a 46 percent increase from the 272.5 million offers received during the preceding quarter, according to the research firm Synovate.

If nothing else, "Standing on Shaky Ground" is a history lesson about the past and present.

"The recent economic downturn represented an especially powerful quake, emanating from two distinctive epicenters: declining employment and disrupted financial markets," write the report's authors, political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Mark Schlesinger of Yale University and Philipp Rehm of Ohio State University. "Yet, Americans faced jarring economic shocks even before the downturn, and continue to do so today."

The findings are drawn from two surveys conducted in the spring and fall of 2009. The assessments, collectively termed the "Survey of Economic Risk Perceptions and Insecurity," focused on four areas: employment, uninsured or out-of-pocket health care expenses, the decline in wealth and family-related money issues.

One would expect people to have experienced economic hardship following the recession, but this report suggests how widespread the financial insecurity became. Here's some of what people experienced:

From March 2008 to September 2009, 93 percent of households saw either a substantial decline in their wealth or earnings, or a huge increase in spending, most often for medical expenses or assistance to family members.

Twenty-three percent of households reported a drop of at least a quarter of their annual household income.

More than half of families with incomes between $60,000 and $100,000 who experienced a job loss or medical expenses said they were unable to meet at least one basic economic need.

The survey results also found that Americans weren't adequately prepared for financial trouble. A little more than 29 percent reported that their household could go six months or longer without experiencing hardship if their earnings were to stop tomorrow.

The researchers acknowledge that while some people lack financial prudence, prior economic shocks and a lack of resources play heavily in the inability of many households to absorb a job loss or high heath care costs.

Repeated financial shocks underscore how important it is to implement basic safeguards, the authors write. That's the policy end.

On the personal front, what are you supposed to do if an actual earthquake hits?

You are supposed to get under a sturdy table or other piece of furniture or use a load-bearing doorway to protect yourself.

Taking cover in the event of a financial earthquake involves planning ahead: Get life insurance if someone is depending on your income; spend less; borrow less; save more.

The authors go a bit overboard with the earthquake metaphors. Still, it works for me. In the aftermath of an earthquake, survivors need to demand from their government and themselves stronger foundations because when there's seismic activity in the future, they'll be better prepared to withstand the tremors.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her e-mail address is Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible.

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