Rising costs, falling income, and waving at the Rockefeller helicopter

Money Queen
Money Queen (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s an honest, powerful and deeply depressing blog post about what American life when your income is falling and costs going through the roof:

Hubby left and again, he had to stop off at the gas station to fill up his car.  He drives around 150 miles per day for his job.  And yes! he drives a fuel efficient car that gets between 35 and 40mpg.  But it’s not working out like we planned.  With the cost of gas at over $4.15 a gallon (and still rising) and the tightness of available money, it’s becoming a nightmare, with no end in sight.

While at the gas pump, the woman in the next booth came over to my husband and asked him if he had any money to give her.  “I need money to buy gas” she said “to get to work.  I don’t have any money to buy gas to get to work nor even come back from work and get home.  Do you have any money to give me, man?” DH then realized the reality of our own financial predicament. He told the woman that he had just been fighting with his own wife over the tightness of money and our own inability to buy food and gas and pay looming tax bills.

The only money I have that I can give you is this dollar bill,” he said and handed the woman the paper dollar bill I found in the parking lot yesterday.

I had breakfast the other morning, (total cost $11.00 for both, plus $1.00 for parking), with a friend who is single and freelancing and faces monthly living costs of $4,000; just her rent and health insurance is $2,000 every month. She has no savings anymore, having won and lost several jobs in our field over the past few years.

She has worked her whole life, like me, in journalism, and at 58 knows that the odds of finding a new full-time job that allows her to meet her living costs and save for retirement are slim-to-none.

Going back to college? For her, financially impossible. Taking some sort of quick, cheap credential? Maybe — but, really, given a choice of a 30, 40 or 58-year-old, who’s going to hire someone that age?

For millions of hard-working, educated, skilled and experienced Americans, a hand-to-mouth existence is the new normal. Especially those over the age of 50.

Here’s a powerful recent story from the Los Angeles Times about how work, even for the most highly educated, is changing for the worse:

Matt Ides has a doctorate in history and extensive teaching experience. Unable to find a full-time, tenure-track job, he took an adjunct teaching position at Eastern Michigan University, where he was paid $3,500 per class. He taught five classes one semester and four the next. One more class and the university would have had to consider him a full-time employee under university policy.

If not for his girlfriend’s salary, he said, “I would have had to live in a one-room apartment and eat soup every day.”

I moved to the U.S. in January 1988. As a brand-new driver, I was exquisitely attuned to the costs of owning, insuring and fueling a vehicle. Gas, then, cost 89 cents a gallon — today, it’s between $3.90 and $4.15 or more.

The price of groceries has shot through the roof. The cost of commuting to New York City, a daily necessity for my husband who works there, and for me to meet with clients and actually enjoy Manhattan occasionally, just rose, again, by 10 percent.

Jose and some others at his workplace are represented by a union, initially offered a 0 percent (yes) raise by his employer, The New York Times. They won a fat 2 percent a year — and the Times is considered, by some, a career pinnacle, a place you work long and hard to achieve.

I recently pulled out some old paperwork, and found an invoice from 1997 — 16 years ago — for $900. I just accepted an assignment last week from the Times for $900.

Nothing, anywhere — shoes, clothes, food, gas, insurance, dental bills, haircuts — costs what it did 16 years ago. Anyone attending university in the U.S. knows this firsthand, as tuition costs have skyrocketed, while incomes are stagnant and jobs hard to find.

Here’s the story of a graduate student at Duke, (named for the tobacco fortune family who founded it), who lived in a van in a parking lot so he could actually afford school. In a van.

Money - Black and White Money
Money – Black and White Money (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Few of us are less educated, more stupid, more lazy or unwilling to work hard than we were 10 or 15 or 20 years ago.

Stagnant and falling wages for most of us are simply killing our desire, and ability, to get ahead of our monthly basic costs— to save for short or long-term needs, whether retirement, car repair, education, medical bills or (imagine), a vacation.

I’ve thought about moving far upstate, where we could probably buy an old house for cash and pay very little in property taxes. Socially? Death. Professionally, nothing would be there for my husband, who makes almost three times what I do. Making an even longer commute — with less time for himself and for us? Not a great option either.

So, moving isn’t really a smart choice. Neither Jose or I, (both award-winning veterans in our field), have advanced degrees, so no teaching jobs are open to us, even as a poorly-paid adjunct.

I had lunch recently with an editor who did exactly that, moved to the Catskills with her husband and baby. She lasted two miserable, lonely, broke years and now lives back in Manhattan.

We could, I suppose, go to a much smaller, rural place somewhere very far away in the Midwest — distant from our friends, colleagues, neighbors and social networks. But I tried rural life, for 18 months when I was 30. Sorry, for those who thrive on it, I hated it, never so lonely, broke and miserable in my life. Unless in that other place you have dear friends, loving family and/or steady work that will really help you thrive, I don’t see much appeal in moving anywhere else at this point.

And every day, right over my head, I hear the sound of income inequality — as a helicopter thud-thud-thuds across the sky very close to my balcony. It’s a Rockefeller, flying to work in Manhattan, 25 miles south; their huge, gated estate lies about a 10-minute drive north of our town.

How’s things with you these days financially?

Are you as worried as I am?

Related articles

Venti Skim Latte — Stat!

coffeeDon’t bend, kids!

That’s a 120-year-old idea, Taylorism aka Fordism — the Ford who figured out how to most efficiently use human labor on his car assembly lines —  that Starbucks has now decided to resurrect in its efforts to make service faster and more efficient. Turns out all that “moving, bending and reaching”, as those who prepare and serve your coffee and pastries now do it, is leaching profit. Seems that their old-fashioned ways, (maybe the way people prefer it, the one they built their brand on) are just too slow for today’s consumers. Not to mention expensive, with 24 percent of the company’s costs squandered on all those goateed, tattooed baristas. You know, the ones who remember your order and smile and know your name.

Now, it’s all about the lean thinking.

Writes Julie Jargon in The Wall Street Journal:

Pushing Starbucks’s drive is Scott Heydon, the company’s “vice president of lean thinking,” and a student of the Toyota production system, where lean manufacturing got its start. He and a 10-person “lean team” have been going from region to region armed with a stopwatch and a Mr. Potato Head toy that they challenge managers to put together and re-box in less than 45 seconds.

Mr. Heydon says reducing waste will free up time for baristas — or “partners,” as the company calls them — to interact with customers and improve the Starbucks experience. “Motion and work are two different things. Thirty percent of the partners’ time is motion; the walking, reaching, bending,” he says. He wants to lower that.

Yeah, fewer “partners” moving with the grace and economy of freaking robots.

Sounds like a great idea. Not.