Spokane Journal of Business

Exploring U.S.'s lingering middle-class financial woes

Sociologist cites policy, well-being factors that could be partly to blame

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Since the mid-1980s, unrestrained household spending has damaged American family finances, despite the fact that globalization and technological change have caused consumer prices to fall widely, asserts a sociologist at Queens College in New York City.

In his paper, "The Myth of America's 'Culture of Consumerism': Policy May Help Drive American Household's Fraying Finances," the sociologist, Joseph Nathan Cohen, examines the factors that keep American families from tightening their belts. He presented his findings earlier this week at the 108th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, held in New York.

Here is a brief summary of his findings:

•Household spending generally has been falling on goods that fulfill pleasure, self-esteem, or social status needs, including personal care items, apparel, home furnishings, and automobiles.

•Consumption spending has risen the most in four product categories that shape families' health, safety, and economic viability: health care, education, housing, and commuting costs. Prices in these four product markets have greatly outpaced both wages and prices in general.

•Americans may be systematically pressed to overspend on housing because access to better schools, public services, and transportation infrastructure varies considerably across communities, and better-heeled communities often restrict affordable housing developments. Americans may face a relatively high well-being penalty for living in more modestly-priced homes.

•Compared to other highly-developed countries, the U.S. does considerably less to control the personal financial burden borne by households to ensure access to those products and services considered essential to well-being.

• Soaring tuition and health care costs aren't the principal drivers of household financial distress, but they constitute the fastest-growing problem.

•Americans' penchant to blame household spending problems on wastefulness or frivolities obscures the fact that they increasingly face a lose-lose dilemma in which they must choose between sustainable finances and access to quality schools, child care, medical care, public safety, and employment opportunities.

Cohen, a Canadian with a business background who studied at Princeton, also examines how other countries tackle the provision of essential services in different and potentially less financially damaging ways.

"Canada's policies control the personal financial burden of accessing essential services, which might be why household finances are in better shape there," he says.

The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a nonprofit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society. Papers presented at the ASA annual meeting are typically working papers that haven't yet been published in peer-reviewed journals.

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