Ricardo came into my office recently for an initial bankruptcy consultation. I could not tell from his work clothes or his shoes or his calloused hands or his kindness or his smile or his steady gaze how much he earns.
He is married; his wife stays home and cares for the family’s children. Ricardo has a boy and a girl, both under 10 years old. I liked him immediately.
I looked at his tax returns for 2013 and 2014. His 2013 gross income was $36,423. His 2014 gross income was $35,897.
Per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the 2015 poverty threshold for a family of four is $24,250. The point isn’t that this man and his wife are raising a family of four on an income that is 150 percent of poverty (the fact that deflated income levels defining poverty in this country are unrealistic is a point unto itself, but, alas, a topic for another day).
No, the point is that Ricardo worked harder and longer in 2014, and he made less money than he did in 2013.
I am no highfalutin’ economist. I am a bankruptcy lawyer in the trenches of American economic reality. But we should all recognize a problem when it hits us between the eyes. Ricardo is the canary in the mineshaft.
The Labor Department just reported that income on average declined for the second straight year in the 12 months ending June 2014. Unless (need I add “of course”?) you were in the top quintile, in which case your income grew in the same time frame. Every other quintile had income deterioration. The bottom quintile — hello, Ricardo — lost the most. Its average income was down 3.5 percent.
Last week, Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen spoke at a Fed conference on getting ahead. She said that too little is known about what family and community traits contribute to economic success and that further research is needed to help “in building an economy in which people are poised to get ahead.”
Emmanuel Saez is an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and is an expert on income equality. His research shows that in 1944 the top 1 percent received 11.3 percent of all pretax income and the bottom 90 percent received 67.5 percent of all pretax income. Per Sanz, in 2012 the top 1 percent received 22.5 percent of all pretax income, and the bottom 90 percent received 49.6 percent of all pretax income.
Recently, Target, Wal-Mart, T.J. Maxx and McDonald’s all have announced that they are voluntarily raising minimum wages paid to employees. This is good news. However, these voluntary increases affect a small number of the total workforce. And, let’s face it, these increases are modest at best. Wal-Mart’s increase, for example, starts this month, and sets the floor at $9 hourly. That is only $1.75 above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 hourly.
Much, much more needs to be done. Yellen is right: We need to learn more about what characteristics are rewarded with financial success. However, the problem is not some innate inchoate deficiency in the bottom 80 percent.
The solutions must be bold. Not radical in a “tear down the walls of the castle” kind of way. There have always been high income earners, and there should be high income earners.
Bold solutions have been offered. Fortune magazine suggests that a tax system based on consumption and not earnings could increase wages across the board. The Huffington Post (yes, the Huffington Post) argues that easing certain policies to encourage entrepreneurship and competition would be helpful. Something needs to be done about student loans. CNN reports that staggering student loans create “debt inequality” inflicting young Americans with the seed of income inequality.
For Ricardo, life goes on. His circumstances won’t change anytime soon, and it is likely he will need to avail himself of the social financial insurance policy called bankruptcy. I asked him if he would like to schedule a follow-up appointment on a Saturday. He declined. He needs to stay home, near the phone. He is on call and might be able to pick up some work.
Ronald J. Lundquist, of Eagan, is an attorney.