Almost half (46%) of 2,148 consumers surveyed recently said they weren't confident they could come up with $2,000 within a month in a crisis--from savings, family, friends, credit cards or other sources.
Even among those earning $100,000 to $149,000 a year. almost 25% doubted they could raise it, according to the survey conducted by research firm TNS with academics from Harvard Business School and Dartmouth College.
"We wanted to know if people could fix a broken car or furnace," says Harvard finance professor Peter Tufano, who adds that most studies he has seen measure "how much cash people have... not how much they can access."
The survey results surprised him. "The ability to cope with emergencies is much less strong than we might have thought."
Business Week, Dec. 18, 2009
And This commentary and analysis by Charles H. Smith:
This survey offers a staggering set of implications. Let's grant that we have no idea if the survey was scientific, but we can assume that the academics from Harvard Business School and Dartmouth College would not besmirch their reputations with wildly inaccurate or fatally less-than-rigorous data collection. Let's follow the idea that 25% of households earning $100,000+ can't lay their hands on a meager $2,000. First off, only about 20% of households earn above $100K. Most households make do on a sum closer to the national median of $46,000.
What does it mean when households not only don't have $2,000 in cash (savings), but they also lack the ability to put their hands on $2,000 from family, friends, or even credit cards?
We can surmise:
1. Their social/family networks are either threadbare or populated by others without savings or credit;
2. Their creditworthiness is near-zero. Either they've maxed out the credit they once had, or their previous credit lines have been cut off in the general reduction of risk/credit, or they are in arrears/default and thus have zero credit.
It's also possible, and perhaps even probable (though we have no data to support this projection) that both are true: most of those in Americans' social networks are in dire straits/hanging by a financial thread and their access to credit either private or institutional is near-zero.
We might even extend our query deeper into social networking, and speculate that many Americans no longer possess a social network populated with people who they could ask for a loan. (A thousand "friends" on Facebook might not replace even one real friend.)
We might also speculate that many citizens are now wary of loaning their dwindling precious reserves of cash to anyone, even friends, who they rightly anticipate will be unable to pay back the loan if the economy continues devolving.
Perhaps the cultural ethics of the nation have been so eroded by the endless (and apparently richly rewarding) scams, fraud, embezzlement, cheating and lying that people no longer trust even their friends to act with fiscal responsibility--a suspicion fueled, perhaps, by the very fact that few were able to save even a paltry $2,000 for a rainy day.
Or it may just be that the majority of Americans are essentially one paycheck or unemployment check away from homelessness and hunger, and thus the social networks of most households are populated by others in the same general economic situation.
If so, we might ask: why have so many households failed to save even a modest sum? Let's grant that many households may well have already consumed their savings as job and pay cuts eroded household income. Medical emergencies alone apparently account for a significant percentage of financial ruination (foreclosures and bankruptcies).
But we would be remiss not to ask if some households have done better than others as the bogus prosperity evaporated, and if so, why. The answer is not difficult but it is terribly painful to those embedded in American culture's permanent adolescence: long-term shared sacrifice.
Those of you who reside in states with large immigrant populations probably know families who bought a home, and by combining three, four or even five incomes, paid off the mortgage in a few years. Was this possible if every household worker spent lavishly on consumer goods and the "luxury lifestyle" propagandized by TV? No. It was only possible if all the earners in the household rejected consumerist appeals to squander money and chose instead to sacrifice desires for the greater good, i.e. reducing the mortgage to zero and assemble a substantial savings (six figures in many cases).
Such thrift was commonplace in the post-Depression decades. People did not trust banks, hence my grandmother has six savings accounts, most with modest sums--she owned more savings accounts than dresses.
I remember my first credit card, which I only applied for after years of accumulating savings. I already owned land before I ever "owned" a credit card. This was common in the so-called "hippie era," which generally distrusted debt and institutions like banks. Hippies paid with cash or barter--at least until they devolved into yuppies.
This is not to suggest every household was financially able to amass substantial savings, but it is an open question to American society: how much credit and cash which could have been saved, with relatively modest applications of sacrifice and restraint, was squandered on "luxury goods," toys and travel?
The zeitgeist (especially television) encouraged rampant consumption and saving has been disincentivised for years by super-low interest rates. Nonetheless we have to ask how many private trillions were squandered, as a sort of cultural match to the trillions in public taxpayer funds squandered to maintain the financial Elites in their positions of power and privilege.
Responsibility for our financial ineptitude and precariousness runs both wide and deep.