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America’s Uncounted Debt

Already, America’s dept will reach $13 trillion this year. By 2020, this will increase to $22 trillion. If this figure isn’t disturbing enough, consider the hidden cost of debt. There are potential debt bombs that aren’t included within the budget analysis of the US economy.

When talking about US debt, it typically includes two figures including the debt held by the public and what the federal government owes to trust funds such as Social Security and Medicare. Revenues from those programs were used to cover other outlay. Debt to these establishments is approaching $5 billion.

These figures may be big but what’s even more worrying is the debts that are not included in the books. Among these are:

Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac Losses

As giant mortgage lenders, these companies have enjoyed implicit government backing for years. As a result, investors were falsely assured that if anything went wrong, Uncle Sam would step in. Something did go wrong, and it went wrong in a big way.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) did an account for both companies. Though the figure isn’t clear what the total impact of the companies will have on the congressional budget, Amherst Securities said that it can reach $448 billion – with some portions covered by outside parties. Total loss to the government may reach $370 billion in 2020.

Unfunded Promises

The accrued debt of the government to Social Security and Medicare won’t be easy to pay, especially given the increase in government spending and drop in revenue. Len Burman from the Syracuse University said that “Lawmakers need to acknowledge they have no way of funding them right now.”

But this future entitlement was not included in the current budget. Within the next decade for Medicare and by 2037 for Social Security, these organizations won’t be able to collect enough to cover the benefits promised. The government will need to make up for the difference by borrowing.

Cost of Tax Breaks

People love tax breaks. However, for the government, this means lower revenue. While no one wants to abolish tax breaks, the government budget should treat it as discretionary spending to reflect to true cost of tax breaks. Through this, lawmakers can look at figures and recognize the cost associated with their decision.

The Pitfalls of Living off Severance Packages

The severance package is supposed to shoulder the financial shock of unemployment. However, for many laid-off workers, it also provides a false sense of security. Take the example of Paul Joegriner. Since he was laid-off as CEO of a small bank in March 2008 and with it his $200,000 pay was gone, he hasn’t worked since. His lifestyle including that of his family remains in comfort though due to savings and the severance pay.

He has been offered several jobs, all below what he used to earn. He decided to decline in the hope of landing something better. Mr. Joegriner, along with countless others in the US, may be classified as members of what is described as the “severance economy”. These are the individuals who used their severance pay to maintain their old lifestyles. Most lost their jobs in 2007 and 2008. Up to now, many remain unemployed.

Michelle Patterson was working for a publishing company when she was laid-off in January. However, she wasn’t concerned at the start because she has $20,000 from savings and severance combined. Eating out, drinking coffee at Starbucks, and paying for beauty treatments inevitably took a tool on her finances. A few months later, there still wasn’t any work, her condo already in the market for six months had no buyer, and her money is almost gone.

Like Mr. Joegriner, she had to take drastic cuts on her spending. Ms. Patterson doesn’t go to fancy salons anymore neither does she go to Starbucks every day. Similar to others in her situation, she doesn’t find it easy to adjust from a $140,000 to unemployment. However, Ms. Patterson muses that she should have cut her spending earlier.

Lawmakers have extended unemployment benefit for up to 20 weeks but t is expected to run out by the end of the year. 1.3 million Individuals are still depending on it. In addition, companies have trimmed severance packages from 21.8 weeks to 12.5 weeks salary. Some are even eliminating it altogether. Certain sectors including the auto and the financial industry have borne the brunt of the damage. Changes in the industry may mean that the eliminated jobs will not come back; the standard of living of its workers might take a permanent hit.

Consumers Still Hurting Despite Loan and Card Reforms

It is still possible to get credit today even if you’re in a terrible financial mess. However, be prepared to shoulder the cost of it. Despite sweeping reforms in the credit card law that are designed to stop banks from plunging borrowers deeper in debt, banks are still lending with devastating terms.

Consider the interest rate charged on some subprime credit cards: 59.9 percent. This is unfair and unrealistic whichever way you look at it. There are also an array of cards and loans available from prepaid cards to payday loans, which comes with a very high rate.

Bank’s Point of View

Financial institutions reason that the high interest rates and fees they charge are prerequisites of the business. This is because they are taking the risk that borrowers will default on the loan. They reason out that putting a cap on their interest rate will put them out of business. And even put consumers who need money most with no recourse than to rely on public services.

Nevertheless, President Obama and advocacy groups want better consumer protection. The President is pushing for a consumer protection agency that will oversee how financial products are handled. Right now though, its future is uncertain and negotiations are still underway for a more sweeping reform.

Worse Options?

Kathleen Day from the Center of Responsible Lending said that, “It’s in nobody’s interest to lend people money they can’t afford to repay.” That’s probably why about a quarter of households are not associated with any bank. Even if they are, many rely on alternative services such as payday loans, prepaid cards, or subprime credit cards.

As opposed to McDonald’s 14,000 branches, there are about 22,000 payday loan branches around the United States. This presence highlights the fact that many consumers are in a pinch. Around 19 million people took advantage of their services last year because it is a quick way to get cash. Basically, you just need to give the lender a postdated check of the loan amount plus the fee. Payday lenders usually ask for $15 or more for $100 borrowed.

On the surface, it is easy to understand the fee. But when you look closely, the average fee on the $100 loan translates to an interest of 391 percent in an annualized rate. While some states have banned payday lending, others worry that this may choke off an important source of money for cash-strapped individuals.

The New American Poor

Most Americans would never have thought it would come to this. The human toll of the recession is still increasing even as the economy shows signs of improvements. Millions of people remain out of work, with their unemployment benefits nearly running out. As majority of these individuals no longer have any savings to speak of, they are staring poverty in the face.

Strains on the Social Safety Nets

Analysts believe that the recovery will not be strong enough to uplift the long-term unemployed. They fear that more Americans will be left behind in this recovery compared to past recessions. These individuals might be classified into a new category: the new poor. They have long been accustomed to middle class life because of their previous employment. Now, they are relying exclusively on public assistance to see them through.

However, even the social safety nets in place are showing severe signs of stress. The unemployed may potentially rely on public services for years to come unless their situation improves. It is estimated that 2.7 million people will lose their unemployment checks by April unless it is extended. Without it, social organizations will be strained under the weight of its responsibilities.

Another disturbing figure is that the number of individuals unemployed for six months or longer is at its largest since 1948, when the government started tracking. They are now composed of 6.3 million people. Men have suffered the brunt of the recession. However, women between the ages of 45 to 64 were also severely affected.

Scarcity of Jobs

The scarcity of jobs even during recovery can be attributed to a range of factors. Some are already embedded in the modern economy. Majority of large businesses are now owned by institutional investors looking for fast profit, usually done by shedding staff. In addition, the manufacturing and some white-collar work have been outsourced to Latin America and Asia. A lot of companies are also hiring temporary staff and part-time workers.

Economic recessions usually forces people out of the middle class. Once recovery starts though, most will recover. In today’s case though, economists think that it will be difference. The economy will need to generate at least 100,000 new jobs in a month just to absorb new entrants. But with over 15 million people officially jobless right now, even a vigorous recovery will leave most unemployed.

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