While researching the near term US economy, a picture of isolated American consumers began to emerge. Along five dimensions, one-in-seven consumers face unenviable circumstances or have made unfortunate choices. While they are not the same one-seventh of the population in each category, they are likely to have significant overlap. One-in-seven is loosely considered here as around 14% to 15%.
One in seven American adults ages 18 and older does not use the internet or email. They say Internet doesn’t offer what they need, or is difficult to use, or is unaffordable. Free choice is not always exercised wisely. For a few, Internet may offer poor value, but illiteracy is likely a better explanation.
One in seven Americans lacks basic prose literacy skills. That means they cannot read newspapers, magazines, government documents and contracts, maybe they recognize traffic signs. This severely limits the jobs they can handle, and it limits their chances for education. We cannot be fully successful if we don’t read.
One in seven adults lacks any kind of cell phone. Productive and exciting uses for smartphones explain their popularity despite occasional sticker shock. Youth, higher income, and higher education are strong predictors for smartphone ownership. Two percent of adult Americans have neither a cell phone nor a landline; one-in-eight is sufficiently satisfied with their landline to avoid cellular use. Landline loyalists may be people who stay at home or who are very cost sensitive. However, with the breadth and quality of apps common in cellphones, landline-only Americans lose more than just convenience – they are drifting further away from understandings and experiences shared by the mainstream community.
One in seven in the American workforce is unemployed or underemployed. Included are those in the unemployment rate (7.3% in August 2013) who are actively looking for work, plus those wanting fulltime work but can find only part time work, plus those who want and would accept work but have given up looking for it. The stress of unemployment or a puny paycheck is demoralizing, and that’s not offset by knowing others have the same plight.
One in seven Americans have income at or below the poverty line ($11,490 for an individual or $23,550 for a family of four in the 48 contiguous states, during 2013). Any income near the poverty line would be a challenge to live on. At the other end of the spectrum, one in seven households has an annual income of $125,000 or more. By no means are $125,000 families the “rich.” The world must look very different when viewed by the bottom seventh and by the top seventh.
Those avoiding email, Internet and cellphones are drifting away from their natural community. Illiteracy and poor access to quality education block the doors to opportunity. A shortage of decent jobs tells people they are unwanted. Nothing is improved by wedges that further separate us, and it would be arrogant to think we can remedy all of society’s problems.
We need policies that resist events and attitudes pushing Americans away from the center of our community. That’s not done by further impoverishing connected, educated, middle class consumers through chronic recession and brutal taxes. Instead, government must focus on economic growth policies that benefit both mainstream Americans and the isolated fringes.
Alan Daley is a retired businessman who lives in Florida and who writes for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research