Readers of a book titled Who Stole the American Dream? could be forgiven for initially considering the usual suspects:
By BRIAN BURNES
The Kansas City Star
The Masters of the Universe. The One Percent.
Veteran journalist Hedrick Smith, however, thinks some members of the American middle-class have helped steal the dream from themselves, with encouragement from their alleged financial betters.
Many American homeowners, Smith writes, recently were persuaded that it was smart to routinely access the equity in their homes. One result, Smith writes, was that by 2011 the housing boom and subsequent bust had prompted a massive transfer of wealth from ordinary American families to the banks about $6 trillion, Smith estimates because so many Americans had drained equity out of their residences.
It was not trickle-down, it was gush up, Smith said recently.
At least some middle-class Americans still have their 401(k) accounts. But theres bad news there, too, Smith said especially regarding the decisions made by financial novices who insisted on directing how their assets were allocated.
Many of these 401(k) plans were sold to ordinary people as Do-it-yourself retirement; power to the people, Smith said. Millions of people thought they could beat the market. They were suckers. Americans have done a terrible job of managing their money.
In 2011, Smith says, the median 401(k) balance was less than $18,000. For those in their 60s who had been contributing to 401(k)s for at least 20 years, the median was not quite $85,000.
Many predict that half of the baby boomer generation will not have sufficient funds to cover their basic needs, Smith said.
Such trends, Smith added, have contributed to a gross inequality of income and wealth. While several reviewers have praised Smiths analysis, they also have criticized as naïve his solution: street-level social action. Smith defends that idea, even if the Occupy movement, as some critics maintain, has shown little staying power.
We have to decide to get involved, in the same way that people in the 1960s and 1970s were involved in the civil rights, peace, consumer, environmental and womens movements, he said. I say it is naïve to expect things to change without that happening.
Smith speaks at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. For details, go to KCLibrary.org.
To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.