US Financial Crisis Hammers the Poor

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Former IMF chief economist, Ken Rogoff worries that the dollar is headed for another dip in today’s FT (go here). He says:

“If the US were an emerging market country, its exchange rate would be plummeting and interest rates on government debt would be soaring”.

Instead the dollar has strengthened over the last month. But he doesn’t think this will continue. Rogoff is worth listening to: over the summer he said a major US financial institution would fail before the end of the year (reported here). And this has now come to pass (with more on the way?).

What does the financial crisis mean for the poor? Earlier in the year we commented on the big rise in the number of people using America’s food banks (see our February and US archives). The US government buys surplus food for distribution through organizations like America’s Second Harvest — and these are facing heavy demand in areas worst hit by the house-price collapse.

Given the US slowdown, unemployment will rise further. With few if any savings, plus the cost of health care (and the fact that many Americans are uninsured), unemployment can quickly push people into poverty. The US prides itself on social mobility (the rags-to-riches story that all those self-help books play upon). But only 6% of children born to parents with a family income at the very bottom move to the very top (see the Economic Mobility Project here). It’s actually a very static society, especially for African Americans.

Unemployment is, in turn, pushing up the default rate in the already hard-pressed mortgage market. This adds to pressure on mortgage-bonds and the balance sheet of the financial sector.

Putting in place effective safety nets for those on low-incomes could help establish a floor under house prices (and thereby indirectly help the dollar, which is Ken Rogoff’s concern). Since many low-income families were lured into mortgages they cannot now afford through so-called ‘teaser rates’ (low interest rates to suck them into debt) they deserve as much help as the banks — if not more.

But we fear that any help will be squeezed out by the fiscal costs of the financial crisis itself (not to mention the continued cost of Iraq: see Joe Stiglitz here on the ‘three trillion dollar war’). And it is very likely that the US will exercise even less voice in international development, since its bilateral and multilateral aid commitments will come under budgetary pressure as any new administration (be it democratic or republican) will focus on domestic priorities first. The bottom line: it’s not just America’s poor who are hammered, but the world’s poor as well.

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