The Census Reports Our Recoil From The Recession

They say statistics are cold and impersonal, but this week the U.S. Census released some data that provide a glimpse of some of the far-reaching and intimate ways the recession has touched our lives. Host Scott Simon talks with Washington Post financial columnist Michelle Singletary.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

They say that statistics can be cold and impersonal. But this week the U.S. Census Bureau released some data that provides a glimpse of some of the far- reaching and intimate ways the recession - technically believed to have ended in June, 2009 - has touched our lives.

Michelle Singletary of the Washington Post, who writes the syndicated column The Color of Money, joins us.

Michelle, thanks so much for being with us.

MICHELLE SINGLETARY: Oh, you're welcome.

SIMON: Some of the findings I guess wouldn't be surprising. Homeownership dropped, according to the 2009 American Community Survey. Demand for food stamps has increased. But fewer people over 18 are getting married.

SINGLETARY: That's right. Yeah. I was a little surprised of that. But that's been trending even before the recession. You know, more and more young folks are living together or choosing not to marry because it's so expensive to get divorced. Unfortunately, they don't realize that whether you're living together or divorced, it's still expensive.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SINGLETARY: But definitely the recession has postponed marriage for a lot of folks because they worry about the cost.

SIMON: More people fell below the poverty line. That's brings it up to almost 43 million.

SINGLETARY: Yeah.

SIMON: That's almost 15 percent of the U.S. population.

SINGLETARY: I mean that's devastating. I mean that's really devastating news, that we have so many - I mean just think about that number. Millions of people living below the poverty line. And what does that mean? Because when people hear that it means they can't buy the healthy food that they need. They can't afford health care. They can't afford housing in a decent neighborhood.

In lots of cases they can't afford supplies for the kids to go to school or even think about sending their kids to college.

SIMON: Michelle, people write you for advice. What struck you about some of their notes?

SINGLETARY: You know, I think the most heart-wrenching emails that I get, and I get (unintelligible) dozens and dozens - every single day of my life I get an email from someone in financial trouble and it's the notes from people who did everything right. It's like I'm going to tear up now because, you know, they saved, they went to college, they got married, they waited to have kids when it was the right time, and here they are, unemployed, they've gone through their savings, they can't afford health care, and they're not worried about buying a DVR or the next Blu-ray, they're worried about, you know, having health care if their kid gets sick.

SIMON: Yeah.

SINGLETARY: And I think that's the thing that is so heart-wrenching. And then I get emails from people who did all the wrong things, you know, they bought the McMansions, they had credit card debt that was just crazy. But you have to feel for those people too, because they bought into the American dream. They achieved the American dream, only they did it on credit.

SIMON: I was struck by another statistic in here, is that the number of hours people worked fell by over half and hour a week.

SINGLETARY: Yeah.

SIMON: This is often people who are self-employed, so they would be, you know, people who repair things, for example.

SINGLETARY: Right. You know, small businesses, people who are entrepreneurs and sort of trying to do it on their own, they saw a lot of their business go away. I mean when you are having tough financial times, you're not likely to fix that leaking sink right away. You're not going to do some of the home improvements that would make your life a little bit better.

SIMON: Another statistic I know - real median household income fell by almost three percent last year. Yet I sure don't think prices fell by three percent.

SINGLETARY: No. It's tough. It's tough when prices rise and your wages are going down. And this economy has hit us in a way that just we weren't used to. But, you know, in some ways, in just a tiny bit of me, I think it was a good thing. Because we were in a position that we shouldn't have been. There were far too many people living above their means, and I think this was the wake-up call that we needed. Unfortunately, it was a pretty, you know, when you're in a good sleep and someone sort of slaps you awake and you get jolted, it's not a good way to wake up. But I'm hoping and praying that when this is over - because it will end - that we learn from what happened, that we take these lessons and do better with our finances, both personally, corporately, and our government.

SIMON: Michelle Singletary of the Washington Post. Her nationally syndicated column is The Color of Money.

Thanks so much.

SINGLETARY: You're welcome.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: