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The U.S. Is In The Midst Of An Affordability Crisis, 'Atlantic' Writer Argues


The Dow, the Nasdaq, the S&P - they all ended positive for the week. All saw all-time highs, not uncommon for the markets these days. And as we know, the U.S. is in a record-setting period of job growth. That's the backdrop for the next presidential race. We'll have the latest from Nevada, the next state up in the primary process, in a moment. But first, what do those rollicking economic numbers actually feel like for most Americans? Annie Lowrey writes about that in the latest issue of The Atlantic. She calls it "The Great Affordability Crisis." She joins us now from San Francisco. Thanks so much for being with us.

ANNIE LOWREY: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What does this affordability crisis look like for an American family when they look at their budget?

LOWREY: What's happening is that the out-of-pocket cost for health care, the price of higher education, the price of child care and the price of housing, whether you are looking to buy or rent - all of those prices are increasing faster than wage growth. So this is a huge problem in those high-productivity, high-cost coastal cities. It is hitting the suburbs. And it is hitting Bertie County, N.C., and Irion County, Texas, too. There are reports finding that people are spending more than half of their income on housing in those rural places, as well. And so every place is feeling less affordable. And that's really not a trend that we've seen before. And it's really squeezing a lot of families.

SIMON: Why has housing become so difficult to afford in - well, in places we've - we don't think it should be a problem?

LOWREY: It seems that it is a combination of underinvestment in construction after the housing crisis. And it's also in rural areas. The issue is that incomes have lagged so badly that people are no longer to make payments on homes like they were used to.

SIMON: Let me ask about health care because the Affordable Care Act, one of the first major policies of the Obama administration, had hoped to contain - was often the phrase - health care costs. That hasn't quite happened, has it?

LOWREY: So overall in the entire economy, the issue is not that health care costs are growing dramatically. The issue is that the burden placed on families is. So just between 2010 and 2016, the cost burden of family private insurance premiums jumped 28%, whereas incomes rose less than 20%. And on top of that, deductibles, which is what you have to pay before your insurance is kicking in - they soared. They've become much more common. And they've gotten much bigger. And that means that families are needing to spend a lot of their own money on top of paying for premiums or receiving public health coverage.

SIMON: The Trump administration has criticized the Affordable Care Act. Have they offered an alternative?

LOWREY: They have not. The Trump administration, to its credit, has initiatives on housing. It has initiatives on child care. It does not have true initiatives in terms of making health care more affordable and covering the remaining millions of Americans who do not have insurance coverage.

SIMON: Let's turn to the Democrats. Any distinctions that you've noticed in the proposals of various Democratic candidates on things like making child care more affordable or the price of an education or housing?

LOWREY: So in most other rich countries, there tends to be things like child allowances that let you pay for daycare or, you know, things like universal pre-K, which we don't have. There's a huge emphasis on those zero to five proposals among all the Democratic candidates. And that's because childcare is just grotesquely unaffordable for families who are middle income and below and even families who are high income. The Trump administration, for its part, has pushed for childcare to basically be written off on your taxes, which would subsidize the wealthiest families the most but would act as a significant subsidy to all families.

SIMON: What about housing? Any proposals in the campaign - in various campaign pipelines that would affect the cost of affordable housing?

LOWREY: Absolutely. So there are a number of proposals that would functionally force states and local governments to ease the regulations around building new housing. There are other proposals to expand public housing - boost to low-income tax credit, increase funding for HUD. All of these ideas would probably help. And I would note that there's a lot of energy around this. Right now Donald Trump is running completely correctly on the strength of the economy. Where Democrats have a real toehold to criticize Republicans is that families still feel very financially fragile. About 2 in 5 adults would struggle to come up with $400 in an emergency. They would be forced to do something like selling an asset - so, you know, a bicycle, a car or something like that - to come up with the money or would have to put it on a credit card. And so this very good economy doesn't feel great to a lot of families. And that's a point that you've seen Democrats raise and will continue to raise.

SIMON: Annie Lowrey of The Atlantic - her piece, "The Great Affordability Crisis Breaking America." Thank you so much for being with us.

LOWREY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.