Market Trends

Poised for an Era of Growth

This could be the advent of another period of expansion for CUs.

January 3, 2012

My first job out of college was as a sportswriter for a small publishing company that ran a stable of community newspapers. It was 1974. I was paid $135 a week.

One year after I started, one of the editors forged the publisher’s name on a check for $2,500 and split for parts unknown. We found out she’d been working under an alias. She’d done time in two states for check kiting and was wanted for a parole violation.

We lost track of her somewhere in Mexico. I don’t know if she’s dead or alive today.

When she skipped, I was running one weekly, and the publisher asked me to manage her paper, too. I requested a raise.

When I told the publisher I was making $150 a week, he pushed back from his desk, glared, and demanded to know how I ended up making that much money (in language a little too colorful for publication).

Fortunately, the publisher’s son (who actually ran the business) was also at the meeting. We agreed on $175 a week.

At the time, I had a loan on a 1973 Ford Pinto I’d bought for $2,300, and I was making monthly payments of $66.18 on student loans. I had no credit card.

Young and single, I had no doubt my financial situation would improve. I would likely marry, buy a house, and have kids. I figured the finances would work out OK—at least as well as my parents’ had. And they did eventually.

I bring up the past because young people of my generation had more faith in their future than do a lot of young people today.

You might not agree with the tactics of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, but it’s hard not to empathize with some of their sen¬timents and fears.

The wealth gap between younger and older Americans has stretched to the widest on record, according to a Pew Research Center report. “The Rising Age Gap in Economic Well-Being” reveals that the typical household headed by a person age 65 or older has a net worth 47 times greater than a household headed by someone younger than age 35.

It’s not the gap that matters; you expect a gap between generations. It’s the size of the gap that’s troubling. The wealth gap is now double what it was five years ago and five times greater than 25 years ago. This can’t be good for our country’s future.

And this is only the latest in a slew of recent reports from credible sources that highlight the financial challenges facing American households, particularly the young. The
Congressional Budget Office released a major study addressing trends in household income distribution during the past 30 years.

In a nutshell: The rich have gotten richer and middle-income Americans might no longer be a “middle-class.”

Recently credit unions have benefited from grassroots anger toward large banks and Wall Street. Thousands of consumers have switched their accounts to credit unions. Bank Transfer Day was an organic event started by one woman who used Facebook to initially spread the word to her personal network.

Credit unions’ reputation for putting their members before profit has earned them a phenomenal amount of goodwill. Credit unions alone can’t reverse the disturbing
economic trends affecting consumer households and younger Americans, but they have a role to play.

The great American middle-class, now disappearing, grew following the Great Depression and World War II—a time that coincided with the great expansion of credit unions. That’s not a coincidence.

This could be the advent of another expansion era for credit unions and financial security for households—if we have the courage to seize the day.

Young Americans need to believe in the future again.

MARK CONDON is CUNA’s senior vice president, business and consumer publishing. Contact him at 608-231-4078.