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High Wire: The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families

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The U.S. economy is wrapping up twenty-five years of some of the strongest, smoothest growth in its history-a performance so sweet economists have given it a name: “the Great Moderation.” So why have so many of us, even those making hundreds of thousands of dollars, arrived at the new century with a gnawing sense that events are moving against our families and ourselves? T The U.S. economy is wrapping up twenty-five years of some of the strongest, smoothest growth in its history-a performance so sweet economists have given it a name: “the Great Moderation.” So why have so many of us, even those making hundreds of thousands of dollars, arrived at the new century with a gnawing sense that events are moving against our families and ourselves? The easy answer is that we’re suffering a case of needless anxiety. But the easy answer is wrong. Drawing on interviews with hundreds of Americans and new statistics he developed, Peter Gosselin traces a quarter-century shift of economic risk from the broad shoulders of business and government to the backs of working people. It is a shift that has shaken the pillars of most families’ lives-stable jobs, solid benefits, government protections. The change doesn’t mean one can’t prosper. But it does mean the benefits of growth come at greater peril and your financial fall will be steeper if you stumble. This threat to working Americans’ security-and what to do about it-is a pressing concern to economists, policy-makers, and everyone who works for a living.


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The U.S. economy is wrapping up twenty-five years of some of the strongest, smoothest growth in its history-a performance so sweet economists have given it a name: “the Great Moderation.” So why have so many of us, even those making hundreds of thousands of dollars, arrived at the new century with a gnawing sense that events are moving against our families and ourselves? T The U.S. economy is wrapping up twenty-five years of some of the strongest, smoothest growth in its history-a performance so sweet economists have given it a name: “the Great Moderation.” So why have so many of us, even those making hundreds of thousands of dollars, arrived at the new century with a gnawing sense that events are moving against our families and ourselves? The easy answer is that we’re suffering a case of needless anxiety. But the easy answer is wrong. Drawing on interviews with hundreds of Americans and new statistics he developed, Peter Gosselin traces a quarter-century shift of economic risk from the broad shoulders of business and government to the backs of working people. It is a shift that has shaken the pillars of most families’ lives-stable jobs, solid benefits, government protections. The change doesn’t mean one can’t prosper. But it does mean the benefits of growth come at greater peril and your financial fall will be steeper if you stumble. This threat to working Americans’ security-and what to do about it-is a pressing concern to economists, policy-makers, and everyone who works for a living.

30 review for High Wire: The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families

  1. 4 out of 5

    C

    I think too many reviewers missed the point. This is a book about businesses and government shifting risk onto individuals - risks that are so financially ruinous that almost no one - even some of the most wealthy among us - can self-insure against them. It is about the rise of inequality created by these free markets. While business productivity and profits went up almost 70% over the past 25 years, median weekly compensation for full time workers rose only 19%. It is about increased volitility I think too many reviewers missed the point. This is a book about businesses and government shifting risk onto individuals - risks that are so financially ruinous that almost no one - even some of the most wealthy among us - can self-insure against them. It is about the rise of inequality created by these free markets. While business productivity and profits went up almost 70% over the past 25 years, median weekly compensation for full time workers rose only 19%. It is about increased volitility and instability: 10% of American families will loose half or more of their income from one year to the next, roughly double the risk in the mid-1970's. Annual swings in income for middle class families have risen from 17% to 26%. It is a call for a return to shared responsibility. In High Wire, LA Times correspondent Peter Gosselin sets out to show how even in the boom of the last 30 years, the social contracts which allows everyday people to live their lives with relative stability have been steadily fraying in the push towards an unfettered free market economy. This has led to growth and prosperity overall, but has also transferred risk from the shoulders of business and governments to individual families. And the risks are grave: get divorced, get sick or loose your job, and you could loose everything. The idea isn't that people shouldn't take responsibility for themselves - they should - but that the basic forms of protections (insurance, pensions, health care) are shifting the burden of risk and catastrophe onto the shoulders of Americans. That, due to changes in the laws, even people who are insured can find themselves holding the bag should a catastrophe strike them. It's a sobering look at the state of the state, from the precarious nature of employment today to the spiraling costs of healthcare pushing more and more people to bankruptcy. On the cover of this book Mark Shields proclaims "If you have time to read only two books this year about the condition of the country and the challenges we all face, do yourself a favor and read High Wire twice." I completely agree.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    Christ, that was depressing.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Angela

    "High Wire" shocked, depressed, and terrified me as it illustrated just how quickly and thoroughly unexpected events can knock us down. The descriptions of benefits changes over the last few decades and their effects on a few people who had the audacity to develop degenerative diseases after working hard started things off powerfully and convincingly. If the rest of the book had continued with the same punch and pace, it would've rated four or even five stars in my mind, but although "High Wire" "High Wire" shocked, depressed, and terrified me as it illustrated just how quickly and thoroughly unexpected events can knock us down. The descriptions of benefits changes over the last few decades and their effects on a few people who had the audacity to develop degenerative diseases after working hard started things off powerfully and convincingly. If the rest of the book had continued with the same punch and pace, it would've rated four or even five stars in my mind, but although "High Wire" was a well-written, solid read, the first few chapters definitely contain the hardest hitting statistics, stories, and new information. Particularly interesting was the description of ERISA and how it has been gradually used to justify grossly mishandeling insurance claims of consumers without any compensation for their troubles. The statistical analysis that showed the greater instability of individual incomes over a lifetime are also fascinating. These chapters are definitely the highlights. One of the thing that makes them hit home particularly strongly is that the individual stories describe people who have done everything "right." They saved large amounts when times were good, they worked hard, they found jobs with good benefits and didn't take on more responsibilities than most people would say they could afford....and yet were still destroyed through no fault of their own. Things become slightly more convoluted in later chapters - particularly housing and education - with fewer statistics to back up the author's assertions. However, "High Wire" is still a worthwhile, powerful read that I won't forget any time soon. It also gave me some insight, which may or may not be correct, about why politics have become such a generational thing: younger people have grown up in a fundamentally different world than those retired now. They've come of age in a world in which individual risk was tremendously increased, and they aren't always happy to accept the increased risk in return for a shot at greater success. Unfortunately, there's no easy take home message beyond get married, stay married, live on one income, and do not under any circumstances develop an illness.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Monte

    L.A. Times economics correspondent Gosselin outlines the current economic situation of American families in light of specific policies initiated since the stalled economy of the 1970s. Today, Gosselin finds, fewer households are likely to fall into financial ruin, but those who do experience layoffs, expensive medical problems, foreclosure or other financial strain have a much harder time bouncing back, as old social safety nets have been systematically unraveled. Gosselin argues that in today's L.A. Times economics correspondent Gosselin outlines the current economic situation of American families in light of specific policies initiated since the stalled economy of the 1970s. Today, Gosselin finds, fewer households are likely to fall into financial ruin, but those who do experience layoffs, expensive medical problems, foreclosure or other financial strain have a much harder time bouncing back, as old social safety nets have been systematically unraveled. Gosselin argues that in today's economy, families and individuals are assuming an unprecedented amount of financial risk; another aspect of the new economy is that upper-middle class families are at just as much risk as the less well-off. Each chapter takes an in-depth look at a different facet of the economy, healthcare, retirement, education and rebuilding New Orleans among them. Gosselin also discusses "unjobs," short-term and freelance gigs secured by an increasingly desperate labor force, and the new indispensability of two-income households. Though scholarly, Gosselin's writing is effortlessly readable, bolstered by anecdotes from real people facing financial adversity. Packed with insight and understanding, this no-nonsense look at the present and future of the American Dream should be of interest to any wage-earner or salary-man

  5. 4 out of 5

    E

    Examining the downside of the ownership society Peter Gosselin discusses real problems that American families face today, especially those of the working poor. However, he views the past nostalgically. Nostalgia can be comforting, as you retreat from an uncomfortable present to a better past. You imagine former times as simpler, richer and nobler than the reality with which you struggle each day. But people of the past faced problems, too, and those led them to make the choices that resulted in t Examining the downside of the ownership society Peter Gosselin discusses real problems that American families face today, especially those of the working poor. However, he views the past nostalgically. Nostalgia can be comforting, as you retreat from an uncomfortable present to a better past. You imagine former times as simpler, richer and nobler than the reality with which you struggle each day. But people of the past faced problems, too, and those led them to make the choices that resulted in the current situation. Gosselin sincerely wishes to improve society. His perspective is progressive. Politically conservative readers may fear that his solution would turn more of the U.S. economy over to the control of politicians and bureaucrats, concentrating power and decision making into fewer hands. However, the book is a passionately written cry from the heart; if nothing else, it is a wake-up call. getAbstract recommends it to human resource personnel who are concerned about work-family balance and benefits, as well as to current-events junkies and observers of politics and the economy.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Bill Subalusky

    Extremely well written, easy to read and most interesting. I give it the highest rating even though I disagree with the not too well hiddern agenda of the author who seems to want just a little bit of communism. I also disagree with his implication that American citizens cannot handle responsibility themselves and need Mother Government to help them. This book should be read by every American under 35. It accurately describes the problems faced by this generation that were not faced by the previo Extremely well written, easy to read and most interesting. I give it the highest rating even though I disagree with the not too well hiddern agenda of the author who seems to want just a little bit of communism. I also disagree with his implication that American citizens cannot handle responsibility themselves and need Mother Government to help them. This book should be read by every American under 35. It accurately describes the problems faced by this generation that were not faced by the previous generation. The lesson to be taken away from the book is: All safety nets have gone away or are going away, so you need to make your own. Reduce your spending to considerably lower then you can afford, and save until it hurts and then save some more.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Nikki

    This is a pretty scary book, with a lot of ideas that it would behoove the new administration to look at. The author's thesis is that, in spite of the prosperity of the past 20 years and the lessened likelihood of unemployment, the risks most people run (reduced income, catastrophic medical bills, insurance problems, pension problems, etc) have actually increased. A lot of Gosselin's examples were familiar stories, but the chapter on homeowner's insurance was a definite eye-opener for me. Not th This is a pretty scary book, with a lot of ideas that it would behoove the new administration to look at. The author's thesis is that, in spite of the prosperity of the past 20 years and the lessened likelihood of unemployment, the risks most people run (reduced income, catastrophic medical bills, insurance problems, pension problems, etc) have actually increased. A lot of Gosselin's examples were familiar stories, but the chapter on homeowner's insurance was a definite eye-opener for me. Not the most fun read you'll ever have, and lots of statistics, but frequent case studies add interest. Recommended.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Josh

    A very disturbing account of the lack of protections the average american family has against virtually any of the likely catastrophes that may befall them. The idea of insurance is definitely being erased in modern times. Particularly disturbing is the lack of ability to sue any organization which gives employee benefits due to ERISA and the disturbing trend of insurance companies to deny coverage in precisely those catastrophic instances in which you need it most.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Tracey

    Adult nonfiction; economics/current events. A seriously scary (and, given the events of the last 6 months since it was published, very prophetic) book about what could happen to you, and subsequently bring financial ruin. Gosselin writes about the dangers of a booming economy and what happens when seemingly "well off" people find they are not as secure as they thought they were. He tackles health care, retirement plans, disaster insurance, and other important issues. Adult nonfiction; economics/current events. A seriously scary (and, given the events of the last 6 months since it was published, very prophetic) book about what could happen to you, and subsequently bring financial ruin. Gosselin writes about the dangers of a booming economy and what happens when seemingly "well off" people find they are not as secure as they thought they were. He tackles health care, retirement plans, disaster insurance, and other important issues.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Dawn

    This book is about how the financial risks in the US have moved from companies to individuals. It was interesting, but as someone who hasn't known anything else it didn't have much impact. I remember my parents' shocked at being laid off in the 80s and I couldn't understand why they thought a company would have any loyalty. I grew up in a completely different world. This book is about how the financial risks in the US have moved from companies to individuals. It was interesting, but as someone who hasn't known anything else it didn't have much impact. I remember my parents' shocked at being laid off in the 80s and I couldn't understand why they thought a company would have any loyalty. I grew up in a completely different world.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Emily

    @ neither. An NPR interview with the author sparked my interest in this book. He said, basically, that if you spend as much money as you make you are ok, unless something happens. Then you bite it hard. Well, duh. So, I am interested to see if he has anything to say that is not 'duh'. The reviews look good. @ neither. An NPR interview with the author sparked my interest in this book. He said, basically, that if you spend as much money as you make you are ok, unless something happens. Then you bite it hard. Well, duh. So, I am interested to see if he has anything to say that is not 'duh'. The reviews look good.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Desiree

    Another disturbing read about the state of the American economy! If found it a bit hard to read, only because it was depressing. Otherwise, the writing is easy to read with personal stories mixed in with the facts.... If you are wondering what has been happening to society over the past several decades, this is a good choice!

  13. 5 out of 5

    Clint Johnson

    I think that our society needs to find the balance between helping everyone and individuals taking personal responsibility for their lives. This book helped me see that even the most responsible people are now more vulnerable than they would have been in the past.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Kelly

    Mostly just scary. If any of my friends care, this is the type of law I practice.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Barbara Ray

    this managed to both tick me off and scare me.

  16. 4 out of 5

    MA

  17. 5 out of 5

    Patrick Bair

  18. 5 out of 5

    Ethan

  19. 4 out of 5

    Janet

  20. 4 out of 5

    Marc Ballon

  21. 4 out of 5

    Alissa

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jaya

  23. 5 out of 5

    Justin S Davis

  24. 4 out of 5

    Perpetual Poet

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jerry

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Houston

  27. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

  28. 4 out of 5

    Tess

  29. 4 out of 5

    Mark Paul

  30. 5 out of 5

    Mandy

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