Four years ago this month, the economy caved in. The collapse of Lehman Brothers set off a cascade that would paralyze the banking industry and plunge our economy into a deep recession. But even before Lehman’s collapse, the fundamentals of our economy, to borrow a fateful phrase from that year’s presidential campaign, were already showing signs of weakness. During the Bush years, wages stagnated, debt rose, and household savings fell. Most Americans were already struggling when the recession set in. Four years later, they’re still struggling.
In this symposium, we turn our attention to a part of America frequently unmentioned in our economic discussions—what one of our contributors calls the “bottom 40 percent,” the low- and moderate-income Americans who have been the hardest hit by the Great Recession. Front and center in this, our last issue before the November elections, is how to keep the American Dream alive for these Americans.
For far too long, efforts to alleviate poverty have focused on addressing the immediate needs and income of the poor. We think there’s a better way. This symposium calls for a broader approach: a focus on asset building—savings for college, retirement, emergencies, a house. How can poor and working-class Americans recover from the great loss of wealth in the recession? How can government help them accumulate assets to secure their future? And how do we make sure the losses of the great crash don’t happen again? The essays below, from the best minds in the asset-building movement, offer compelling answers.