Weathering The Credit Crunch

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Illustration by Monica Seaberry
c.2007 Newhouse News Service

You've heard about subprime borrowers falling into foreclosure as their adjustable rate mortgages reset to higher, fixed rates.

You've heard that financial institutions, losing money as this happens, are tightening standards for mortgages and other forms of credit.

The headlines say housing's in a slump, consumer confidence is falling, and some experts predict a recession.

You're wondering, "Should I worry?''

The short answer is yes.

"It's a very far-reaching crisis that affects so many elements of our economy,'' said Bill Hardekopf, CEO of His Birmingham, Ala.-based Web site lets consumers compare credit-card offers.

The 40-Hour Workweek?

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2007 Newhouse News Service

Pop quiz: Since the 1950s, the length of the average American workweek has ... A) climbed. B) declined. C) stayed roughly flat.

If you picked A, you're wrong. The average employee worked 39.2 hours a week in 2006, nearly two hours less than the 40.9 the Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded for 1956.

So why does it feel like we're working harder every year?

A third of those surveyed in July by Indianapolis-based business consultants Walker Information said they're forced to devote too much time to work, and 45 percent sacrifice personal balance for their jobs — increases from Walker's 2005 survey.

What's going on?

For starters, statistical averages can be misleading, lumping white-collar professionals with blue-collar and part-time workers.

While a growing chunk of the labor force regularly works 50- or 60-hour weeks, those in manufacturing have seen their hours dwindle to an average 34 per week this year. That's down from the nearly 39 the BLS reported for 1964.

"There's a bifurcation process going on where some people work excessively long hours, and there are other workers who can't get enough hours,'' said Vicky Lovell, director of employment and work/life programs at the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

Moreover, the labor force is now dominated by two-worker families, leaving less time for child rearing and housekeeping duties that haven't gone away. People report working almost 10 hours more per week than their ideal, said Arne Kalleberg, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina. Married employees "are working three jobs — two in the workplace and one at home,'' he said.

Infrastructure Needs Reform

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2007 Newhouse News Service

WASHINGTON — Money alone won't spare the U.S. another tragedy like Wednesday's bridge collapse in Minneapolis. Transporation experts say government must also reform its piecemeal approach to investment in the nation's public works.

"We have the largest civil infrastructure in the world, but also it is the oldest,'' said Riyad Aboutaha, a professor of civil engineering at Syracuse University. "We do not repair it until it reaches a critical stage.''

But if $1.6 trillion fell from the sky to bring roads, bridges, airports and water systems into good condition — the amount the American Society of Civil Engineers says is needed over five years — the nation might soon face the same issues it does today, experts said.

The problem is the lack of any comprehensive, rational system. Three separate federal laws authorize money for airports, highways and water, and different jurisdictions squabble over whose piece of pie is bigger.

Every year, localities push forward their most urgent projects, and the state or federal government decides what hits the jackpot. With 90 percent federal highway financing, there's a strong incentive for local jurisdictions to wait for the next year's gravy train instead of tackling projects on their own, said Everett Ehrlich, who has examined the issue for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"We don't have a system that lets us know which the best things to build are,'' Ehrlich said. "The policies we have were put in place 50 years ago or more, to get stuff built but not to maintain it.''

The stakes are high.