A new low in the high life

A couple of front-page stories in Tuesday’s papers -- one from the East Coast, the other from the West -- frame a pretty effective portrait of these United States in this election year.

With unemployment climbing across the country, the New York Times reported that “for the first time since the women’s movement came to life, an economic recovery has come and gone, and the percentage of women at work has fallen, not risen, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Each of the seven previous recoveries since 1960 ended with a greater percentage of women at work than when it began.”

Working women now earn a third of America’s total household income, and by and large, only those homes with a working wife have made real gains in their standard of living over the last eight years. Yet, over that same period, the percentage of women employed outside the home has fallen to where it was 12 years ago. Meanwhile, the median hourly pay of women 25 to 48 years of age has fallen from $15.04 in 2004 to $14.84 last year.


This corrosive pattern holds true, according to the federal statistics, for all American women, regardless of education, race, ethnicity or marital or familial status.

In other words, things are tough all over, particularly if you’re a woman -- unless, of course, you’re Candy Spelling.

As the Los Angeles Times’ Roger Vincent reported Tuesday, television mogul Aaron Spelling’s widow has paid $47 million for a 16,500-square-foot, two-story penthouse condominium atop a new building going up in Century City. The lower floor of the Widow Spelling’s new digs will include a living room, a dining room large enough to host a 25-person dinner party and “staff quarters.” The upper story will include a 4,000-square-foot master suite, massage and exercise rooms, a conservatory with rose garden and a pool.

Actually, Spelling is downsizing and will be practically camping out by comparison with the 123-room, 56,500-square-foot home -- L.A.'s largest -- that she and her husband built in the late 1980s. How she’ll get by without the gift-wrapping room or the doll museum is anybody’s guess. After all, even when you’re reducing your carbon footprint, you need a place for all those shoes. As Vincent wrote: “At a time when headlines are focusing on plummeting home prices, foreclosures and bad loans, the sale highlighted the vast differences in the region’s housing market.”

You bet it did, particularly when you consider a set of numbers that came out later in the day. DataQuick, which keeps reliable track of the California real estate market, reported that a record number of L.A. County households -- 21,632 -- defaulted on their mortgages in the second quarter of this year. That’s a 108.1% jump over the same period last year and eclipses the record set in the first quarter of the 1996 housing bust. To make a grim picture still darker, L.A. was one of the more fortunate California counties. Mortgage defaults increased 146.2% in Orange County, 129.9% in San Bernardino and 125.2% in Riverside. Things were even bleaker in Northern California, where mortgage defaults increased by 197.8% in Sonoma County and 194.2% in Santa Clara County.

Now none of this is the Widow Spelling’s fault, and she hardly can be expected to stay put in a 16-bathroom mansion with nobody but “staff” for company if she doesn’t want to.

Taken together, though, the plight of working women and Spelling’s let-them-eat-cake, $47-million extravagance point to the fact that, all but unnoticed, America has slipped into a new Gilded Age, with all the inequalities that historical appellation implies. From the late 1940s through 1978, the U.S. economy excelled at distributing opportunities. According to Census Bureau figures, median family income increased by more than 100% during that period. But it has grown by less than 25% in the 30 years since. It’s doubtful that even that anemic increase would have occurred if millions of women had not entered the workforce during those decades.

The census’ inflation-adjusted numbers show that a median American family made $61,000 in 2000 and, despite the economic expansion through most of the Bush administration, just $60,500 in 2007. That was the first time in history that the U.S. economy expanded without increasing ordinary families’ standard of living.

What did increase was the share of household wealth in the meticulously manicured hands of people like Spelling. Recent data suggest that the richest 1% of U.S. households -- those with annual incomes of $348,000 or better -- now control 34.3% of the nation’s net worth, while the bottom 40% of households dispose of just 0.2% of America’s wealth.

What do you suppose the chances are of getting either John McCain or Barack Obama to hit this issue head on? They’re probably about the same as the odds that the Widow Spelling will end up sleeping in her car.