How the Economy Is Still Affecting How We Work, Shop, and Live—and How Many Ex-Cons Are Out on the Streets

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Compared to the recent past, you’re far more likely to be driving an old clunker, piling up speeding tickets, and living with either Grandma or a spouse you can’t stand. You’re also less likely to reside in Las Vegas, Orlando, or a state prison.
Drivers are hanging onto their cars longer. In one survey, 77% of respondents said they planned on driving their cars at least 50,000 more miles than their previous automobile. Why? A good portion of those surveyed pointed to the economy, saying they couldn’t afford—or didn’t want to spend money unnecessarily—on a new car

Dollar stores are kicking butt. Business is booming at Dollar General in particular, as described in the WSJ, which is increasingly luring shoppers away from supermarkets and big discount stores like Wal-Mart with an enormous variety of goods and better quality than you might expect. Dollar General is opening 600 stores this year, thanks in part to an influx of a new kind of customer: those who make more than $75K a year.

Cheap T.P. is good enough for me. Last year, generic toilet paper sales were up 9%, surpassing the sales of cushier, more expensive branded versions. The company that makes Quilted Northern, however, expects consumers to soon wipe away their frugal habits, and it’s expanding productivity to meet the anticipated new demand for premium toilet paper.

A downturn makes the heart grow fonder? Well, not exactly. But when the economy is bad, households are stressful—hence a rise in domestic violence—and yet the divorce rate actually declined with the onset of the recession. It’s the opposite of what you’d expect. Why are people staying together? One explanation is that it’s too expensive to get divorced. It’s also complicated, especially when all you have to divide up is debt.

Age-restricted communities drop their restrictions. Housing developments that once only welcomed residents 55 and up are now accepting all comers, regardless of age. They’d rather relax the age restriction than have the development sit half-empty.

The return of the multi-generational household. Thanks to job losses, foreclosures, and other factors, extended families and several generations are more likely to be living under one roof again, just like in generations past. An all-time high 49 million Americans lived in multi-generational households, representing 16.1% of the population. In 1980, by contrast, only 28 million, or 12.1% of the population, lived in such situations.

The escape from the Sun Belt has begun. As census data comes in, we’re learning that sunny destinations that have been attracting newcomers for years are not the magnets they once were. After seeing constant growth for decades, Orlando and Las Vegas are among the Sun Belt cities that are experiencing losses of residents.

Workers are more efficient than ever. This should be a positive sign, no? Yes, strong productivity is obviously good for business, but as the Washington Post describes, it’s also an indication that workers are pushing themselves and are willing to accept cutbacks in hours or benefits largely because they fear losing their jobs and don’t have other options.

Few Wall Street execs left their jobs after salaries were cut. We’d all heard that if federal regulators set a ceiling for executive compensation at companies bailed out with government money, there would be a flood of talent fleeing these companies for better opportunities. The flood never occurred. About 85% of these executives stayed put. Guess there aren’t that many options out there for executives either—well, at least for executives from companies that had to be bailed out by taxpayers.

People can’t afford to do their civic duty. Missing work for jury duty is hard when your family is struggling to get by, especially for the large number of freelancers, temps, commissions-only salespeople, and other non-salaried employees who don’t get paid when they don’t show up to work. Hence, a rise in people citing financial hardship as a reason for getting out of jury duty.

Fewer police warnings, more speeding tickets. Drivers going 5 or 10 mph over the speed limit used to commonly get off with a warning, if they were pulled over at all. Now, at least anecdotally, the speed cushion is disappearing. Tales are circulating of drivers getting tickets for driving 40 mph in a 35-mph zone. And the reason for such strict enforcement seems to be simply that more tickets bring in more revenues to help cash-strapped municipalities plug budget gaps.

It’s a lot easier to get out of jail. Collectively, the American state prison population dropped in 2009 for the first time in nearly four decades. Why? For one thing, it’s much more expensive for a state to keep a prisoner incarcerated ($79 a day) than it is to have that same individual on probation (only $3.42 a day). So states are trying to reduce their prison populations, even though everyone knows these prisoners are entering one of worst job atmospheres in recent history. Nonetheless, California is attempting to save even more money by allowing nonviolent offenders to enjoy less supervised parole, including no random drug tests or requirements to check in with officers.

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