The average Wall Street bonus increased 15 percent in 2013, bringing the industry's overall bonuses to a total of $26.7 billion, the largest since 2008. This milestone came just a few months after an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 14 percent of Americans have a positive opinion of Wall Street, five years after a financial crisis spurred by these institutions. We're talking congressional popularity numbers. Ouch.
We're always told that "Main Street" is directly affected by the state of our financial markets. And yet, even as the stock market continues to rebound, average American workers struggle to find employment, keep their homes and even put food on the table. Wall Street's earnings meanwhile continue to break records. Seems like a rather one-sided relationship as of late ... but outside the decadent halls of Wall Street, that money could be put to excellent use.
With $26.7 billion, we could ...
1. Feed all Americans who live in food insecure households.
For being one of the richest nations on Earth, it seems bizarre that people go hungry in the U.S., but food insecurity is still a real issue. In 2012, 49 million people (or 17.6 million households) were food insecure, meaning "their access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources," according to the USDA. The USDA's official food plan for January 2014 sets the "liberal plan" for a family of four, consisting of two parents and two school-age children, at $1,271.20 a month on food. The "thrifty plan" for that same family of four would come out to $640 a month on food.
Even if we operate under the USDA's liberal food plan, the $26.7 billion Wall Street bonuses would cover meals for the 17.6 million food insecure households for at least a month ($22.4 billion/month). Utilizing the USDA's thrifty plan, we could feed those same food insecure households for more than two months ($11.3 billion/month).
2. Buy school books for every college student in America this year.
We're not telling you anything new by saying college is expensive, and, unfortunately, $26.7 billion wouldn't be enough to send every child in the U.S. to college. But it could cover one cost everyone dreads: books. For the 2013-2014 school year, state and private colleges will end up charging the average student around $1,200 a year for books, according to the College Board. Enrollment data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that in 2012, 20,642,819 students were enrolled in higher education across the country, including both full-time and part-time students. A year's worth of books for all those students comes to $24.8 billion, covered by the 2013 Wall Street banker bonuses with room to spare.
3. But we could also send 771,230 kids to college who could not afford it before.
The average in-state college tuition for a student these days is $8,655 a year, according to the College Board. That doesn't include grants, scholarships and other types of financial aid. At that price, instead of Wall Street bonuses, we could send 771,230 students to college for a full four-year education.
4. Recover all the money the economy lost when Congress decided to shut down the government.
Last year's government shutdown, care of Congress, another wonderfully unpopular institution of America, took an estimated $24 billion dollars out of the economy. This included lost revenue to state parks, some non-federal contracted employees' lost wages and small businesses suffering thanks to frozen government contracts. All told, the shutdown slowed GDP growth in the fourth quarter by at least half a percentage point, a "ripple" that, according to the New York Times, was surely felt worldwide. With Wall Street's $26.7 billion bonus payout, we could have covered what America's economy lost.
5. Cover 2013's Disaster Relief Fund more than four times.
In 2013, FEMA appropriated nearly $6.1 billion for the Disaster Relief Fund. People don't often realize how frequently disaster relief is utilized over the course of a single year in the United States. It's not just the large-scale incidents like hurricanes Sandy or Katrina. These funds helped after the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas., during the many wildfires in the western states, as well as during the multiple hellish winter storms that recently plagued much of the Midwest and Northeast. Tornadoes, floods, chemical spills, mudslides -- all are eligible to be helped by the Disaster Relief Fund if the president declares it a major disaster. With Wall Street's bank bonus, the $6.1 billion appropriated for disaster relief could be more than quadrupled. Oh yeah, in 2013, there were 62 major disaster declarations -- more than one per week.
6. Affordably house every homeless person in America.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development found that on a single given night in January 2013, a little more than 600,000 people were homeless. Of those people, 394,698 were staying in shelters, while 215,344 were staying in unsheltered locations. A 2009 study titled, "Where We Sleep: The Costs of Housing and Homelessness in Los Angeles," found that a homeless person living on the street actually ends up costing taxpayers $2,897 a month, which accounts for things like hospital visits, health care and police costs.
The study also found that it would only cost $605 a month, or $7,260 a year, to host that same homeless person in supportive housing. At that price, housing 600,000-plus homeless people in the U.S. would cost roughly $4.4 billion for a year, money that studies have suggested would ultimately end up being recouped in future savings. Even assuming that costs have inflated since 2009, with a $26.7 billion Wall Street bonus, we could house every homeless person in America for several years, and still net an overall savings.
7. Supply a shocking number of soup kitchen meals.
While specific soup kitchen meals vary in price depending on location, donations and the number of people they serve, Feed America's "Map the Meal Gap 2012" study (utilizing USDA, U.S. Census and U.S. Labor stats, as well as data provided by the analysis and information company Nielsen) found that the overall national average cost of a meal is $2.52. At that rate, the Wall Street bonus would yield nearly 10.6 billion meals. Even if we use the highest cost-per-meal from the study -- $5.51 in the county of Union, S.D. -- we're still talking 4.8 billion meals. And that's without food donations: St. Anthony's, one of the major homeless services organizations in San Francisco, accepts fruit and vegetable donations from local farms to bring the cost-per-meal down to 50 cents.
8. Cover prescription drug costs for 31.8 million American seniors.
According to data collected by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, prescription drug cost per capita for 2012 was $840. And the CDC reports that 89.7 percent of people over the age of 65 take prescription drugs -- or 38.5 million people. Going by the per capita rate of $840, the Wall Street banker bonus of $26.7 billion would cover the prescription drug costs of 82.5 percent (or 31.8 million) of all Americans over the age of 65.
9. Double proposed VA spending on major medical services for veterans next year.
According to a Veterans Affairs report on the proposed budget for 2015, the department has requested $7.2 billion for mental health services, $2.6 billion for prosthetics, $7 billion for long-term care and $229 million for traumatic brain injuries. This would provide care for "6.7 million patients in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1." The 2013 Wall Street banker bonus of $26.7 billion would cover those entire major spending categories for all of 2015 almost twice over.
Since the start of the war on terror in the final months of 2001, a total of 1,558 military personnel have undergone major amputation procedures. The Congressional Research Service calculates that in the same timespan, 7,224 servicemen and women have suffered severe brain injuries and 118,829 have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
These are hypothetical scenarios, and costs can change. But the point remains: The massiveness of this $26.7 billion Wall Street bonus is rather astonishing, especially when you consider how recently the irresponsible behavior of these financial institutions helped throw the nation into economic turmoil. The market has turned around in recent years and arguably brought with it a return to some of this recklessness. Meanwhile, the firms are offering huge compensation packages, which seem even more outrageous when coupled with the comparably low costs of more socially conscious efforts that would have a greater impact.