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The U.S. Labor Participation Problem

The superlatives come fast and furious in the spate of reports coming out on the dwindling participation in the labor force by Americans still in their prime working years.

  • The fall in men’s participation in the United States has been going on for decades but has been steeper here than in all but two advanced economies (Israel and Italy) in recent years. “We have won the race to the bottom,” says Nicholas Eberstadt, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and author of “Men Without Work: America’s Invisible Crisis.”
  • A more recent drop in labor force participation for American women is “unique” – in the rest of the developed world, women’s participation continues to rise, according to a Brookings Institution report.
  • Men with no more than a high school degree make up 40 percent of workers but 60 percent of those who have dropped out of the U.S. labor force.
  • The decline in participation has been steepest among men without a high school education, particularly black men.

Economists count not only working people as being in the labor force but also people who are trying to find a job. Something is amiss when millions of Americans in their prime – between ages 25 and 54 – are doing neither, especially in a strong economy like the United States is experiencing now.

This issue is not new, but the election has brought it front and center. Also, the prolonged decline in men’s labor force participation had been partly masked by increasing women’s participation, which pulled up the aggregate figures. Now that women have begun withdrawing, the trend has become increasingly obvious – and ominous.

The Brookings and AEI scholars offer myriad, often overlapping, explanations for why this is happening: …Learn More

Women Spending Fewer Years in Marriage

It took months for one girlfriend’s suitor to persuade her to get married. Another of my friends skipped marriage entirely and had two children on her own. Others married, had kids, and divorced, a status that seems unlikely to change for some as they age.  I married for the first time at 56.

These anecdotes, about a random group of baby boomer women in the Boston area, illustrate some of the ways that women over the past half century have dramatically reduced the time they spend as part of a married couple.

middle boomer marriage decline chartA new study being released today by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College finds that “middle boomer” women born in the late 1950s can expect to spend no more than half of their adult lives (starting at age 20) in marriage.  That share was closer to three-fourths for the mothers of baby boomers.

The researchers measured this dramatic change and its underlying causes – namely delayed wedlock, permanent singlehood, and divorce – across four cohorts of women who participated in a survey of older Americans.

Between the oldest group (born in 1931-41) and the youngest group (born in 1954-59), the average age of first marriage has increased by nearly three years, while the share of women who have never married tripled to 12 percent.  The share who’ve divorced also rose, from one-third to one half, according to the center, which sponsors this blog.

The change has been even starker for black women: the share of their adult lives spent in marriage declined from 54 percent of the oldest group to just 32 percent of middle boomers.  Divorce is a contributing factor, but the primary reason is that black women are much more likely to fall into the “not married” category than in the past.  In fact, the not married group is now larger than the married group.

This trend has many implications, not the least of which are financial. …
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Houses

Reverse Mortgage: Yes or No?

The older people who either consider a reverse mortgage or actually get one don’t have much else to fall back on.  Their primary assets – outside of their homes – are a car worth no more than $7,000 and about $2,000 in a checking account.

This was one salient fact unearthed about reverse mortgage users – or people who’ve looked into them – in a 2014-2015 survey led by Stephanie Moulton at Ohio State University. This supports a later study by Moulton that found that people who take out the loans tend to be in worse shape financially than other homeowners. The survey provides a more complete picture of who is turning to reverse mortgages – and why other people find alternatives to solve their financial issues.

Federally insured reverse mortgages, known as Home Equity Conversion Mortgages, or HECMs, allow homeowners over age 62 to borrow against their often-substantial home equity. These loans do not have to be paid back until the older homeowners sell the house or die.

Despite these attractive financial features, reverse mortgages are not popular: fewer than 60,000 were sold in 2015.  Many elderly homeowners are appropriately wary of a complex financial product. The fees and interest rates are also higher than on a standard mortgage.  But the idea behind HECMs is to allow cash-strapped seniors either to pay off their existing mortgages, eliminating house payments, or to create a readily accessible pool of cash or a new source of monthly income. Either way, they free up money that retirees can use to meet their expenses, emergencies, or medical bills.

The researchers interviewed some 1,800 older households after they had received the counseling required under federal law to apply for a HECM reverse mortgage.  About two-thirds of those counseled proceeded with the loans, and one-third decided against it. Here’s what these two groups look like: …Learn More

singing

A Day at the Golden Age Senior Center

Chung-Au Loi Tai

Boston – Four mornings a week, a van scoops up Chung-Au Loi Tai and delivers her to the senior center for a full schedule of activities. The 1:30 bingo game is her favorite.

She giggles when she explains why: she likes the Chinese Rice Biscuits that are handed out as prizes.

She is one of 350 mostly low-income clients of the Greater Boston Golden Age Center’s three locations around Boston. Most came to this country from China decades ago and raised families while working in Chinatown or the suburbs. Chung-Au, for example, worked in a shoe factory for nine years, and her late husband cooked in restaurants all over the city.

Now in old age, the Golden Age Center’s community of like-minded people spend their days learning English, new songs, and calligraphy, eating $2 lunches – a “suggested” donation – and getting help with their medical and other needs from the nurse and social workers on staff.

Finding things to do all day might seem trivial to working people – there are barely enough hours in a day. But the center’s carefully planned activities are critical to seniors’ physical and mental health and to their families, who are still out working. One big reason for these daily visits is to prevent the frail or cognitively impaired from becoming too isolated.

The Golden Age Center and similar centers around the country make up a patchwork of often poorly funded non-profit and local-government agencies that quietly fill a big need in the safety net for seniors. These agencies provide an array of services, including transportation, meals, exercise, medical supervision, and cognitive stimulation.  The federal Medicaid program pays the Golden Age Center a per-day fee for its low-income clients.

Ruth Moy, the executive director who founded the center in 1972, raises additional money from donations and other federal and local government programs.  “There is never enough money,” Moy said. “You just keep plugging away.” …Learn More

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IRAs Fall Short of Original Goal

Nearly 8 trillion dollars sits in Individual Retirement Accounts, or IRAs. This is nearly half of all the value held in the U.S. retirement system, which also includes employer pension funds and 401(k)s.

A big reason IRAs were created in 1974 under the Employer Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) was to give individuals not covered by retirement plans at work an opportunity to save in their own tax-deferred accounts.

So, are IRAs helping these workers?

IRAs “have drifted very far from their original intent” of helping those who need them most, researchers for the Center for Retirement Research conclude in a new study.

Who is eligible to receive tax benefits for saving in an IRA has morphed over the years since ERISA’s passage, but the original description is still relevant to millions of Americans: about half of U.S. private-sector workers today do not have a tax-exempt retirement plan at work. Low-income workers are even less likely to have one.

To determine who benefits from IRAs today, the researchers first tracked down the source of the trillions of dollars held in IRAs. Only 13 percent of the money that flowed into IRAs in 2014 was from people putting new savings into these accounts. The rest was from rollovers of funds accumulated in employer 401(k)s, which usually occur when a worker retires or changes job. (ERISA did delineate rollovers as a second purpose of IRAs.) …Learn More

Fined illustration

Autopay Ends Credit Card Late Fees

Credit card companies usually set small-dollar minimum payments, so there’s really no excuse for incurring fees for late card payments.

Yet many consumers fail to pay on time. In a new study, British researchers found a no-brainer solution that is highly effective: setting up automatic payments of our credit cards.

The researchers started out with a different premise: that customers might learn, over time, to prevent maddening late fees after having to pay them numerous times. The researchers roundly rejected this after following nearly 250,000 U.K. credit card holders over two years.  When it comes to late fees, we do not learn from our mistakes.

What they noticed, however, was a clear distinction between card holders who incur late fees regularly and those who don’t or who stopped incurring the fees.   Setting up autopay “all but eliminates the likelihood of future [late] fees,” while the probability remains “persistently high” (about one in five) among people who did not, they said.

Further, a seemingly obvious explanation for chronic late fees didn’t hold water: that people don’t have the cash to make their minimum payments.  Payers of late fees “do not appear to be liquidity constrained,” the study found. Apparently, most people simply forget to pay those pesky credit card bills. …Learn More

Fewer Older Americans Work Part-time

Flip Flop in Work Schedules chartIt’s now a given that more people in their 60s and 70s are choosing to keep working.

But a related trend rumbling beneath the surface isn’t so well-known: the share of working older people with full-time jobs has increased sharply – to almost 61 percent in 2016 from 40 percent in 1995 – as part-time work has become less popular.

The majority of older Americans are retired. But among those who do work, the move from part-time to full-time is “a major shift” in work schedules, concluded the Brookings Institution’s Barry Bosworth and Gary Burtless and George Washington University’s Ken Zhang in a report last year.  This is one aspect of the broader trend of rising labor force participation for the nation’s older workers.

Burtless said in an email that the likely reason for the shift toward full-time employment is that more of the growing number of people who are working in their 60s and 70s are simply staying put in full-time career jobs.

Not surprisingly, much more income for the entire U.S. population over 65 comes from work. In 1990, employment earnings made up just 18 percent of their income from all sources. By 2012, that had almost doubled to 33 percent, according to the Brookings report.

Fueling the increase in full-time work are changes to the U.S. retirement system, as well as an increasingly healthy older population: …Learn More

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