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The Needs of Working Folks

“The economy” was the top priority for the vast majority of American people in one poll last summer. Surely, what they were talking about was quality jobs and economic and financial security for themselves and their children.

Or as my brother, a father of three and service manager at an auto dealership outside Chicago, put it in a recent text message, “No one can afford anything anymore.”

This simple idea seemed to resound throughout the primaries and long presidential campaign. With the election over, I compiled the following wish list for working people based on what the polls and research studies reveal about what they are hoping for.

Good jobs. The disruption created by the transition from an industrial to a service economy has hollowed out the middle over three decades. Despite a remarkably low unemployment rate of 4.9 percent, middle-skill workers face a dilemma: there are a lot of jobs, but most aren’t the right jobs for them.

Consider this detail in the October jobs report. Retail employment increased by a total of 38,000 in August, September, and October. These jobs pay, on average, $553 per week. Meanwhile, 12,000 goods-producing jobs were lost during the same three months, meaning that fewer people are earning industry’s average weekly wage of $1,100. The urgent question is, what are the potential jobs that will bolster the middle class?  Healthcare and telecommunications technicians for the New Economy?  A related question is, what are the vocational and policy paths to securing better-paying jobs?

Cash on hand. Working Americans are severely strapped for cash. One in three surveyed by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation said they probably could not come up with $2,000 to cover an unexpected expense in the next month, and nearly half said they can’t pay off their full credit card balances every month. While working people are benefiting from the stronger economy, Finra concluded, “large segments of society continue to face financial difficulties, particularly minority populations and those without a college education.” …Learn More

Wyoming Retirement Education on Point

Wyoming government has brought some 535 employees of the state’s executive, legislative and judicial branches into its retirement savings plan since July 2015 under a new policy of automatically enrolling each new hire.

They are free to withdraw from the plan at any time, but only 15 of the 535 have done so – “and not a complaint from anybody,” said Polly Scott, who manages the savings plan and heads employee retirement education.

This technique, borrowed from behavioral economics, addresses the inertia that prevents many people from ever signing up to save in their employer’s plan.  So why wait for them to join? Instead, Wyoming uses inertia to benefit state workers: when people are automatically enrolled, research shows, they tend to stay put and save.

This is one piece of a larger effort to educate government workers about what’s required to properly prepare for retirement – and nudge them to do it.  The 457 retirement savings plan is crucial. Wyoming’s retired state workers receive Social Security, but the inflation adjustment in their traditional defined benefit pension has virtually been eliminated for the near future.  The 457 plan “is voluntary, but it’s not optional if you want a secure retirement,” Scott said.

The heart of the state’s education efforts is a website titled “Your Whole Story” that is on point and explains in clear language likely to benefit employees. Employees are encouraged to increase how much they’re already saving, resist the temptation to withdraw their savings prematurely, and prepare themselves for a long time in retirement in an era of increasing life expectancy.

This initiative is based on a campaign sponsored by the National Association of Government Defined Contribution Administrators (NAGDA) – Scott was NAGDA’s president last year – and designed by the National Association of Retirement Plan Participants.  Other states use some version of “Your Whole Story,” including the Missouri State Employees’ Retirement System and Montana Public Employee Retirement Administration.

One problem Wyoming is tackling is young adults who hurt their retirement prospects by withdrawing money from their 457 plans when they leave their state jobs, which “means they’re spending it,” Scott said. Another issue is that more older workers are rolling 457 savings over to private IRAs, which can have higher fees. …Learn More

On-the-Job Healthcare Costs More

We’ve passed a milestone: workers typically spend more than 10 percent of their incomes for their employer health coverage.

A decade ago, they spent 6.5 percent on health costs.

One reason for the rising cost burden is the growing prevalence of high-deductible insurance plans, and, within these plans, the deductibles themselves are increasing. Although premium hikes in employer plans have slowed in the past five years, they are also still going up. The nation’s aging work force could be another indirect pressure on costs.

Workers’ incomes have also been going up, but growth remained sluggish over the past decade and “have not kept pace” with employer health costs, the Commonwealth Fund reported.

Healthcare news in recent weeks has focused on the 2017 premium hikes hitting people who buy coverage on the state exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act. But 154 million Americans – more than half of U.S. workers – obtain health insurance through their jobs, compared with about 10 million who go through the exchanges, points out the study by the Commonwealth Fund, a healthcare research organization.

When premiums and deductibles are combined, health costs are really starting to bite: the typical family shelled out about $6,422 in 2015 for premiums and copayments, compared with $3,531 in 2006 – that’s increasing much faster than the pace of inflation – the report estimated. No wonder one recent survey found only a minority of Americans satisfied with the cost of their health insurance plans.

In the Commonwealth Fund’s state-by-state analysis, the level of incomes in a state seem to play a role in the weight of workers’ healthcare burdens. For example, premiums and deductibles, as a share of workers’ incomes, currently exceed 12 percent in low-wage states like Arizona, Florida, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Tennessee – Mississippi’s, the highest, is close to 15 percent of incomes. Workers in relatively well-off states such as Maryland, Massachusetts, and Washington, however, pay 7.9 percent, 7.3 percent and 8.5 percent of their higher incomes, respectively.

To examine the study’s state-by-state analysis, click here.Learn More

Two-faced woman

Financial Distress is Set Early in Life

Young adulthood is the staging ground for financial success later in life, and today the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been.  Young adults are managing the burden of paying back student loans or feeling an urgency to save – and many are trying to do both.

According to a study linking economics and psychology, what most strongly separates young adults who start out on the right foot from those already experiencing financial distress is whether they are conscientious or neurotic individuals.

University of Illinois researchers followed more than 13,000 teenagers and young adults between 1994 and 2008 in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health.  The survey asked questions about both their psychology and finances.  The six measures of financial distress in this study were determined by survey questions such as whether the respondents were keeping up with their rent and utility bills, whether they were worried about having enough food, and whether their net worth was positive or negative.

The personality measures were based on the Big Five traits widely used in psychology research: conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness to new experiences, and extroversion (known collectively as CANOE).  The survey respondents were grouped in this way based on the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with various statements. Examples included “I get chores done right away (conscientious),” and “I get upset easily (neurotic).”

The researchers found clear links between two of the Big Five traits and financial distress.  Being conscientious – following through, controlling one’s impulses, and being organized – strongly reduced the likelihood of having all six of the study’s financial distress outcomes. …Learn More

Housing Bust Still Plagues Pre-Retirees

NRRI Housing figuresIn 2013, almost 40 percent of all households ages 55 and over had not paid off their mortgages, up from 32 percent in 2001. These borrowers were also carrying a lot more housing debt by 2013.

During that time span, the housing boom first encouraged homeowners to borrow against their newfound home equity.  Then the 2008 bust hammered house prices from Miami to Seattle, reducing home equity and leaving many people holding relatively large mortgages.

By 2013, these two factors had combined to exacerbate Americans’ poor preparation for retirement, according to a study by the Center for Retirement Research, which supports this blog.

The researchers analyzed the impact of the bursting of the housing bubble on the National Retirement Risk Index (NRRI) through its effect on home equity, the largest store of non-pension wealth for most retirees.  The baseline NRRI estimate, using 2013 data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, was that 51.6 percent of working-age households were at risk of having a lower standard of living in retirement. Housing is part of the index, because retirees are assumed to convert their home equity into income by taking out a reverse mortgage.

The 2013 NRRI baseline was adjusted to see what would’ve happened if households had not run up their housing debt during the bubble and if house prices, rather than jump up and then plunge in 2008, had kept up their historic pace of increases since the 1980s. In that case, the researchers found, the share of households at risk would have been 44.2 percent – not 51.6 percent.

In other words, had the housing bubble and subsequent crash not occurred, fewer households would be at risk of having insufficient retirement income.

The middle-class was hardest hit by the crisis, probably because they’re more likely to own homes than people with low incomes and because housing wealth is more important to them than it is to wealthy people. …Learn More

Parent and child holding hands

Parents Pass (Bad) Money Habits to Kids

When people are asked why they are stressed, money – or the lack of it – is often at the top of the list.

Ask psychologists why this is so, and many would point to a deeper explanation: our parents.

How and whether our parents talked about money, as well as the emotional tenor of these conversations – or silences – are critical to how we manage money as adults.

Sonya Britt, a certified financial planner and associate professor at Kansas State University, explained how these family dynamics play out in a research summary written for financial planners, under a contract with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Britt describes a two-way street between parent and child.  Parents signal their attitudes about money, either through purposeful and explicit messages or in unconscious ways.  Meanwhile, children learn the behaviors that take them into adulthood by observing what parents do.  These observations can override financial knowledge in shaping behavior.

For example, college students who remember that their parents had healthy credit card practices, such as living within their means, are more successful at keeping their college debt under control.  Generally, parents are advised to talk about financial matters with their children – it’s known as parental financial socialization.  Avoiding such conversations has a negative effect that can “wreak havoc on children as they age.” In extreme cases, silence can lead some to hoard money as adults and others to be careless spenders.

Financial dependence in post-adolescence is an emerging issue as young adults extend the amount of time they live in their parents’ homes, often to cope with college debts and inadequate employment options.  Young adults whose parents provide financial help tend to develop dependency. In contrast, the offspring of people with fewer financial resources – who can’t help their children – learn more quickly to become financially independent. …
Learn More

Latino Labor Force’s Retirement Burden


As the U.S. Department of Labor video above makes clear, the population of Latino workers is exploding.

By 2024, nearly 33 million Latinos will be working in this country – they will have doubled their labor force share to 20 percent, from just 10 percent in 1995.

Despite their expanding presence in the labor market, Latino-Americans face significant retirement challenges.

Chief among them is that they don’t have the same access to traditional pensions and retirement savings plans that white Americans have, primarily because of where Latinos tend to work.  Two out of three Latino workers – many people prefer the term Hispanic – lack a 401(k)-style plan in their jobs, the U.S. Social Security Administration and other sources report.

The National Hispanic Council on Aging recently called the older Hispanic population “the least prepared for retirement of any ethnic group.”

One reason cited is that they are more likely to work for small businesses, which often don’t set up a plan.  Latinos are also disproportionately employed in low-paid cleaning, landscaping, and food services occupations, and a mere 12 percent of all low-income older individuals are saving for retirement. Median earnings for Latino-Americans, at $45,000 per year, are about one-third lower than median earnings for whites, according to the U.S. Census.

Things are rapidly changing, however: more Latino-Americans than ever are attending college and completing their degrees, which will improve financial security for this college-bound group and their families.

But while Latinos have, like past waves of immigrants, fully integrated into American society in recent decades, many have not yet integrated into the mainstream institutional structures that support retirement.   Until that happens, the lack of access will create greater financial challenges for the Latino community.Learn More

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