March 2021

Working Multiple Jobs to Make Ends Meet

If people need to work and can work, they will work. That’s my takeaway from a new set of data that sketches a clearer picture of U.S. workers who are holding down multiple jobs.

US workers with more than one jobNearly 8 percent of workers had two or more jobs in 2018, the latest year of data available from the U.S. Census Bureau. The data also show that holding two or more jobs becomes more common during economic expansions, when jobs are plentiful, and falls during recessions, when the opportunities dry up.

But the longer-term trend is up: the share of people holding multiple jobs has slowly increased over the past two decades. In a recent webinar, Census Bureau economist James Spletzer provided a couple of reasons.

First, the country has lost millions of manufacturing jobs over several decades. They have been replaced by lower-quality jobs in retail and in service industries like health care, hotels and food preparation – and that’s where multiple job holders tend to work.

A second, related reason for working in multiple jobs is the “stagnation of earnings at the lower end of the earnings distribution,” Spletzer said. …Learn More

College grad drowning

A Lot of Student Debt May Never Be Paid Off

student loan chartFor half to two-thirds of the college loans made over the past decade, the former students owe more than they initially borrowed.

This is the result of a federal program that bases monthly student loan payments on the borrowers’ income if they aren’t earning enough to afford the standard payments. But the monthly payments in these much-needed Income Driven Repayment (IDR) plans are often less than is required to fully service the principal and interest on the loans. So instead of getting ahead, borrowers are perennially behind and never chip away at the balances.

People who go into the repayment plans are “trying to bail out a boat with a bucket that has a hole in it,” said Betsy Mayotte, president of The Institute of Student Loan Advisors, a non-profit that gives free information and advice to people needing help with their loans.

Marshall Steinbaum, an economist with the University of Utah, estimates that at least half of all student loans might never be repaid, based on his back-of-the-envelope calculation. That share is also growing, he said in an email, because more and more former students are enrolling in IDR programs.

The inability to pay “is baked into the system,” Steinbaum wrote in The Appeal. …Learn More

UK Pension Reforms Show Some Promise

woman in the UK on her phone

Unlike the United States, the United Kingdom has implemented bold reforms to its retirement system over the past decade.

Two of the biggest changes were gradual increases in the minimum age for collecting a pension under the national social security program and requiring private employers to automatically enroll their workers in an employee savings plan.

The goals of the reforms were to keep government spending in check and encourage individuals – who are living longer – to work longer, while helping them build up more private savings through employer-based plans. On balance, the notion is that workers will end up better prepared financially when they retire. Time will tell how successful these reforms will ultimately be.

But, so far, the results have been somewhat promising, concludes an Institute of Fiscal Studies report on workers’ changing expectations and attitudes about their retirement prospects.

In a major reform to private-sector plans, lawmakers started expanding coverage in 2012 by requiring that employers – the largest ones were first –  automatically enroll workers earning more than £10,000 (about $14,000) in a retirement savings plan. The total contributions to the plans must now be at least 8 percent of each worker’s earnings, with employers providing at least 3 percent.

This reform seems to have enhanced workers’ sense of financial security. In 2017, 78 percent said in a survey that they expect to get some retirement income from an employer savings plan – up from 63 percent in 2013. And while workers are permitted to opt out of the plans, they are doing so at consistently low rates.

On the retirement front, the minimum age to collect benefits under the U.K. social security system, the National Insurance Scheme, has risen dramatically for women. A decade ago, they could collect a pension at 60, but that had increased to 66 by last year. They are now in line with men, whose minimum age was 65 for many years and also rose to 66 last year. In the future, the increases are expected to continue: a 50-year-old worker would not be able to collect his pension until he is 68. …Learn More

brain and money

Retirees Who Tested Well Added More Debt

A new study finds that debt burdens have grown for older workers and retirees in recent decades. But this isn’t the first research to reach that conclusion.

What is new is whose debt burden is increasing the most: the people who score higher on simple memory and math tests.

Across the three age groups the researchers examined – 56-61, 62-67, and 68-73 – the high scorers on the cognitive tests were more likely to have debts exceeding half of their assets in 2014 than the high scorers who were the same ages back in 1998.

They also added disproportionately more mortgage debt than people with lower cognition during the study’s time frame, a period when house prices were rising.

The upshot of this study is that people who have retained more of their memory and facility with numbers are “more financially fragile” than the high scorers were in the past, the University of Southern California researchers said.

The findings run counter to a common belief that financial companies in recent years have had more success selling their increasingly complex products to unwitting borrowers – a belief perhaps fostered by the subprime mortgages targeted to risky borrowers in the mid-2000s that triggered the global financial collapse.

Older Workers taking on more debtThe share of the older people in the study who were carrying debt increased between 1998 and 2014 regardless of their cognitive ability. The biggest jump occurred after 62 – a popular retirement age pegged to Social Security eligibility.

The heart of the analysis, however, is exploring the connection between cognitive ability and financial vulnerability. The researchers found the opposite of what one might expect: debt problems have loomed larger over time for those with higher scores on survey questions testing word recall and cognitive ability using simple subtraction and backward-counting exercises. …
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Video: Grandparents as Substitute Parents

In 2015, the journal Pediatrics estimated some 3 million children were living with grandparents – and the number is certainly higher today. Grandparents find themselves in a caregiving role in the aftermath of parents’ myriad personal traumas, including opioid addiction, suicide, incarceration, and now COVID-19.

In this excellent PBS NewsHour video, “Grandfamilies,” grandparents tell journalist Stephanie Sy about the financial and emotional toll of caring for children. Despite the challenges, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

But the financial strain is real. Some of the people Sy interviewed said their childcare duties have forced them to close businesses, and others are earning less due to the pandemic.

Lisa Banks stretches herself thin helping each of her three grandchildren with their remote learning. The new members of her household have also increased the electricity and food bills – her two grandsons are teenagers. “It’s like, I’m hungry, I’m hungry, I’m hungry. You hear it all day,” said Banks, who gets food assistance from a non-profit on Sundays.

COVID-19 adds another layer of worries. Kim Elia, who is standing in for her 11-year-old granddaughter’s parents, is recovering from the disease. “I was truly afraid to die because of what would happen to Brooklyn,” she said.

Raising children is a big job for young adults. A second go-around late in life seems even harder. …Learn More

A business team in a meeting

Retirement Ages Geared to Life Expectancy

For most of the 20th century, life expectancy was on the rise. Yet older Americans were retiring at younger and younger ages. That changed in the 1990s. Life expectancy continued to rise, but retirement ages started increasing too.

Many significant developments are behind the dramatic shift in retirement habits, including the decline of private-sector pensions, changing attitudes about working women, and bigger financial incentives from Social Security for people who remain in the labor force in order to get a larger monthly check when they finally retire.

Given all of these changes, Urban Institute researchers wondered whether the dramatic longevity gains experienced by the people who make it to their 50s and 60s could be counted as another reason for the delayed retirement trend.

Their evidence suggests that growing lifespans are keeping men over age 55 in the labor force longer and postponing their retirement, particularly in areas with strong job markets and more opportunity.

But women’s behavior was much more nuanced. Their labor force participation also increased, but only for women under 65 and to a much smaller extent than men. For the oldest women in the study – ages 65 to 74 – the results were puzzling to the researchers because labor force participation actually declined with life expectancy for those in the bottom half of the income distribution. …Learn More

Will More Aid to Parents Be Permanent?

Happy children standing together

To lift families out of poverty during the pandemic, Congress is on the verge of passing a substantial increase this year in the standard child tax credit as part of President Biden’s broader relief package.

But despite the sharp divide over the $1.9 trillion package, some senators – both Democrats and Republicans – want to permanently increase federal assistance to families. Their goals range from reducing racial inequality and rural poverty to providing more financial stability for middle- and working-class parents.

The prospect of a bipartisan plan for increasing assistance to parents beyond this year is welcomed by advocates for the poor and lower-income workers. The proposals represent a belief “that all of society benefits when children are doing well,” said Myra Jones-Taylor, chief policy officer for Zero to Three, which promotes policies to help infants and toddlers.

Prior to COVID-19, she said 40 percent of infants and toddlers were in families below 200 percent of the poverty limit. Parents “didn’t have the financial resources to meet their [children’s] basic needs,” she said.

The current proposal in Congress for immediate pandemic relief would increase the per-child tax credit in 2021 from the current level of $2,000 to $3,600 for children under age 6 and $3,000 for older children and teenagers. This same increase is included in a bill by Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Sherrod Brown of Ohio to make the larger tax credits permanent.

Republican Sen. Mitt Romney’s plan is even more generous. The Utah senator proposed $4,200 in annual cash payments for children under 6 and $3,000 for older children, and some Republicans may be willing to go along. Romney’s plan, if passed, “would arguably be the biggest anti-poverty measure since the Social Security Act of 1935,” Samuel Hammond, director of poverty and welfare policy at the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank, said in an interview.

But Hammond said members of both parties are making serious efforts to alleviate poverty by targeting assistance to children. The United States has the highest poverty rate of any developed country, “because we spend so little on child benefits, and the benefits we do have cut out the poorest families,” he said. The current tax credit is not available at all to the unemployed and low-income families earning under $2,500.

Hammond and Jones-Taylor were among the panelists in a webinar last month at the Urban Institute to explore the pros and cons of each approach – a tax credit versus monthly cash assistance. …Learn More