May 2021

Empty New York Subway

Working from Home: the Next Inequity

An impressive consensus has emerged around the benefits of working from home.

More employers have come to accept the practice after being pleasantly surprised at how productive their employees are. If remote workers were once viewed as insufficiently committed to the company, they no longer feel as marginalized. And people seem to like it – with the notable exception of the mothers juggling Zoom meetings and childcare.

An NBER study out this month estimates that about 20 percent of the workdays in this country, post-pandemic, will be carried out at home. That’s less than half the at-home time that was clocked last year as the pandemic raged but is multiples of the very low levels prior to COVID-19.

There is “little doubt that the stigma associated with [working from home] diminished during the pandemic,” concluded the study, based on a series of surveys last year. This seismic shift in workplace conventions “will stick long after the pandemic ends.”

But a second theme running through this research is just as important: the benefits of telecommuting flow mainly to the more educated, higher-paid labor force.

Work from home perksMore than 50 percent of U.S. workers earning more than $100,000 a year have been allowed to work at home, rather than in the office, giving them more protection from layoffs during the economic shutdowns and from COVID-19. On the other end of the spectrum are lower-paid and minority workers, who have been much more likely to lose their jobs and be exposed to the disease. Just 25 percent of employees earning under $50,000 work at home – and only 10 percent of the lowest-paid workers who didn’t complete high school work.

Yet the desire to work at home is pervasive. Regardless of their income, years of education, or family situation, workers view it as a perk – so much so that most people said they would accept a pay cut if they could work remotely two or three days a week.

Another potential impact on equity in the study is the effect of remote work on commerce in the urban centers. …Learn More

Last will and testament

Retirees Intent on Leaving Homes to Kids

Every year, older homeowners leave billions of dollars worth of the wealth locked up in their houses to their adult children.

This is a paradox if one considers that home equity is one of retirees’ primary assets and could be a crucial source of income for people who are “house rich and income poor.” Retirement experts searching for an explanation have long wondered whether the deceased had intended to leave the house to family or simply died before they were able to cash in on the equity and spend it.

A new study has an answer: retirees have every intention of letting family members inherit their homes. The people in the study who expressed a stronger desire to leave an inheritance of at least $10,000 were much less likely to sell their homes before they died – with the intention that the house would be part, if not all, of that inheritance.

The foundation for this study is a precise estimate of the housing decisions being made in the final two years of life from a survey of older Americans. The researchers counted as many people as possible, including the deceased – their final living status came from interviews with next of kin – as well as people who continued to be homeowners after going into hospice or a nursing home.

The homeownership rate in the older population peaks around age 70 and starts falling precipitously after 80. But when the elderly in the study died, about half of them still owned their homes, while the other half had sold them and moved into rental housing.

At younger ages, the retirees had been asked to estimate the probability, from 0 (no chance) to 100 (definitely), that they would leave a financial inheritance. Based on this information, the researchers found that those who had said they had a high probability of leaving an inheritance remained in their homes.

There is also a financial advantage to the owner of not selling the house to avoid the capital gains tax, especially if the price appreciated dramatically during their lifetimes. The researchers didn’t account for this incentive in their analysis.

But they did find that the desire to leave a bequest is so compelling that parents held on to their homes even after predicting they might need to pay for nursing home care within a few years. …Learn More

A group of millennials

Black Millennials’ Wealth is Sliding

Black Millennial Figure

It’s still too early to assess the full impact of the COVID-19 downturn on Millennials’ economic fortunes. But Black Millennials had already lost a lot of ground before the pandemic hit their communities hard.

Their wealth in 2019 was just half of what would be expected based on how much wealth their parents’ generation had at the same age.

Other Millennials are also running behind previous generations, but only slightly. And their situations have improved in recent years, while Black Millennials are sliding farther and farther behind.

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis called the situation “alarming” in its new report.

The oldest Millennials are turning 41 this year. But in 2019, the typical Black family born in the 1980s had only $5,000 in their savings accounts, 401(k)s, home equity and other wealth – compared with the roughly $11,000 they would be expected to have based on the previous generation. Hispanic Millennials had $22,000, and whites had $88,000.

Black Millennials are struggling for a few different reasons, said Ana Hernández Kent, a senior researcher for the St. Louis Fed’s Institute for Economic Equity. Homeownership is a major source of wealth for most Americans, but only a third of them own homes – half the rate of their white peers.

Student debt is another big issue, because African-Americans who borrowed money for college either didn’t graduate or used the loans to attend lower-quality for-profit colleges at disproportionate rates. Their college experiences haven’t always translated to earnings that are high enough to justify the debt taken on to pay for an education.

“They’re over-leveraged,” Kent said. “Just over a third of Black Millennials with at least a two-year degree are more likely to say the costs of college are larger than the benefits.” …Learn More

Nearly Half on Disability Want to Work

people on disability want to workAn unfortunate misperception about people on federal disability is that they’re not interested in working. In fact, nearly half of them want to work or expect to go back to work, and that share has been rising.

But getting or keeping a job has proved difficult, and the employment rate is very low for people who get Social Security disability benefits – or cash assistance from a companion program, Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Yet the vast majority of beneficiaries have past work experience that should help them in the job market.

Researchers at Mathematica mined a survey of people on disability for clues about how to help them find a job or promotion or learn a new skill.

Many of these work-oriented individuals are under extreme financial pressures and are also younger and healthier, despite their disabilities, than the people on disability who didn’t express a desire to work.

Yet only a third of the 2.6 million beneficiaries in the new study who say they want to work are either working now, were recently employed, or are looking for a job.

So, if they are willing to work and feel able to work, why are so few of them in the labor force?

The researchers landed on two big reasons. First, the work-oriented individuals, despite their desire to work, said they can’t find a job. This is a common experience because employers are either reluctant to hire people with disabilities or the available jobs don’t accommodate them. Others are hesitant to try the job market again because they feel discouraged by past employment experiences.

Second, the majority of work-oriented beneficiaries are unaware of federal programs designed to support a return to work or connect them with employers. …Learn More

Tapping Home Equity – Retirees’ Relief Valve

Woman getting a prescriptionOne telling indication that retirees are in serious financial straits is when they take less of their medications or don’t fill prescriptions.

Nearly one in four low-income retirees has difficulty paying for medications, despite passage of Medicare Part D in 2006, which reduced out-of-pocket drug costs. Between 2011 and 2015, the average Medicare beneficiary spent $620 to $700 a year on prescriptions, and people with diabetes, lung disease, and cardiovascular disease spent more than $1,000 a year.

One way retirees can address such hardships would be to tap some of the equity in their homes. Although a homeowner probably wouldn’t use this strategy just to cover drug copayments, new research finds that older Americans who tap equity significantly increase their adherence to their medications – and this finding has broader significance for improving their retirement security.

Most older homeowners are, on the one hand, reluctant to pull cash out of their homes – often their largest asset – through a home equity loan, mortgage refinancing, or reverse mortgage. Yet many of them don’t have enough income to live comfortably and could put this asset to good use to reduce their debt or pay medical bills if they become seriously ill.

To test how home equity might help retirees, the researchers used a series of surveys between 1998 and 2016 that have data on older people’s finances and ask whether, at any time in the past two years, they took “less medication than prescribed … because of the cost?” The analysis controlled for various influences on financial well-being, including education, marital status, and cognitive health, as well as financial resources.

Extracting home equity improved adherence to medications in the short term, particularly for homeowners over 65 who have little wealth outside of their homes. Separately, the researchers showed that retirees who tapped home equity were significantly more likely to take their medications at a critical time – after experiencing a serious illness.

“Housing wealth can play an important role in reducing economic insecurity,” concluded the study, which was funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration. …Learn More

Psychology Added to CFP Certification

Financial advisers have no shortage of clever strategies to dispense to their clients. The tricky part is getting the psychology right.

Human beings have all kinds of hang-ups about money. Presumably, someone who’s walked into a financial adviser’s office has broken through the first barrier to getting help: denial. But even then, blind spots and fears can get in the way of a client choosing or executing a financial plan, even if it’s clearly beneficial.

To that end, psychology is being added to the educational curriculum – along with the longstanding topics like risk management, tax planning, and investing – required for advisers to get certification as a Certified Financial Planner, or CFP. 

Money “is a very emotional topic,” said John M. Loper, a CFP and director of professional practice on the CFP Board. That, he said, is a compelling reason for addressing clients’ psychological issues head-on: “If you can’t connect with your client, it’s going to be difficult for them to take your advice.”

The idea came out of feedback the CFP received in a 2019 study, but COVID-19 pushed the issue to the forefront, he said. The psychology curriculum will include managing crises, such as pandemics and stock market drops, that have severe financial consequences.

Wells Fargo’s Michael Liersch, who has a PhD in behavioral finance, said that giving financial advice is challenging because some people are uncomfortable even starting a conversation about money. In families, it’s often a point of contention between husbands and wives or parents and children. Talking about money risks exposes big differences in how it should be used, and the conversations can turn negative.

“People think it’ll be disruptive, so they don’t bring it up,” said Liersch, head of financial advice and planning for Wells Fargo. …Learn More

employees working processing packages

Growing Job Demands Fall Harder on Some

As technology transforms the work world, jobs that were once routine might now require good interpersonal skills or the ability to quickly adjust to the situation at hand.

The people bearing the brunt of these challenges are the same people who were already at a disadvantage in the labor force: workers who never attended college.

New research on more than 700 occupations found that the types of jobs held by workers with only a high school education have become more difficult in recent years, which has sharply limited their job opportunities. The opposite is true for college graduates, whose jobs have gotten easier, opening up new opportunities for them.

“The changing nature of work over the past 15 years may have deepened inequality across educational groups,” according to the study funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration.

The data for this research came from an occupational database, as well as a one-time survey fielded by RAND in 2018 that asked workers to assess their current mix of natural abilities – as distinct from skills learned on the job – in four areas. The first area is cognitive abilities, which include communication and mathematical acuity. Physical abilities range from strength to flexibility. Sensory abilities include hearing and depth perception. Psychomotor refers to hand-eye coordination and fast reaction times.

The researchers first identified the abilities required to do more than 700 jobs held by the workers in the survey, as detailed in the federal government’s occupational database, and compared the current requirements with the 2003 requirements for each job.

The abilities required of workers with no more than a high school degree increased in all four categories. Construction workers are a good example. Their need for writing proficiency has increased dramatically. And today’s warehouse workers must move at breakneck speed to keep up with the sophisticated technology being used to fill orders for overnight delivery.

Contrast these workers to the college graduates, whose job requirements have lessened in three of the four categories. Only their need for sensory abilities, such as hearing and depth perception, has increased – and not by as much as the workers who didn’t go to college.

The researchers also found that the shifting job demands have very different implications for each group’s employment potential. …Learn More