Market Drops Hit Those Who Don’t Invest

Photo of the cast of Sweat

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

How fitting that I would see the play “Sweat” on Feb. 28 – a Friday night at the end of a week in which the stock market dropped 12 percent and the specter of recession reared its ugly head.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat” – I saw the Boston revival – is about the havoc the boom-bust economy and falling financial markets wreak on working people’s employment security and their personal lives. In fact, the timeline of the play is bracketed by 2000, when the stock market crashed, and 2008, when it crashed again.

At the beginning of each scene, a voice-over broadcasts the day’s bad financial news. The stock market never crosses the lips of the characters in the play, which is set in a local bar that is the social center of the working class town of Reading, Pennsylvania. Their chief concern is the fate of their jobs at the steel tubing plant. But the unspoken stock market is an invisible character shaping their plight.

Playwright Lynn Nottage got her inspiration for “Sweat” during visits to Reading over 2½ years. Two female characters and each of their sons work at the plant – very typical of a factory town. The bartender used to work there until he injured his leg. An immigrant who is a busboy at the bar briefly gets a shot at the American dream as a scab worker when the company locks the union out of the plant. There is tension between the immigrant and the long-time residents, and between the assembly line workers and the one worker who is promoted to management. But in the end, all of their lives are tragically upended by the plant closing.

Factories began shutting down in the 1980s, in part because U.S. manufacturers learned they could hire workers at much lower wages overseas. But manufacturing’s long-term decline was perpetuated by the 2001 recession, which was triggered by a market drop, and a second recession that began with the 2008 market collapse.

Which brings us to 2020. …Learn More

State Uninsured Rates All Over the Map

Map of Uninsured rates

A decade after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, about one out of every five Texans under age 65 still do not have health insurance. Georgia, Oklahoma and Florida are close behind.

The contrast with Hawaii, Minnesota, Michigan, and New Hampshire is stark – only about one in 20 of their residents lacked insurance in 2018, the most recent year of available data, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s annual roundup of insurance coverage in the 50 states.

Despite this glaring disparity, the share of Americans lacking coverage has dropped dramatically across the board, including in Texas. Texas’ uninsured rate fell from 26 percent in 2010 to 18 percent in 2018. This translates to 2.3 million more people with health insurance. (Large populations of undocumented immigrants in states like Texas can push up the uninsured rate.)

States that had fairly broad coverage even prior to the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) 2010 passage didn’t have as far to fall. For example, Connecticut’s uninsured rate is 6 percent, down from 10 percent in 2010.

One upshot of these two trends is that the disparity between the high- and low-coverage states has shrunk. Certainly, the strong job market gets credit for reducing the ranks of the uninsured. But millions of Americans who don’t have employer insurance have either purchased a policy on the insurance exchanges or gained coverage when their state expanded Medicaid to more low-income residents under the ACA.

For example, just two years after Louisiana’s 2016 Medicaid expansion, the uninsured rate had fallen from 12 percent to 9 percent.

But the initial benefits of the ACA seem to have played out. The U.S. uninsured rate increased slightly, from 10 percent to 10.4 percent between 2016 and 2018.

The share of people who are underinsured is also rising, the Commonwealth Fund found in a recent analysis. …

Learn More

artwork of a woman's head

Education Could Shield Workers from AI

Not so long ago, computers were incapable of driving a car or translating a traveler’s question from English to Hindi.

Artificial intelligence changed all that.

Computers have advanced beyond the routine work they do so efficiently on assembly lines and in financial company back offices. Today, major advances in artificial intelligence, namely machine learning, have opened up a new pathway to expanding the tasks computers can do – and, potentially, the number of workers who may lose their jobs to progress over the next 20 years.

Machine learning works this way. A computer used to identify a cat by following explicit instructions telling it a cat has pointy ears, fur, and whiskers. Now, a computer can rapidly analyze and synthesize vast amounts of data to recognize a cat, based on millions of images labeled “cat” and “not-cat.” Eventually, the machine “learns” to see a cat.

But is this technological leap fundamentally different than past advances in terms of what it will mean for workers? And what about older workers, who arguably are more vulnerable to progress, because they have less time to see the payoff from updating their outmoded skills?

The answer, according to a third and final report in a series on technology’s impact on the labor market, is that advances in machine learning are likely to affect all workers – regardless of age – in the same way that computers have over the past 40 years.

And the dividing line, according to the Center for Retirement Research, will not be age. The dividing line will continue to be education: job options are expected to narrow for workers lacking a college degree or other specialized training, while jobs requiring these credentials will expand. …Learn More

Retiring in Florida: The Villages vs Reality

Photo of golf carts in a row

May all your dreams come true.

This hope, displayed on a sign in The Villages retirement community in north central Florida, is why thousands of people flock there every year to retire.

During my annual holiday trek to visit my 84-year-old mother in Orlando, my husband and I drove her to The Villages to visit her good friend who had moved there. What struck me was the contrast between its over-the-top comforts and my mother’s modest retirement community just outside Orlando, where many of the residents, who heavily depend on their Social Security, are just barely getting by.

The differences in lifestyles reflect the retirement disparities that exist in this country and are a continuation of the disparities in our working population. But I was also struck by the similarities in what retirees – regardless of their socioeconomic status – are seeking: to live out their remaining days healthy and without worry.

The Villages is 32-square-miles of unbridled growth. The 55+ community features three Disney-like town squares – Spanish Springs, Brownwood, and Sumter Lake – with a fourth, Southern Oaks, under development. Retirees zip along in colorful golf carts through the perfectly landscaped grounds on paths that were designed for the vehicles. The residents use the golf carts to move between their tidy houses, the town squares, activity centers, and one of The Villages’ 53 golf courses and 100 pickle ball courts. There’s even a gas station for golf carts – that’s how integral they are to retirees’ lives.

It seems that the box stores and supermarkets have been placed on the edges of this sprawling development so as not to spoil the vibe – retirees drive cars to these destinations. Also on the periphery are establishments catering to the unappealing aspects of growing old: laser eye surgery centers, dialysis centers, assisted living facilities, and funeral homes. Old age is tough – even in The Villages. For example, my mother’s friend lost her husband and then – a few years later – her fiancé died.

Photo of a man golfingThe Villages’ creature comforts are expensive. Prices are high by the standards of Florida’s interior, ranging between $250,000 and $800,000. Residents often pay for them by selling a house up north to cash in on the appreciation. They also pay an assessment to cover the development’s infrastructure costs and a monthly fee of just over $1,000 for utilities, trash pickup and endless amenities, which, in addition to golf, include numerous activity centers, lakes for fishing, and easy access to the town centers’ restaurants, Starbucks, shopping, and movie theaters.

But this enclave of privilege and play doesn’t reflect the reality for most retirees. My straight-talking Midwestern mom’s assessment of The Villages is, simply, “I can’t afford it.” …Learn More

Retiree Living Standards, Ranked by State

How well you will live in retirement will depend on two things: your income and the local cost of living.

A new study that ranks each state based on how many of its retirees can meet a basic standard of living comes up with an interesting combination of places that are financially friendly – or not – to people over 65.

For example, who would expect Mississippi to be in the same company with California?

The cost of living in Mississippi is much lower than in California – and most states. But 31 percent of Mississippi’s retired single people and 24 percent of its retired couples fall into what the study calls the “gap” between being poor and having barely enough income to cover their basic expenses, according to a 50-state analysis by the University of Massachusetts’ Gerontology Institute in Boston.

Map of retired couples in the gap between poor and comfortableA general way to think about the people inhabiting this gap is that, while they are above the poverty line, they are still financially insecure.

“A lot of the folks who find themselves in the gap were middle class,” said Jan Mutchler, a U-Mass Boston professor and institute staff member. They have pensions or other income in addition to Social Security, she said, “and yet they’re still struggling.”

When the poor are added in, a total of 57 percent of Mississippi’s retired singles and 30 percent of its couples do not have the income required to pay for all of their essential household expenses, according to the analysis.

Like Mississippi, the share of older Californians who are feeling financially insecure is also one of the highest in the country: 34 percent of single people and 22 percent of couples. When poor retirees are included, the numbers rise to 54 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

Many people in California and Mississippi are having a difficult time – but for very different reasons. …Learn More

Artwork depicting depression

Credit Cards are the Most Stressful Debt

Debt is stressful. But did you know your stress level depends on the type of debt you have?

Credit cards cause far more stress than first mortgages and lines of credit, a study by Ohio State researchers finds. The more striking finding is that reverse mortgages, which allow people over age 62 to tap the equity in their homes, may reduce stress – at least temporarily.

The researchers used a simple example to illustrate the magnitude of credit card stress. Charging $640 on a card is as stress-producing as adding $10,000 to a mortgage. Credit cards are more stressful than home loans, because the balances on high-rate cards increase quickly when they’re not paid off, and the debt is not backed by an asset.

The researchers considered households to be debt-stressed if they said in a survey that they have had recent difficulty paying bills or have generally experienced financial strains.

This study focused on people over 62. As the share of older Americans carrying debt into retirement has increased, so have the amounts they owe. Debt arguably is very stressful for older workers, who have a dwindling number of years to get their finances under control before retiring, and for retirees, who have to live on fixed incomes.

The findings for reverse mortgages were nuanced – and interesting. Reverse mortgages create less stress than a standard mortgage and are much less stressful than consumer debt. On average, four years after taking out a reverse mortgage, the household’s stress level is 18 percent lower than it was at the time of the loan’s origination, according to the researchers, who did the study for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

But things can change over time. Retirees often use federally insured reverse mortgages to pay off debt or as a regular source of income. But the amount owed on a reverse mortgage increases over time, because retirees do not have to make payments, and the interest compounds. (The loans are paid off when the owner either sells the house or dies.) …
Learn More

Photo of the inside of a computer

Older Workers Ride Out Computer Age

The computer revolution, unleashed in the 1970s, has not stopped. Minicomputers replaced mainframes, and IBM introduced its personal computer. Then came the Internet, laptops, robots, iPhones, and increasingly intelligent software that can drive cars and discern music preferences.

Continual technological change has reshaped and regenerated the economy several times over, creating new types of jobs unimaginable a few years earlier. But the past four decades have also been tumultuous for the workers who were either replaced by machines or couldn’t keep up with the evolving demands of their jobs.

This is a pressing issue for the older workers who would benefit from working longer to improve their retirement finances. An erosion in their physical stamina or mental agility conceivably makes them more vulnerable to losing out to progress. And it can be difficult for people who have invested years in a job to train for and find new employment.

But a new study of labor force trends by the Center for Retirement Research finds this has not been the case. The computer age has had about the same impact on workers over age 55 as it has had on the labor force overall.

Two factors have proved essential to whether people – whatever their age – have had job security in this period of change: whether the work is routine and whether it requires a college education.

Since the 1970s, job options have narrowed for many workers who did not attend college, because computers have been especially good at rapidly and tirelessly performing the routine tasks this group’s work often entails. Examples are the computerized financial transactions that replaced back-office workers who entered the data manually and the robots inserted into assembly lines. The more routine a worker’s job, the more vulnerable he is to being replaced by a machine.

The upshot is that this segment of the labor force is shrinking: roughly a third of U.S. workers hold routine jobs currently, down from more than half in 1979. Nevertheless, the magnitude of this decline has been roughly the same for workers over 50 as for the labor force overall, according to the study, which was conducted for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

In contrast, computerization has not affected the demand for non-routine work that is physical in nature, such as construction and food preparation. These jobs typically do not require a college education either, but it has been virtually impossible to program computers to do non-repetitive work. “The rules governing our innate abilities are a mystery,” and this has protected jobs that emphasize uniquely human abilities, the researchers said.Learn More