Relocating Can Boost Living Standards

COVID-19, by rearranging work arrangements, is allowing people to rethink where they live.

As the virus started to spread in Manhattan last spring, some residents fled the city and began snapping up houses in Westchester County and on Long Island. There is preliminary evidence some people are moving farther afield, to rural areas where small populations create the potential for lower COVID-19 transmission rates.

In a Pew Research Center survey, about one in five Americans said the pandemic had either prompted them or someone they know to relocate.

The map below shows the big changes in living standards that can accompany a move from a high- to a low-cost part of the country. In each location, the Tax Foundation calculated each region’s purchasing power, based on what $100 will buy, on average, nationwide.

For example, $100 will purchase $75 to $80 worth of goods in Manhattan. By moving to Upstate New York or New Mexico, someone who keeps her job and works remotely can increase her purchasing power to around $110 – the equivalent of at least a 37 percent increase.Map of cost-of-living

Typically, an area’s cost-of-living is correlated with local incomes. For example, employers must pay more to attract workers to high-cost areas. But not in North Carolina, which has “higher-than-average incomes without corresponding higher-than-average prices,” the Tax Foundation said.

Offsetting the benefits of relocating to a low-cost area is the employment risk. If a remote job evaporates, it may be difficult to find a suburban or rural employer that pays as much or an employer in a larger city willing to hire someone new to work remotely. Poor wifi connections are a common problem in rural areas.

Moving is a complex decision with an array of considerations, from the health benefits to the difficulty collaborating with coworkers over Zoom. But what seems clear is that working remotely is, for many, becoming the new normal. …Learn More

Man running up the stairs

Economic Opportunity Reduces Disability

Add upward mobility – an individual’s success in surpassing parents’ economic circumstances – to the factors that can keep federal disability payments in check.

A substantial body of academic research has already established that when the economy is growing, unemployed and marginally employed people have better luck on the job market, and their applications for disability insurance start to decline.

But booms and busts aren’t the only influence on disability. A new study finds that economic conditions of a different type – the ability of low-income people to move up the economic ladder – can reduce disability by improving their health. People who earn more money tend to be healthier for a variety of reasons, ranging from access to better medical care to the lower rates of depression and obesity that exist in higher-income populations.

In a recent study, Yale University sociologist Rourke O’Brien used the data from another researcher’s study that mined IRS tax records to find people born in the 1980s to parents whose incomes were at the lower end – the 25th percentile – of the U.S. income distribution. The children were followed into adulthood to see if they earn more or less than their parents did.

It’s very difficult for children in low-income families to improve on their parent’s circumstances, but the odds are better if they grow up in areas with better schools, less inequality, and more two-parent families.

O’Brien’s research found that counties in which young adults earn more, on average, than their parents were less likely to one day report having a disability in U.S. Census surveys and less likely to be receiving disability benefits.

In a more in-depth analysis, the researcher found some evidence that upward mobility also blunts the well-known tendency of rising unemployment to increase disability applications.

Taken together, the findings indicate that whether someone ends up on disability benefits depends, at least in part, on where they grew up. …Learn More

Low income housing

Housing Subsidies May Fuel SSI Growth

Federal spending on the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program has grown substantially in recent decades, making it the single largest source of cash assistance for older or disabled Americans with little or no income.

For people with disabilities to qualify for SSI’s benefits – the federal maximum is currently $783 per month, with most states adding in smaller amounts – the disability must severely restrict their ability to work. The average monthly payments under Social Security’s separate disability insurance (DI) program are larger, but people who lack the necessary work history required to apply for DI can seek disability status through SSI.

To better understand SSI’s rapid growth, researchers asked whether the preference for housing assistance that some cities give to people with disabilities might create an incentive – albeit an indirect one – to seek approval for SSI. The possibility of moving higher on a city’s long waiting list for housing is highly prized, because the demand for low-cost housing vastly exceeds the supply.

The housing assistance comes in two forms: apartments in public housing developments or federal rental vouchers that pay landlords the difference between their market-rate rents and what the low-income household can afford. Both types of assistance cap rental payments at 30 percent of the household’s income.

First, the researchers found that people with disabilities are, indeed, more likely to get the scarce housing assistance, and their advantage has increased over the past 20 years. Single mothers and people with no more than a high school education in particular benefit from these housing preferences.

The researchers also confirmed their hunch that the prospect of obtaining low-cost housing is a factor in the growth in SSI’s enrollment. And the more expensive the rents in an area, the stronger the incentive to seek SSI: a $1,000 increase in the value of the assistance increases enrollment in SSI by almost a third, according to the study. …Learn More

Despair Grips Lower-Paid White Workers

Book Cover of Deaths of DespairLong before COVID-19 upended our world, the lives of lower-paid, less-educated workers had already been coming apart.

“It’s the other epidemic, but it’s an epidemic that’s been occurring under the radar for a long time,” Anne Case said in her keynote address for the annual meeting of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium, which was held online early this month.

Case, a Princeton University economist, was referring to the findings from her seminal work on the deterioration in financial well-being and rising death rates among white, non-Hispanics without a bachelor’s degree. Case, along with her husband, Angus Deaton, also at Princeton, have just published a book on their research, “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism.”

The deaths of despair they refer to are due to drug addiction, liver disease from alcoholism, and suicide. In writing this book, they are shining a spotlight on a phenomenon affecting people who no longer have a voice, in part because labor unions, once powerful advocates, have declined.

In 2018, some 158,000 white adults of all ages without a college degree died from addiction, alcoholism and suicide, according to Case and Deaton’s research – more than double the number in 1992 and on par with COVID-19 deaths to date.

But the death rate is just the tip of an iceberg of woe that includes an increase in physical pain, declining mental health, and a loss of a sense of self, Case said.

One disturbing trend is the relatively recent phenomenon of rising suicides among white women without a bachelor’s degree. Although suicides among their male counterparts are still much higher, women’s suicides in recent years have been increasing at roughly the same pace.

What is at the root of this despair? Case provides economic explanations, including a long-term decline in men’s wages and in the percentage who are employed. However, economics is inadequate to explain the despair. …Learn More

Grocery Store worker

Disabilities and the Toll of Irregular Hours

Irregular hours, last-minute schedule changes, and rotating shifts are now a fixture of the work world.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Gig economy workers often tout the appeal of having the freedom to set a schedule that suits their lifestyle. In reality, many workers with unpredictable schedules, notably in retail and in lower-paid and part-time jobs, do not determine when they work. Their schedules are set by their employers.

These jobs can be hard for anyone to juggle. Arranging childcare on an irregular schedule is a good example. But workers with disabilities face unique challenges, because they often need special arrangements, such as a caretaker to help them get ready for work or an accessible van to transport them.

This would suggest that it’s important to work for employers who give them predictable schedules. In fact, a new study of workers in their 20s and early 30s with disabilities found they more often have irregular schedules than the young adults who do not have disabilities.

Here are some of their specific findings. A larger share of the workers with disabilities told the U.S. Census their work hours varied, and their hours swung more widely from week to week than people without disabilities. Consistent with this, young adult workers with disabilities reported in a second survey – the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth – that they are less likely to have regular schedules.

They are also more likely to have jobs with rotating shifts – an employer might assign the 5 a.m.-1 p.m. shift one day and the 1 p.m.-9 p.m. shift the next. Further, rotating shifts have become more common in recent decades, the researchers found. …Learn More

Recession’s Hit to Cities Varies Widely

The COVID-19 recession is unlike anything this country has seen.

If the second-quarter contraction were to continue at the same pace for a full year, the economy would shrink by a third! This is the deepest downturn since the Great Depression, and low-income Americans are feeling the brunt of it.

Chart about two California citiesWhat makes this recession unique, however, is that the low-income people living in the most affluent metropolitan areas are worse off than low-income residents of less affluent cities, Harvard economist Raj Chetty explained during a recent interview on Boston’s public radio station, WBUR.

“What’s going on is that affluent folks have the capacity to self-isolate, to work remotely, to not go on vacation,” he said. “So in affluent areas, you see enormous drops in consumer spending and business revenue.”  In these areas, more than half of the lowest-income workers have lost their jobs, and many of them worked in small businesses, he said.

In less affluent cities, people have to go to work and “are out and about more, and business revenue hasn’t fallen nearly as much,” he told his radio host. “In previous recessions, we haven’t seen those sort of patterns.”

Chetty’s point is demonstrated by comparing what happened to consumer spending this year in San Francisco and Fresno, California, on the tracktherecovery.org website he and other economists have created. (Visitors can sort the spending data by state, industry, and consumer income levels, as well as by city.) …Learn More

A sign that says what's your plan for retirement

Workers Lacking 401ks Need a Solution

Although COVID-19 has exposed alarming gaps in a health insurance system that revolves around the employer, the Affordable Care Act is one potential solution for workers who lack the employer coverage.

There is nothing equivalent on the retirement side, however.

Many workers between ages 50 and 64 are in jobs that provide neither health insurance nor a retirement savings plan. But, in contrast to the health insurance options available to them, “no retirement sav­ing vehicle appears effective in helping older workers in nontraditional jobs set aside money for retirement,” concluded a new analysis of workers in these nontraditional jobs.

Nontraditional workers who want to save for retirement are left with two options: their spouse’s 401(k) savings plan or an IRA operated by a bank, broker or financial firm.

A spouse’s 401(k) hasn’t been an effective fallback for a couple of reasons. First, a substantial number of the workers who lack their own 401(k)s are not married. And second, if they are married to someone with a 401(k), they’re not any better off. The researcher found that married people currently contributing to 401(k)s do not save more to compensate for the spouse without a 401(k), reinforcing other research showing these couples don’t save enough for two.

The other option – an IRA – is open to everyone. But only a small fraction of Americans currently are saving money in IRAs, and most of them already have a 401(k). So IRAs, in practice, aren’t doing much for the people who need the help: workers who lack employer benefits. … Learn More