October 13, 2020
The Economics of Being Black in the U.S.
The COVID-19 recession demonstrates an axiom of economics. Black unemployment always exceeds the rate for whites, the spikes are higher in recessions, and, in a recovery, employment recovers more slowly.
A record number of Black Americans were employed in 2019. But when the economy seized up in the spring, their unemployment rate soared to 17 percent, before floating down to a still-high 12.1 percent in September. Meanwhile, the white unemployment rate dropped in half, to 7 percent.
The much higher peaks in the unemployment rate for Blacks than whites and the slower recovery are baked into the economy.
This phenomenon occurred during the “jobless recovery” from the 2001 downturn. When the economy had finally restored all of the jobs lost in that recession, the Black jobless rate remained stubbornly higher.
And after the 2008-2009 recession, as the University of California, Berkeley’s Labor Center accurately predicted at the time, Black unemployment hovered at “catastrophic levels” longer than the white rate did. This disparity is now the issue in the COVID-19 recession.
Geoffrey Sanzenbacher, a Boston College economist who writes a blog about inequality, gives three interrelated reasons for Black workers’ higher unemployment rates.
First, “The U.S. still has a tremendous amount of education inequality, and the unemployment rate is always higher for people with less education,” he wrote in an email. Despite the big strides by Black men and women to obtain college degrees, roughly 30 percent have degrees, compared with more than 40 percent of whites, he said.
Second, Black workers without degrees are vulnerable because they are more likely to earn an hourly wage. An hourly paycheck means that a company can cut costs by simply reducing or eliminating a worker’s hours. “It’s much easier to lay off hourly workers, whose employment is more flexible by nature, than salaried workers,” Sanzenbacher said. …Learn More
September 22, 2020
More Gen-Zers are Living with Parents
When Millennials’ unemployment rate spiked during the Great Recession, millions of them alleviated their financial problems by moving in with their parents.
Now the coronavirus is chasing Generation Z back home.
Some 2.6 million adults, ages 18 to 29, who had been living on their own moved back home between February and July, the Pew Research Center reports. This pushed up the share of young adults living with one or both parents to 52 percent, which exceeds the rate reached during the Great Depression.
Pew’s analysis included some Millennials. But members of the younger Generation Z account for the vast majority – more than 2 million – of the young adults who’ve returned to the financial security of their parents’ homes this year. [This count does not include college students who came home and attended classes remotely after their schools shut down last spring.]
As was the case for Millennials, what sent Gen-Z back home was a sharp rise in their unemployment rate, Pew said. For example, the rate for people in their early 20s has more than doubled this year to 14.1 percent.
No age group escapes the impact of a recession. The current downturn is the second in a decade for baby boomers, who have faced these major setbacks just as they are trying to square away their finances for retirement.
Losing a job and financial independence as a young adult also has long-term consequences. … Learn More
August 18, 2020
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.
What 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
June 11, 2020
401ks are a Source of Cash in Pandemic
The U.S. retirement savings system has always been a little leaky. But the leaks seem to be getting bigger.
Some Americans are eyeing withdrawals from their 401(k) plans as the best of a few bad options for paying their rent or solving other cash-flow problems.
As of May 8, 1.5 percent of retirement plan participants had taken some money out of their 401(k) plans under new federal legislation permitting penalty-free withdrawals, The Wall Street Journal reported. An April survey by the non-profit Transamerica Institute put the number of savers responding to the pandemic much higher – about one in five.
But the data included people who took out loans from their 401(k)s, in addition to withdrawals from 401(k)s and IRAs. Further, Transamerica reported not only on what people have already done but what they say they plan to do. Younger workers and men were the most likely to resort to this desperation move.
Prior to the pandemic, many workers were already behind on their retirement savings and still had not fully recovered from the recession a decade ago.
The current economic downturn will only set them back further as the layoffs, reduced hours and sales commissions derail or curtail their efforts to save. Employers having to lay off workers are also conserving cash by suspending their matching contributions to their employees’ 401(k)s.
“The negative economic effects of the pandemic are further threatening retirement savings and security,” said Catherine Collinson, chief executive of the Transamerica Institute, a partner of the Center for Retirement Research, which funds this blog.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed in March made it easier to withdraw money by waiving the standard 20 percent income tax withholding and 10 percent penalty, which usually applies to people under age 59½. But one estimate made prior to the pandemic shows this is a costly strategy: prematurely taking money out of 401(k)s and IRAs reduces the average amount of money available for retirement by about one-fourth.
People who still have jobs are also saving less. One in five workers have reduced their 401(k) contributions, a Magnify Money survey shows. The informal poll isn’t representative of the population but is certainly an indication of the financial strain the pandemic is putting on workers.
Employers are pulling back too. At last count, some four dozen companies reeling from a drop in revenue – including big names like AutoNation, Best Buy, Hilton Grand Vacations, and Tripadvisor – are temporarily halting their matching contributions, according to a list compiled by the Center for Retirement Research. …Learn More
June 9, 2020
Disability Applications Spike in Recession
During the Great Recession, the record numbers of Americans who applied for disability included many people who lost their jobs – and it might happen again as the COVID-19 recession plays out.
A 2018 study estimated that 1 million people applied who would not have done so if there hadn’t been a recession. By October 2009, as the jobless rate was peaking, the additional applicants increased the total applications to the U.S. Social Security Administration by 16.5 percent.
The average age of these applicants was 53, and they tended to have impairments that were musculoskeletal or cognitive in nature. Because these impairments are less severe, they were more likely to be denied benefits, often resulting in an appeal.
In contrast, the people who would’ve sought disability benefits even in a strong economy tended to have serious medical conditions such as Crohn’s or chronic kidney disease that usually qualify them automatically under the disability program’s vetting system.
Ultimately, among the applicants who applied in response to the recession, 42 percent were awarded benefits, according to the study funded by the Social Security Administration and based on an analysis of the agency’s disability records.
When they did receive benefits, they were more often awarded on the basis of having a functional limitation and no transferable skills. As a result, many people who used to work were nevertheless approved for benefits, because their options for transferring their skills from their old job to a new job were limited.
Adding so many people to the disability system carried a steep price in terms of an increase in administrative and benefit costs. But the formerly productive workers also paid a price.
“Once people qualify” for disability benefits, the researchers said, “they rarely re-enter the labor force.” …Learn More
June 4, 2020
Money, Virus Angst Combine for Low-Paid
There’s COVID-19 stress, and then there’s money stress. The combination of the two is becoming too much for many low-income workers to bear.
Two out of three people in families that earn less than $34,000 a year told the U.S. Census Bureau in April that they are “not able to control or stop” their worrying several days a week or more. The feelings are the polar opposite for families earning more than $150,000: two out of three of them said they are not worried at all.
The daily blast of pandemic news has pushed U.S. inequality into the spotlight, exposing the financial pressures low-income Americans are dealing with. Despite the unprecedented $3 trillion in financial assistance passed by Congress, the anxiety was probably a contributing factor in the protests that erupted in dozens of U.S. cities last week.
When governors shut down their economies to control the pandemic, the lowest-income workers – disproportionately African-American and Latino – had barely recovered from the previous recession. Yet nearly half of the increase in incomes for all U.S. families over the past decade has gone to the 1 percent of families with the highest earnings. One glaring example of this disparity is homeownership, which is usually the largest form of wealth by the time people reach retirement age. Homeownership rates across the board declined after the financial crisis, but African-American and Latino rates fell more and are still below 2007 levels.
Low-income workers are now bearing the brunt of the current downturn. Economists estimate the true U.S. unemployment rate could be as high as 20 percent. The layoffs have been concentrated among low-wage workers: nearly 40 percent of people living in households earning less than $40,000 have lost their jobs.
The fundamental challenge of surviving from day to day is evident in the miles-long lines of cars at some U.S. food banks. About a third of Americans are having problems paying for all kinds of essentials – rent, utilities, or food – but the number rises to almost half for African-Americans and Latinos, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in mid-May. Children are being disproportionately impacted by rising food insecurity.
Spotty health care coverage is another layer of stress. Workers on the front lines in nursing homes, meat processing plants and grocery stores are more at risk of contracting COVID-19 but less likely to have health insurance from their employers. They may avoid seeing a doctor, even if they have symptoms, out of fear of being unable to afford the charges. …Learn More
May 26, 2020
How COVID-19 Spreads in Nursing Homes
The coronavirus has pulled back the curtain on longstanding problems in nursing homes. In 2014, the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had reported that more than one in five seniors in skilled nursing facilities experienced “adverse events.” These included poor medical care, patient neglect, and inadequate infection control, which frequently sent residents to the hospital.
Now, some nursing homes have become COVID-19 hotspots. This has contributed to disproportionate numbers of deaths among people over age 70, who may also have weakened immune systems that make them more susceptible to the virus or underlying medical conditions that increase their mortality rate.
Anthony Chicotel, a staff attorney with California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, discussed what he’s seen in nursing homes in the months since the pandemic began.
Briefly, Tony, name the big three underlying problems you feel caused the virus to spread.
Chicotel: No. 1 is chronic understaffing to meet the needs of the residents and to perform all the basic functions required every day. No. 2 would be a tolerance for poor infection control practices. This flows from No. 1 because good infection control requires time, and it’s one of the things that gets cut when you’re pressed for time. No. 3 might be the practice of staff working in multiple facilities. Because they are often low-paid, it’s not unusual for them to work for two different companies that do nursing home care, or they might also work for an assisted living provider. This cross-pollination contributes to the spread of the virus among facilities. We’ve also learned that most of the staff who had the coronavirus have been asymptomatic.
The problems in nursing homes are not new?
Chicotel: I think we should’ve anticipated this. Coronavirus has brought all this out into the open but the Centers for Disease Control cites a a pre-pandemic study that found that up to 388,000 nursing home residents die each year resulting from poor control of infections such as Methicillin-resistant bacteria (MRSA) and urinary tract and respiratory infections. We’ve just accepted this staggering breakdown of infection control for a long time. I’m an advocate, and it wasn’t something I really focused on either. It’s been begging to be addressed in a significant way for some time.
Talk about infection control. In this pandemic, everyone is aware that hand washing is critical to stopping the virus. You cited a report by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) that 36 percent of long-term care facilities do not comply with hand-washing protocols and 25 percent do not comply with protocols for personal protective equipment (PPE). …Learn More