Posts Tagged "debt"

CARES check

COVID Relief Checks Helped Needy the Most

In the pandemic’s early days, the unraveling of economic life was breathtaking. Some 3.3 million Americans filed for jobless benefits in the second week of March 2020. A record 6.6 million joined them the following week.

By April, government checks were starting to land in workers’ bank accounts, bringing the urgent relief Congress intended. The unemployed used the often-substantial assistance – up to $3,400 for a family of four – to cover basic expenses, and the people who were holding on to their jobs saved for possibly difficult days ahead.

New research shows that the benefits of this assistance disproportionately went to those who needed it most: low-income workers and people who had financial problems before COVID hit.

The relief checks “have been more of a lifeline for individuals who were struggling,” the study concluded. “Rather than simply help prevent widening inequality,” the relief “may have helped close the gap.”

Consider the workers who either had great difficulty paying their debts in 2019 or had been spending more than they earned. Thanks to the first round of relief distributed in 2020, both groups saw improvement in three major areas, according to the Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research at the University of Southern California.

The disadvantaged workers experienced the largest reductions in financial stress and felt more satisfied with their finances. They also felt less financially fragile, reporting that it was easier to come up with $400 in cash for an emergency like a car repair. And their ability to save increased.

The researchers said they couldn’t directly credit the relief checks for these improvements. Another important factor – the enhanced unemployment benefit of $600 per week – was also simultaneously at play. But one analysis in this study did find that the people who had received the checks saw more gains than the workers who were still waiting for their checks when they participated in the Internet survey in April 2020 that the researchers used.

As was widely acknowledged at the time, lower-paid hourly workers suffered the brunt of the pandemic-related layoffs. The researchers found that $60,000 in yearly income was a sort of dividing line: households that earned less benefited more from the government assistance than households that earned over $60,000. The lower-income households were more likely to build up their checking and savings account balances. …Learn More

Too Much Debt Taxes Baby Boomers’ Health

work related stress

Staying healthy is becoming a preoccupation for baby boomers as each new medical problem arises and the existing ones worsen.

The stress of having too much debt isn’t helping.

The older workers and retirees who carry debt are less healthy than the people who are debt free, and higher levels of debt have worse health effects, according to Urban Institute research. The type of debt matters too. Unsecured credit cards have more of an impact than secured debt – namely a mortgage backed by property.

Debt can erode an individual’s health in various ways. The stress of carrying a lot of debt has been shown to cause hypertension, depression, and overeating. And it can be a challenge for people to take proper care of themselves if they have onerous debt payments and can’t afford to buy health insurance or, if they are insured, pay the physician and drug copayments.

This is an issue, say researchers Stipica Mudrazija and Barbara Butrica, because the share of people over age 55 with debt and the dollar amount of their debts, adjusted for inflation, have been rising for years. In this population, increasing bankruptcies – a high-stress event – have been the fallout.

In an analysis of two decades of data comparing older workers and retirees with and without debt, the researchers found that having debt is tied to the borrowers’ declining self-evaluations of their mental and physical health. Older people who are in debt are also more likely to be obese, to have at least two diagnosed health conditions, or to suffer from dementia or various ailments that limit their ability to work.

The bulk of their debt is in the form of mortgages, which increasingly have strained household budgets in recent decades as home prices have outpaced incomes. Piled on top of the larger mortgage obligations can be payments for credit card debt, medical debt, car loans, and college loans – often for the boomers’ children. …Learn More

Retired Couple Chopped Down $40,000 Debt

While living in New York City, Clifton Seale and Charles Gilmore piled up an enormous amount of credit card debt for basic expenses and frequent dinners out.

After retiring – Seale was a librarian and Gilmore a clergyman – the couple were notified of a $200 rent increase on their Queens apartment. With so much debt on the books, they realized they could no longer afford New York City, and after a few visits to see friends near the Delaware seashore, they moved there.

“I like to say I flunked retirement because I found out neither of us could afford to live on the pension and Social Security,” Gilmore said.

Although Delaware was a less expensive place to live, they didn’t turn their finances around until they found the non-profit Stand by Me 50+, which offers free financial coaches to Delaware residents over age 50.

The couple, who have been together 35 years and married for 8 years, have a decent income by rural Delaware’s standards, if not New York’s. Their combined income is about $70,000 per year. They were able to buy a $185,000 three-bedroom house in Lincoln, Delaware, after a friend helped with the down payment. Their $1,150 mortgage isn’t much more than the rent on their one-bedroom apartment in Queens.

Credit cards were Seale and Gilmore’s big issue. They owed about $40,000, including moving expenses and some new furniture purchased in Delaware. Both of them had retired at a fairly young age – 62 – but felt they had no choice but to go back to work. Gilmore found a job at a local operation for a national hospice organization and, last September, landed a part-time position as a Presbyterian pastor. Seale has worked at a non-profit that helps seniors who want to age in their homes.

The extra income helped, but the debt was still going up. “We weren’t paying off as much [debt] as we were spending,” Seale said. “No matter what I did, everything was still falling down around my shoulders.”

They just needed to get rid of the debt. …Learn More

Save money sticky note

2 Options in an Emergency: Savings or Family

The pandemic was a crash course in the importance of having some money in the bank for an emergency.

When COVID started to spread, jobs vanished, mothers abruptly stopped working to care for children who weren’t in school, and, for the unlucky people who became ill, the medical bills rolled in.

Congress took extraordinary measures during these extraordinary times and approved three rounds of relief payments totaling several thousand dollars per household in 2020 and 2021. But the federal payments, along with extra unemployment benefits and an increase in the child tax credit, weren’t enough to keep everyone afloat.

That left the people who didn’t have any savings with one other fallback option to get them through the tough times: borrowing from a family member.

The non-savers resorted to borrowing from family at three times the rate of people who did have savings – 15 versus just 5 percent, according to surveys conducted in 2020 and 2021 by the financial services company, BlackRock.

But borrowing from family to ease financial strains causes another problem: the people who got help from family said it stressed them out, the survey found.

Right now, the economy is doing pretty well, and jobs are plentiful. It might be time to think about a New Year’s Resolution. Many workers are still barely getting by, and it can be difficult to save. But at least give it a try.

The next time you have a financial emergency, Congress probably won’t be there to bail you out.

Read more blog posts in our ongoing coverage of COVID-19.Learn More

Money puzzle

Is Americans’ Savings Buffer Wearing Thin?

COVID has worn Americans down emotionally. But it might be eating away at their financial reserves too – at least for some people.

As the pandemic has dragged on, many people said in newly released surveys that they are more anxious about their finances and feel that their savings are wearing thin.

We won’t get a true picture of the pandemic’s impact until it is far away in the rear-view mirror. For one thing, Congress’ intent when it doled out historic amounts of cash assistance to workers was to carry them through the COVID lockdowns and resulting unemployment. And it worked.

After federal relief checks were deposited into bank accounts, the saving rate shot up to about 34 percent in April 2020 and to almost 27 percent in March 2021 – the highest levels this country has seen in decades. The rate has floated down to single digits as people have spent the extra money but remains relatively high.

Recent job gains and wage increases should also bolster balance sheets. Businesses added 626,000 more jobs in June through September than the U.S. Department of Labor had originally estimated, and October was a blockbuster month, with 531,000 new jobs created. In the November jobs report, unemployment hit a pre-pandemic low of 4.2 percent.

But these signs of progress are mixed in with feelings of unease. One thing is clear from surveys of workers by T. Rowe Price, said Joshua Dietch, vice president: The challenges that existed before COVID “didn’t get any lighter as a result of the pandemic.”

NPR also fielded a financial survey in August and September of this year. More than a third of U.S. households said they are having “serious financial problems.” And the workers who have suffered the most during the economic downturn last year – people of color – are in the worst shape: more than half of Black, Hispanic, and Native American households said their financial problems were serious.

A deterioration in savings could be behind that feeling of financial insecurity. Nearly 40 percent of households in NPR’s survey with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said they have no “savings to fall back on” – that is double the share who reported having no savings prior to COVID. The share of Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans who lack savings also doubled, though to much higher levels of 63 percent, 56 percent, and 55 percent, respectively. …Learn More

Healthcare Deductibles: the Burden Grows

At $140 billion, the nation’s unpaid medical bills are the single largest form of past due debt. One thing driving this is no doubt rising deductibles for health insurance.

Health Insurance CartoonA third of insured Americans said in a survey that it is difficult to pay the deductibles in their employer health insurance plans and in the policies sold on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplaces.

Among employer-sponsored insurance plans, policies with high deductibles are becoming more pervasive, even in large corporations. Employers are choosing high-deductible plans in part to keep their workers’ monthly premiums at a reasonable level – a tradeoff that is inherent in health insurance.

But the sky-high cost of medical care can quickly run-up out-of-pocket spending in years when someone in the family becomes very ill or needs surgery. Average deductibles exceed $3,000 for a single worker’s policy in half of the U.S. companies with less than 200 workers. The family plan deductibles exceed $6,000 in more than 40 percent of small companies.

ACA plan deductibles are rising in almost every state and have surpassed $4,000 per year, on average, in 11 states from Arizona and Michigan to Oregon. A variety of plans are available on the exchanges, including plans with lower deductibles for people willing to pay higher premiums. But ACA premiums have also been rising, though the federal government has temporarily increased the premium subsidies as part of COVID-19 relief.

New research appearing in the July issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) estimates that medical bills made up more than half of all the consumer debt in collections last year. And the data are through June 2020 and don’t even reflect the full cost of caring for COVID patients. …Learn More

People waiting by a bus

Retired People of Color Struggle with Debt

The oldest minority retirees are struggling with debt, a new Urban Institute study finds.

The researchers’ starting point is that people generally reduce their debt as they age. To prepare for retiring, older workers try to pay down their mortgage balances and pay off credit cards. Once retired, their debt continues to shrink.

But on closer inspection, retirees in their 70s and 80s in the nation’s predominantly minority neighborhoods have shed less of their debt than their counterparts in mostly white neighborhoods, who tend to be better off financially.

In a sign of financial distress among the oldest lower-income and minority retirees, 20 percent of their loans go to collections for non-payment – double the rate for higher-income and white retirees. Minority retirees also have lower credit scores and longer spells of poor credit, according to the study, which compared U.S. households with debt in four age groups: 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s.

The researchers concluded that disadvantaged retirees “may heavily rely on debt to support their standard of living in retirement.”

To get some perspective on this racial disparity, first compare workers in mostly white and mostly minority neighborhoods. White households in their 50s typically owed $43,000 on their credit cards, car loans, and mortgages in 2019, the most recent year of survey data.

But in minority neighborhoods, 50-somethings owe half as much – in large part because financial companies and mortgage lenders extend less credit to lower-income customers.

(These debt levels may seem small, but the analysis included renters, who don’t have a mortgage, which is the single largest debt for most Americans, and homeowners who have whittled down their mortgages or even paid them off entirely).

For retirees, the racial pattern is very different. Borrowers in their 80s in minority neighborhoods typically owed $3,250 in 2019 – more than their white counterparts. And $3,250 is a substantial burden for retirees relying mainly on Social Security. Since they’re more likely to be renters, the debt is concentrated in auto loans and high-rate credit cards, which aren’t backed by an appreciating asset like a house. …Learn More