June 4, 2019
Husbands Ignore Future Widow’s Needs
The amount of money a widow receives from Social Security can mean the difference between comfort and hardship.
Husbands have a lot of control over how this will turn out. Each additional year they postpone collecting their own Social Security adds another 7.3 percent to the amount a future widow will receive every month from the program’s survivor benefit.
But husbands can be a stubborn lot.
Previous research has shown that a large minority fail to take their wives into account when deciding to start their Social Security. A new study confirms this in an online experiment designed to raise husbands’ awareness of the financial impact their claiming age could have on a spouse. The men’s ages ranged from 45 to 62.
In the experiment, the researchers displayed Social Security’s benefit information to the men three different ways. In the first format, a control group saw the basic information: the husband’s full retirement benefit, and then a link to a second page displaying his benefits for various claiming ages. A second format also displayed his full benefit, but the link went to a page with estimates of his widow’s survivor benefits, based on the husband’s various claiming ages – the later he files, the more she would receive. The third format had the same information as the second format, but it was presented on a single web page.
Regardless of the way the survivor benefits were displayed, the men weren’t persuaded to postpone their own benefits to one day help their widows. Potential explanations include their feelings about work, existing health issues, and whether they will get a defined benefit pension from an employer.
Whatever their motivation, simply educating husbands on the financial impact of choosing a claiming age “is unlikely to improve widows’ economic outcomes,” concluded the study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
The impact of widowhood is often significant. An average widow’s total income drops 35 percent when a husband passes away, the researchers estimated from financial data for married men who had retired. The earlier the husband had started his benefits, the larger the drop in the widow’s income after the couple’s second Social Security check stops coming in. …Learn More
May 2, 2019
Retiring Can Strain Food Budgets
More than 10 percent of the nation’s retirees struggle with hunger.
New research offers one explanation: when people retire and give up a regular paycheck, they sometimes adjust to having less income by reducing their food intake.
After retiring, the men in the study ate 17 percent less protein, which becomes more important as people age. Their total calorie intake also dropped 19 percent, and their Vitamin E consumption fell 16 percent, on average, according to researchers at the University of Michigan and University of Delaware. The retirees also cut back on several other nutrients.
This contradicts previous studies, which had failed to uncover a link between diet and retirement income. Skeptical of the findings, the researchers did an exhaustive study that used various types of analyses and several datasets to follow male heads of households from employment through retirement. They controlled for race, education, household size, and health.
They consistently found, across several data sources, that a drop in income reduces food intake. In fact, the effect was so large that it exceeded the impact of another dramatic financial event: unemployment among working-age people.
Although a small minority of seniors are threatened by hunger, it’s a serious problem. …Learn More
April 11, 2019
Our Financial Status: Race Really Matters
Racial differences in workers’ finances are nothing less than shocking: whites have roughly six times more wealth than Latinos and black-Americans and double the income.
These age-old disparities will be as familiar to readers as they are to economists. But a clear and updated picture of their magnitude was presented in a recent study.
In 2016, U.S. household wealth, regardless of race, still had not rebounded to 2007 levels. But whites made a lot more progress climbing out of the hole created by the plunging stock market and housing crash that ushered in the 2008 recession.
The researchers examined changes in each group’s net worth over a decade. Pre-recession, white households had five times more wealth than blacks; this ratio grew to 7-to-1 in 2016. The white-Latino wealth ratio doubled from 3-to-1 to nearly 6-to-1.
The 2016 data are the most recent from the Federal Reserve’s triennial survey of American households’ personal finances.
The earnings picture isn’t as dire but the gap is still large. White households are earning slightly more than they did in 2007, and blacks and Latinos are not. In 2016, white Americans had two times more income than either minority group.
Many factors, notably education, influence how well someone does. But, clearly, race does matter. …
January 22, 2019
A Taste of How the 1 Percent Lives
The dramatic increase in U.S. inequality is due almost entirely to the expanding fortunes of the
1 percent. They have tripled their share of the nation’s total wealth to 21 percent since the 1970s.
Such extreme concentrations of wealth are of growing concern to economists and even one Wall Street firm. They argue that it hurts the economy for everyone.
The public’s reaction couldn’t be more different. Their preferred solution to barely coping financially is to become rich themselves. Two out of three Americans told Gallup they aspire to being rich and say that the super-wealthy are good for the country. Democrats and Republicans are equally enamored of the rich.
What it means to be in the top 1 percent is, for most of us, an abstraction since the wealthy largely keep to their own. But the crew of the Double Sunshine tour boat are happy to show tourists the lifestyles of Florida’s rich and famous during daily tours of the dolphins and multimillion-dollar mansions on Naples Bay.
During my Christmastime tour of the bay, the crew pointed out one property where the new owner had demolished a $49 million house to build a new one. “Tear-downs are on a tear,” says The Naples Daily News, which closely follows the real estate transactions of celebrities and chief executives.
In property after property, royal palms sway over lawns that tumble into the bay. Every house has a yacht or an empty boat slip with a full crew awaiting the owner’s return, said Greg Dyer, the tour boat company’s assistant operations director. One homeowner pays nearly $600,000 a year in property taxes. No wonder Naples has such great bike paths. …Learn More
November 1, 2018
US Inequality is Feeding on Itself
The fact that the richest Americans are grabbing such a big slice of the pie isn’t exactly breaking news.
What is news is that Wall Street is getting nervous about it. Moody’s Investors Service, a private watchdog for the federal government’s fiscal soundness, has concluded that inequality has reached the point that it threatens a system already being strained by increases in the federal debt. But Moody’s also noted that inequality is contributing to slower economic growth, which further aggravates inequality.
The high level of U.S. inequality today “sets us apart” from Canada, Australia, and several European countries, Moody’s said in an October report, “Widening Income Inequality Will Weigh on U.S. Credit Profile.”
Moody’s central concern is how inequality will affect the federal budget. When the economy slows in periods of high inequality, there are more lower-income households requiring support from costly programs like Medicaid. Federal tax revenues also decline during any downturn, leaving less money to pay for these means-tested programs and for social insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare.
The firm’s second concern is that inequality is a drag on the economy. When the middle-class is squeezed, for example, they have less money to buy consumer goods. And when the economy slows down, inequality can increase, as it did in the years after the 2008-2009 recession.
This has played out in a widening wealth gap, Moody’s said. The typical lower and middle-income worker’s net worth – assets minus liabilities – has shrunk since the recession, while net worth rose sharply for the people at the top.
One big reason for widening inequality is the stock market. Even though the market declined sharply this month, the post-recession bull market has beefed up investment portfolios – but only for the 50 percent of Americans who own company shares or stock mutual funds.
A second contribution to a widening wealth gap, post-recession, has been housing. A home is often the most valuable asset people own, so the steep drop in house prices and the spike in foreclosures were big setbacks for people who aspired to build wealth through homeownership. …Learn More
August 16, 2018
US Increasingly Polarized – by Geography
Rich or poor, old or young, white or black, red or blue – our differences cut many ways.
But a new divide has opened up, one based on geography. Stark new evidence shows that well-paid, highly educated people have moved to high-cost coastal cities over the past decade, while lower-income, less educated people have moved out.
American cities are “grow[ing] increasingly dissimilar along socioeconomic dimensions,” said Issi Romem, a fellow at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California and economist for BuildZoom, a California website focused on development.
Gentrification is nothing new. But Romem’s analysis of U.S. intercity migration shows that gentrification occurs not just within city neighborhoods but also between cities. San Francisco is the most extreme example of what he calls “income sorting.” He estimates that the population moving into the Bay Area earns $13,000 more, on average, than the population that is moving out. People relocating to Seattle and Washington earn about $3,800 more than the people who leave.
A similar phenomenon is occurring in New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Boston, where restrictions on development, coupled with the strong demand for the limited housing stock, are pushing up house prices and driving people out, including renters who can no longer afford the steep increases in rents.
These movements exacerbate society’s already high level of inequality. As cities or regions of the country become less integrated in terms of their residents’ incomes, fewer low- and middle-income groups will enjoy the particular benefits to them of living in the midst of those who are better off.
Upward mobility is one such benefit. A famous study found that lower-income people are more likely to move up the income ladder, relative to their parents, if they live in coastal cities with higher education levels, better primary schools, and more family stability. Other research shows they will also live longer if they reside in cities with more socioeconomic diversity. …Learn More
July 26, 2018
Book Review: the Middle-class Squeeze
Marketplace recently estimated that a family’s common expenses have increased 30 percent since the 1990s. This was based on the inflation-adjusted prices for 11 necessities and small luxuries, from food, housing, college, and medical care to movie tickets and air fare.
On the income side of the household ledger, one well-known study estimates that the lifetime, inflation-adjusted income of a typical 60-year-old man today is substantially less than it was for a man who turned 60 back in 2002. Women, who have benefitted from getting more education, are earning more, but they started out at much lower pay levels and still trail men.
These trends – rising expenses and shrinking paychecks – get to the essence of the middle-class struggle described in Alissa Quart’s new book, “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America.”
Putting faces to the numbers, she had no trouble finding workers who feel they are losing their tentative grip on the middle class. Her focus is the 51 percent of U.S. households earning between $40,000 and $125,000.
That’s not to say that Americans’ quality of life hasn’t improved in some ways. Consider the dramatic increase in the square footage of U.S. houses over the past 30 years or the enormous strides in medical technology. In today’s strengthening economy, the Federal Reserve Board reports that a majority of adults say they are doing okay or even living comfortably, and they are feeling more optimistic. Yet this doesn’t entirely square with another of the Fed’s findings: a large majority of adults would not be able to cover an unexpected $400 expense without selling something or borrowing money. …Learn More