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 8, 2020
A Laid-off Boomer’s Retirement Plan 2.0
Jennifer Lee wanted to work until 70 to max out her monthly Social Security checks – at least that was the plan before she was laid off three years ago from a Washington D.C. church.
The church’s newly hired pastor “decided he wanted a whole new staff,” she said. “I felt to a degree he was entitled to do that,” she said – except that “he was only eliminating people on the staff who were over 60.”
She wasn’t having any luck finding a new job and felt that her only choice was to sign up for Social Security at 63½ to pay her bills. Eventually, Lee, a one-time nurse and medical administrator, landed a nice part-time job as a Jack-of-all-trades in an oral surgeon’s office. Post-pandemic, her duties have expanded to include overseeing the COVID-19 safety protocols.
The recession is putting many baby boomers in a predicament similar to Lee’s: a layoff has derailed their plans to work full-time to build up their retirement savings. Since March, the unemployment rate for Americans who are at least 55 years old has more than tripled, to 9.7 percent in June.
“Most older people, when they’re laid off, will take Social Security right away,” but “that’s not their best short-term solution,” said Wendy Weiss, a Cambridge, Mass., financial adviser. She urges them to find other ways to generate income or reduce expenses, because delaying Social Security increases the monthly check by 7 percent to 8 percent for each additional year the benefits are postponed.
But, Weiss acknowledges, the recession is putting growing numbers of unemployed boomers in situations that aren’t easily solved. “It’s not going to be pretty,” she said about the next few years.
Lee, who is 65, was fully aware she should have postponed her Social Security. But it took her more than six months to find her current job, and she didn’t have any unemployment benefits to tide her over, because church employers don’t usually pay into state unemployment insurance funds. She wasn’t old enough for Medicare at the time of her 2017 layoff either.
“I waited five months to apply for Social Security. I waited as long as I could,” she said.
She sees a problem not in the difficult decisions she’s had to make but in a shortage of policies for older workers like herself, who may be more vulnerable to layoffs and also can have a tougher time finding a new job even in an expanding economy. …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
July 2, 2020
Recession Destabilizes Boomers’ Finances
The COVID-19 recession has changed everything.
This extreme disruption in our lives is always top of mind, which was reflected in our most widely read articles so far this year, based on the blog’s traffic.
Baby boomers, their retirement plans having been deeply affected by the Great Recession, are once again reassessing their finances. One popular article explained that the boomers who were in their early to late 50s during the previous recession lost about 3 percent of their total wealth at the time. This put their retirement planning at a distinct disadvantage compared with earlier generations in their 50s, whose wealth, rather than shrinking, grew 3 percent to 8 percent. The current recession is the second major setback in just over a decade.
Prior to the pandemic, readers liked articles about making careful retirement plans. Post-pandemic, the most popular article was about laid-off boomers desperate for income who may have to start their Social Security prematurely. The retirement benefits can be claimed as early as age 62, but doing so locks in the smallest possible monthly Social Security check – for life.
Even before Millennials were hit by the recession, they were already farther behind older generational groups when they were the same age. One article explained that the typical Millennial had just $12,000 in wealth. They are “the only generation to have fallen further behind” during the pre-pandemic recovery, the Federal Reserve said.
Here are a dozen of this blog’s most popular articles for the first half of 2020. They are grouped into three topics: COVID-19 and Your Finances, Retirement Planning, and Retirement Uncertainties.
COVID-19 and Your Finances:
Social Security Tapped More in Downturn
Lost Wealth Today vs the Great Recession
Boomers Facing Tough Financial Decisions …Learn More
June 23, 2020
Recessions Hit Depressed Workers Hard
Anyone who’s suffered through depression knows it can be difficult to get out of bed, much less find the energy to go to work. Mental illness has been on the rise, and depression and myriad other symptoms get in the way of being a productive employee.
So it’s not surprising that men and women with mental illness are much less likely to be employed than people who have no symptoms. But the problem gets worse in a recession.
In 2008, the first year of the Great Recession, the economy slowed sharply as 2.6 million workers lost their jobs. During that time, people who suffered from mental illness left the labor force at a much faster pace than everyone else, according to a new study from the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.
The researchers compared average labor force participation, as reported in the National Health Interview Survey, for three periods. Two periods of consistent economic growth bracketed a period that included the onset of the Great Recession: 1997-1999, 2006-2008, and 2015-2017.
Labor force participation for people with no mental illness dipped less than 1 percent between the late 1990s and the period that included the recession. By 2015-2017, roughly three out of four of them were still in the labor force – only slightly below pre-recession levels.
Contrast this relative stability to large declines in activity for people with mental illness – the more severe the condition, the steeper the drop. Participation fell 17 percent among people with the most severe forms of mental illness between the late 1990s and the period that included the recession. By 2015-2017, only 38 percent of them remained in the labor force – well below pre-recession levels. …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
March 12, 2020
Market Drops Hit Those Who Don’t Invest
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