We all know the Econ 101 lyrics: the economy strengthens, labor markets tighten, wages rise. But we often miss the music: Solidarity Forever. Wages do not raise themselves. It’s when workers won’t take it anymore that employers feel the need to boost wages, when capital is willing to take less, and when prosperity is shared.

In 2018, workers are rising up, and the protests are having an effect. Teachers in Arizona (see over 50,000 people protested teacher pay and low education spending in Phoenix in April), Oklahoma, and West Virginia all got raises through protest. (It’s no surprise that these states have had healthy economic growth.)

Don’t forget another protest: there were “Occupy” movements in 70 cities and in as many nations. The grievance was plain, the remedies diffuse, the aggrieved self-identified. “We are the 99%” buttons and placards drove people to the internet. How much annual income did you need to be in the 1% in 2009? I did the work for you. In 2009, the answer was $983,734. In 2015, the answer was $1,483,596 according to the IRS.

Income inequality will not fall without sustained growth and protest. Our research shows that without real wage growth, it will be hard to save for retirement. The economy at the time of the Occupy movement was not hot. In 2011, we had just been through the worst economic recession since the 1930s, and the recovery was anemic. Many families were devastated. But government policy focused on strengthening banks and bank executive bonuses, and profits snapped back quickly. The 2010 bonuses in the financial sector – a total of $144 billion - could have lifted almost all full-time minimum wage workers out of poverty that year.

Another stanza from Econ 101 is that economic growth helps everyone. This is the well-known mantra that rising tides – or hot economies - lift all boats. This means that economic growth shrinks income, economic, and opportunity gaps between classes.

Even with the hot economy we’ve had since 2016, there is no evidence that the bottom is coming up or the top is falling. In 2018, signs are that the distance has only grown wider between the middle class, or the 40% of Americans with annual incomes between $12,943 and $34,504, and the top 5% who earn more than $375,088.

In the mid-90s, the middle 40% had 30% of all annual income, and the top 5% had 15%. In 2016, the share going to the middle class fell and the share going to the top 5% increased.

The growing gap between the middle class and the very wealthy is caused by stagnant wages and rising profits. Since income for the middle class comes from work (earnings) and income for the top 5% from owning (stocks, bonds, businesses), workers did worse than owners in the last 20 years.

 graph         Calculations based on CPS data

Government rules and corporate power have made unions weaker, while laws have made owning more rewarding. Trump’s 2017 GOP tax reform law (almost all Republicans voted for it, and no Democrats, out of 240, voted for it) rested on the belief that raising corporate after-tax profits would give corporations wiggle room to raise wages and keep profits steady. Forgone government revenue – under this belief system – would be shifted to workers. Instead, the tax breaks allowed managers to buy stocks back from investors, causing stocks to go higher and wages to languish.

In the economics textbooks, hot economies and tight labor markets cause wages to rise. Nothing in this hot economy signals that the middle 40% will benefit from this boom. Are we inviting another Occupy? Time to change the textbooks or time to change the rules?

Thanks To Martha Susana Jaimes for research assistance for this post.

This is a repost from Forbes.

The economy is hot. After 106 months, the U.S. is in the second-longest recovery ever. Jobless rates are at historic lows, especially for the fastest-growing segment of the workforce, those 55 plus.
With such tight labor markets, we expect red hot wages. But wages for workers over 55 are practically frozen. The average weekly wage for full-time older workers has slowed, declining from $936 in 2016 to $811 today. Between 2005 and 2015, the growth in bad jobs – low pay and unstable – held by older workers outpaced the growth in decent-paying, stable jobs.

Employers are not bidding up wages to attract workers or using higher wages to retain their employees. This is what we would see in a low-unemployment rate environment if workers had bargaining power. Older workers are working more, seeking more work, and handed lower wages.

Why? A new paper by Courtney Coile argues eroding retirement security leaves them with few choices. Many 55-plus workers are stuck in low paying and/or unstable jobs because they lost their career jobs and took pay cuts in new ones. They may be stuck in regional economies that are shrinking. Or, quite possibly, they are being targeted by low-wage employers seeking experienced workers for physical labor, such as older workers recruited to work in Amazon warehouses.

Unstable or low-wage jobs make up more than half of older workers' job growth. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of jobs held by older workers increased by 6.6 million. 3.4 million or 52% are bad jobs (paid full-time workers less than $15,000 a year, or two-thirds the median wage or are in temporary or on-call work). The growth in these bad jobs outpaced the remaining 48%, or 3.2 million traditional jobs paying more than $15,000 or independent contractor jobs.

May Jobs Report updated 2

Boomer men and women may be working more for love – work is more attractive if people are healthier and more educated. But many other older workers are working for money because retirement accounts, retiree health care plans, and Social Security benefits have eroded.
The swell of older workers without adequate retirement incomes are being told to get a job. But we are not sure that they can get jobs beyond low-paid “greeters” at WalMart, or, as the book Nomadland documents, they live in RVs, chasing down low-paid, seasonal work.

If “working longer” is the new norm, then job quality at older ages needs to keep up with the capacities and needs of older workers. Older workers face the risk of wage declines, layoffs, and of not being trained in dynamic markets. We are going through an era where employers are preferring to “buy” not “make.” They have backed away from training, shifting the expense to workers. And older workers are the last to get training or perceived to have the right skills; tech and finance are especially troublesome for older workers.

Given this environment of more supply and less high-quality demand, an older worker may find it tough to upgrade themself (I am using the grammatical convention of a gender-neutral pronoun). My advice to older workers seeking work has three beats:

1.) “Badge” yourself with skills in an affordable way. No master’s degrees at 55? Prove you are able and eager to acquire new skills. Finish a free online course. Get certified with a computer skill. Engage in community service.

2.) Navigate around or confront persistent age discrimination. The growing sectors of tech and finance seem to avoid older workers. Seek help, either political or professional, to enforce age discrimination laws in those industries.

3.) Move to a labor market that is friendlier to older workers.

Working longer in a low-wage or precarious job is not a humane or practical solution to the retirement income crisis. Tony James and I proposed Guaranteed Retirement Accounts, or GRAs, which are universal retirement accounts that provide employees with a safe, effective vehicle to save over their working lives and to expand Social Security. Decent pensions provide workers with reliable retirement income and an alternative to working a bad job.

 tiles

The Bureau of Labor Statistics today reported a 3.0% unemployment rate for workers age 55 and older in April, a decrease of 0.2 percentage points since March.

While this number is low, we continue to hear stories of older workers struggling in the modern economy, such as Doug Schifter, a livery cab driver in his early 60’s who committed suicide after blaming politicians and Uber for turning his livelihood into economic slavery.

Unfortunately, recent data show that between 2005 and 2015, the growth in bad jobs held by older workers outpaced growth in jobs offering decent pay or stable employment. The growth of low-paying, unstable work contradicts claims of a strong labor market for older workers.

april2018Over the decade, the number of jobs held by older workers increased by 6.6 million. Over half of this increase - 3.4 million or 52% - was in bad jobs, defined by low wages or precarious work arrangements. This breaks down to 28% in low-paying jobs (less than $15,000 a year, or two-thirds the median wage) with traditional work schedules; 10% in on-call jobs; 10% in temp or contract agency jobs; and 4% in gig jobs. The growth in these bad jobs outpaced the remaining 48%, or 3.2 million traditional jobs paying more than $15,000 or independent contractor jobs.*

In theory, alternative work arrangements can provide older workers flexibility in work schedules, allowing them to transition into part-time work as they age. In practice, these jobs often offer little flexibility. Rather, workers in alternative jobs report they do not believe they would be able to find traditional jobs, indicating bad jobs are not choices but last resorts.

Working longer in a low-wage or precarious job is not a solution to the retirement savings crisis. Rarely do these jobs offer retirement coverage, nor do they offer wages to allow for savings. Rather, we need to create Guaranteed Retirement Accounts (GRAs), universal retirement accounts that provide employees with a safe, effective vehicle to save over their working lives. With a lifetime of mandatory savings matched by their employer and supported by a refundable tax credit, GRAs can provide workers with reliable retirement income as an alternative to working a bad job.

*SCEPA calculations using the Contingent Work Survey fielded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2005 and American Life Panel in 2015. Analysis includes workers ages 55 to 64 working full-time, defined as over 30 hours a week for more than 45 weeks a year. Arrows next to "Older Workers at a Glance" statistics reflect the change from the previous month's data for the U-3 and U-7 unemployment rate and the last quarter's data for median real weekly earnings and low-paying jobs.

This is a repost from Forbes.

Standard indicators point to a coming downturn. However, a new indicator – racial unemployment rate gaps – may also help understand the recession in our near future.

After 11 years of economic expansion, the difference in the unemployment rates between black and white older workers is at historic lows – just 1.1 percentage points apart (details below). This may seem like good news, since black workers usually suffer from higher rates of unemployment than whites. And, while it is indeed good news for racial equity, it is likely temporary. Based on historical patterns, which often best predict the future, not only will racial gaps get worse in the next recession, the next recession will be soon.

Racial jobless gaps are widest at the depth of recessions and narrowest at the peak, right before the economy goes into recession. Now, we see the narrowest differences in joblessness rates by race since the last peak. This indicator MAY be pointing TOWARD a recession.

Of course, predicting the precise time of the next recession is not possible, but the consensus among economists is that we are due: the 11-year economic expansion is one of the longest in U.S. history.

The St. Louis Fed provides a helpful list of the standard leading indicators of a recession:

1. “A big increase in oil prices has preceded nearly every U.S. recession since World War II.”

President Trump tweeted on April 20, “Oil prices are artificially very high! No good and will not be accepted,” as if President Trump could stop the price rise and stop the recession. Brent crude prices increased to $74.62 on April 24th, climbing over 50% in the last year. Increases in gas prices have erased the expected income boost of the tax cut for most families below the median.

This indicator is pointing TOWARD a recession.

2. “Asset prices swelled before the two most recent recessions: stock prices before the dot-com bust in 2000 and housing prices before the financial crisis.”

The Economist’s lead story six months ago was “The Bull Market In Everything.” In April, the Shiller price-earnings ratio measure for the U.S. stock market was about 31. For reference, the PE ratio was about 27 in October 2007 and 44 in December 1999.

This indicator MAY be pointing TOWARD a recession.

3. Inverted interest rates, or when interest on a short-term debt (say, three-month Treasuries) is higher than interest on a long-term debt (say, 10-year Treasuries).

An inverted yield curve, or inversion, has preceeded all recessions since 1960. Long-term interest rates are becoming less “inverty,” which could be good or bad news. It's good news if investors are willing to pay more for long-term debt because expectations about growth and profits are high – what economists say is a “real” economic phenomenon, or because wages and oil prices will drive inflation.

This indicator is pointing AWAY from a recession.

I wish I could tell the over 15 million older workers in the U.S. when the recession will hit so that the half of them with significant retirement assets can time the market and protect their nest egg. But really, the best advice comes from 12-step programs – know what you can control and what you can’t. Ignore all feelings of panic and temptation to control asset prices with market timing – like ignore this essay about the next recession. And keep your wealth diversified: 40-ish percent in stock, 40-ish percent in cash and bonds, and 20 percent-ish in home equity, which is part equity and part consumption (you gotta live somewhere).

As promised, I’d like to share more details supporting my speculation. With my team at the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) in the The New School’s economics department, we found that the black/white unemployment gap might become a predictor of downturns.

In the aftermath of the recession in 2003, the black unemployment rate for older workers was 6.8%, 2.9 percentage points greater than the older white unemployment rate of 3.9%. By the time that expansion peaked in December 2007, signaling the start of the Great Recession, unemployment rates dropped to 4.2% for black older workers and 3.3% for white older workers, narrowing the racial jobs gap to 0.9 percentage points. When unemployment increased again in 2011, black older workers’ unemployment rate grew to 10.1%, 3.6 percentage points higher than white older workers at 6.5% - the largest gap in the past 15 years. As of February 2018, almost 11 years since the last round of low unemployment rates, the racial unemployment gap has once again narrowed to a gap of just 1.1 percentage points.

Economic growth shrinks the racial gap in unemployment for a number of reasons. When workers are scarce, employers relax hiring practices that have discriminatory effects. In recessions, the racial unemployment rate gap grows because older black workers lose their jobs faster than older white workers.

March OWAAG Graph

This is a repost from Forbes.

Myth: Biology determines that women live longer than men.

Reality: Longevity depends on economic, social, and biological factors. At age 55, American men in the top 10% of the earnings distribution will live 4.3 years longer than women in the bottom 90% of the earnings distribution.

The false certainty that women live longer than men comes from the enduring finding in human biology research that, on average, women live longer than men do. However, averages hide important differences and extreme variation.

First, let us take a closer look at average female survival superiority. New U.S. government data released in November 2017 predicts that, among babies born in 2015, the average white girl will live 4.8 years longer than the average white boy, and the average black girl will live 6.3 years longer than the average black boy.

However, this longevity gap between the sexes narrows with age. Among 55-year-olds, the average white woman will live 3.3 years longer than the average white man and the average black woman will live 4.2 years longer than the average black man.

Why do women live longer on average? We really do not know. Ironically, despite women having higher survival rates at all ages, women across the world suffer from more health problems throughout their lives than men. But this difference between women’s longevity and morbidity could be a selective factor. For example, in terms of ensuring the reproduction of the species, a woman’s wellness is secondary to her need to survive.

Nevertheless, gender is not destiny. Social and economic factors are crucial. You can see this in the changing gender longevity gaps by country. The gender differential in average life expectancy from birth in the United States is 6.5 years. In the United Kingdom, it’s 5.3 years. In Russia, it’s 12 years. And in India, women live on average only about 6 months longer than men.

Perhaps lab rats can help us determine if longevity is a result of nature or nurture. Male lab rats will live longer than females if they have superior diets and healthier parents and grandparents. However, we need a lot more research on how economic factors determine women’s survival superiority at older ages.

In a surprise finding by economists Kathleen Burke and Barry Bosworth, the gap between expected life spans for women and men at age 55 narrows by class. Specifically, the richest 10% of men will live an average of 34.3 more years compared to 31 years for women in the bottom 90% of the earnings distribution.

gender gap

 

What does this mean for women and men who are both in the top 10% of the earnings distribution? Burke and Bosworth’s answer: there is no gap. Both are expected to live an average of 34.3 years after age 55. Additionally, high-income men live longer than 90% of women in the bottom 90% of the earnings distribution.

These results suggest that rich men can protect themselves from threats that affect the longevity of lower-income men and women. Our unequal society may create the same longevity gaps as we see among lab rats.

The gender longevity gap looks different at birth than at older ages, when people have their lives and acquired education, income, and made choices exacerbate the wear and tear of age in certain lives. It all adds up to age 55, when a rich man is expected to live longer than 90% of women his age. Perhaps the well-fed, well-bred man has the same advantage as the well-fed, well-bred male lab rat.

Proven longevity differences by class turns commonplace retirement guidelines and social policy on its head. Now that growing class gaps in health care another form of the American divide, both men and women need to plan for the expenses of living in retirement.

This is a repost from Forbes.

Here is the best financial lesson I can offer: there are two sides to the interest rate – the getting side and the paying side. You want to be on the getting side.

How do you do this? Pay off your mortgage as soon as you can, and definitely pay it off before you retire. And don’t buy a home if you can’t afford to pay it off between five to 10 years.

Unfortunately, that’s not the norm. Thanks to the commonplace position of the 30-year mortgage, it is more popular despite the lower costs of shorter-term loans. The 30-year mortgage was originated during the Great Depression to help borrowers lower their monthly payments and avoid foreclosure. But now, Americans are more indebted to banks for mortgages than homeowners in other advanced market economies. In exchange, those paying longer obligate themselves to pay more than double over the lifetime of the debt.

On the other hand, the 30-year mortgage is very friendly to real estate brokers, home developers, and banks. Simply put, it allows them to sell more expensive houses. Bankers are gleeful to hand out mortgages that more than double their interest revenue.

Here’s an example of how the math works. In April 2018, a 30-year mortgage charges about 4.18% in interest, whereas a 15-year mortgage charges about 3.75%. If you borrow $100,000 for half the time, your total interest paid doesn’t just decrease by half. It falls from $75,626 to $30,900, or by 60%.

But why pay the bank $30,900 at all? Put it in your retirement account. This way, you earn the interest.

Here are answers to the objections I usually hear when I advise people to pay off their mortgage.

1. “The government lets me deduct the interest.”
Answer: If you are a high earner and pay an income tax rate of 39%, you pay the bank $1 and the government reduces your taxes by 39 cents. But the bank still gets your 61 cents! Do you like banks better than your favorite charity or yourself? And, as you get closer to paying off your loan, a larger share of each monthly mortgage payment goes to principal rather than interest. This decreases the amount deducted from taxes, making the deduction worth less.

2. “I want to use cheap mortgage money to make more money.”
Answer: Sure, businesses pay interest and leverage hoping to invest in ventures that pay a higher rate than the interest rate. That’s the plan – and the hope. Most businesses fail because hope doesn’t come through -the debt overwhelms them. Individual households have even less means or scope to handle leveraged risk.

3. “My house will appreciate more than the interest rate, especially after the tax deduction.”
Answer: Maybe, but you could also be paying tens of thousands to the bank and be underwater. Average house appreciation rates vary wildly, and a financial crisis can happen at any time, perhaps when you reach your 60s.

4. “If I use all my money to pay off my mortgage, I won’t have any money for emergencies and I will be cash-poor and house-rich.”
Answer: Don’t be cash poor. Have six months of salary in cash for emergencies. Max out on your retirement savings and pay off your mortgage. Paying off a 4% mortgage (even with a tax deduction of the average 28%) is like earning a risk-free rate of 2.88% (4% - 0.28% of 4% = 2. 88%). There aren’t many places on the planet where you can earn 2.88% risk free. No longer paying interest on your loan, paying it off can be like earning the equivalent risk-free return.

5. “I don’t want to store all my wealth in my house.”

Answer: Diversifying assets is always best practice. However, most families’ greatest asset is Social Security and Medicare (worth about $400,000 for an average couple), followed by home equity of about $110,000, and their retirement account with about $30,000 in stocks and bonds. Having a large chunk of your money tied up in your home might seem unwise, but not when you consider that you are also using the house for a necessary consumption. You need to live somewhere, and you can’t live in a stock or bond. Also, if your house appreciates in value, you can sell it or refinance. But if you don’t pay off your mortgage, you won’t have the equity.

6. “I haven’t contributed the maximum amount to my 401(k), IRA or other retirement accounts.”
Answer: I often hear this as a reason why people slow down their efforts to pay off their mortgage. While paying into your retirement account is a better use of your cash than paying off your mortgage, ideally you want to max out your retirement savings and accelerate your mortgage payments.

But retirement security is a big topic and anyone trying to secure their retirement needs more tactics than paying off their mortgage. Some tactics include changing spending plans and saving in retirement accounts and others include a more comprehensive national policy solution. For instance, everyone needs a retirement savings plan and to contribute to it from the beginning of their career. I have two small and easy-to-read books on how to have enough in retirement and how to change federal policy so we can rescue retirement with a Guaranteed Retirement Account.

[Pro-Tip: A good way to reduce interest payments is to make extra payments to pay off the principal. Decreasing your balance decreases your interest paid.]

7. “I have high interest credit card debt.”
Answer: Using cash to pay off high-fee credit card balances is another good reason to temporarily keep some mortgage balance. You want to use your cash to pay off high-interest loans. Paying the monthly minimum of $110 on a credit card balance of $5,000 with 15.99% interest rate will take 25 years to pay off. And the $5,000 will balloon to $12,000. Its even worse if you continue to use the card, adding more debt.

[Pro-Tip: Tear up your credit card, then pay off the balance as soon as possible. Do keep one – you can’t rent a car without one – but use it like cash and record every card expenditure in your checking account log.

Let’s be positive. Here are the reasons to pay off your mortgage:

1. Good retirement planning is about accumulating assets AND reducing spending. You will have less income in retirement, so eliminating your monthly mortgage can greatly increase the amount of money you can spend on fun activities and medical expenses that will surely increase. Ideally, you followed the advice in the first paragraph and didn’t buy a home with a mortgage longer than ten years.

2. Paying off your mortgage early transfers the money you would have paid the bank to your pocket.
It almost always makes sense to pay off your mortgage before you retire, but use a mortgage payoff calculator to convince yourself that it’s better to pay off your debts before retirement because new costs – like medical costs will soar.

OWAAG tile April 6 2018

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) today reported a 3.2% unemployment rate for workers age 55 and older in March, a rate unchanged since February.

For decades, economists have documented that the racial gap in unemployment rates is widest at the depth of a recession and narrowest right before the economy goes into recession. In short, that black workers are the first fired and last hired over the business cycle.

Older workers are no exception. We are now 9 years into an economic expansion - one of the longest ever - and the racial jobs gap for older workers is at record lows. However, we predict that when the downturn begins and unemployment increases, older black workers will be disproportionately laid off and, once again, experience higher rates of unemployment. 

In 2003, the aftermath of the recession, the black unemployment rate for older workers was 6.8%, 2.9 percentage points greater than the older white unemployment rate of 3.9%. By the time that expansion peaked in December 2007, signaling the start of the Great Recession, unemployment rates dropped to 4.2% for black older workers and 3.3% for white older workers, narrowing the racial jobs gap to 0.9 percentage points. When unemployment peaked again in 2011, black older workers’ unemployment rate grew to 10.1%, 3.6 percentage points higher than white older workers at 6.5% - the largest gap in the past 15 years. As of February 2018, almost 11 years since the last round of low unemployment rates, the racial unemployment gap has once again narrowed to a gap of just 1.1 percentage point.

Following this trend, when the economy takes another downturn, black older workers will most likely face more risk of losing their jobs and/or not finding new jobs at a higher rate than older white workers.

March OWAAG Graph

Economic growth shrinks the racial gap in unemployment for a number of reasons. When workers are scarce, employers relax hiring practices that have discriminatory effects. In recessions, the racial unemployment rate gap grows because older black workers lose their jobs faster than older white workers.

Discrimination in wages and employment persists in the U.S. economy beyond differences explained by white workers having more education than black workers. Blacks with a college education have the same unemployment rate as non college-educated whites.

Economic downturns and employment discrimination make it harder for older people to save for retirement. One solution to both unemployment and job discrimination is a federal job guarantee to ensure all citizens over 18 seeking employment have a job at non-poverty wages. Strengthening Social Security and creating Guaranteed Retirement Accounts (GRAs)- proposed universal individual accounts funded by employer and employee contributions and a refundable tax credit throughout a worker’s career - would help older workers, and older black workers in particular, off-ramp into an adequate retirement during a downturn.