Twin reports by the Pew Charitable Trusts substantiate what too many people know firsthand.
Despite a better economy, a lot of families are struggling financially. And often it’s because of instability in their pay or financial emergencies.
Pew has been studying the impact that income volatility and financial shocks can have on people’s ability to budget and save. For the two new reports, Pew analyzed its Survey of American Family Finances from two years, 2014 and 2015.
It’s important research that’s much needed in public policy debates. For instance, the health-care discussion is about access to quality care and the ability of families to pay for that access. But if we don’t fully understand the economic instability that plagues many families, politicians end up with a misguided sense of what makes for “affordable” health insurance.
The Pew research gives richer context to bewildering utterances from elected officials who claim that some people are not prioritizing health care in their personal budgets.
Remember the congressman who said folks were choosing to buy a smartphone over paying for health insurance?
In defense of the GOP’s first attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah said: “Americans have choices. And they’ve got to make a choice. And so, maybe rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want . . . they should invest it in their own health care.”
People are not choosing to stay sick or avoid preventive care because they’d rather spend the money on a glitzy new phone. With stretched and unsteady incomes, they are choosing to pay rent or fix the car so they can get to work and not lose the job that keeps food on the table.
In its report on income volatility, Pew looked at those people who experienced a particularly strong pay swing, which was defined as a year-over-year change in income of 25 percent or more.
Pew found that at least 1 in 4 households — regardless of income, education or race — saw significant income shifts. And the swings created insecurity, whether people earned more or less.
“It is life,” said Erin Currier, who directs projects on family financial security and mobility at Pew. “Some people are more prepared than others. But on the whole, income volatility and financial shock are very real, regular and destructive.”
That makes sense. If your hours on the job were reduced and then restored, you may still feel uneasy about the possibility of a future cutback.
Pew found that, at the median, households with income gains saw an increase of $20,500, and those with drops lost $25,000. But think about this: The median households with a loss experienced a whopping 49 percent decrease in income.
And it won’t surprise you that a loss of income of 25 percent or more hits lower-income households the hardest.
To be considered in a volatile income situation, a family making $80,000 would need a loss in pay of $20,000. For a family earning $24,000, a $6,000 reduction would do it. But for a family making $10,000, a drop in income of just $2,500 can create financial chaos.
“We can’t expect families to be upwardly mobile if they are not first economically secure,” Currier said.
Digging into the financial lives of all households should change the debate about economically fragile families. Pew is finding that income swings and financial emergencies are affecting families at nearly every income level. It’s a very universal experience.
In the second report, Pew examined how financial shocks — a job loss, illness, death or major car repair — can spin people out of financial control.
Almost 60 percent of U.S. households experienced a financial shock in 2014, and many of them struggled to regain their footing. Some were further destabilized by aftershocks occurring soon thereafter.
Half of survey respondents — no matter the income level — who had the money to handle a typical financial emergency of $2,000 experienced financial difficulty in the wake of the event, according to Pew. Even if they had a savings cushion to handle a $4,000 emergency, 43 percent still struggled after such a blow.
The takeaway from both reports is that many families are walking a financial tightrope. So rather than characterizing struggling families as willfully irresponsible, the work Pew is doing should be used to understand the factors that can send families into financial jeopardy. By relying on this kind of insight rather than on stereotypes, we can challenge policymakers to develop better public policies and programs that will help improve household financial security for us all.
Write Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or email@example.com. To read more, go to http://wapo.st/michelle-singletary.