The U.S. economy has a problem. The usual economic bench marks look really good: America in 2018 is enjoying faster growth, low unemployment, record numbers of job openings and a stock market near an all-time high. Yet an alarming number of Americans are still struggling to get by.
In the past week, two reports — a new Federal Reserve survey of more than 12,200 Americans about their finances and a new United Way report on financial hardship — reveal just how unstable life remains for a large number of people. Here's a rundown of the key findings:
- Forty percent of American adults don't have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency expense such as an unexpected medical bill, car problem or home repair.
- Forty-three percent of households can't afford the basics to live, meaning they aren't earning enough to cover the combined costs of housing, food, child care, health care, transportation and a cellphone, according to the United Way study. Researchers looked at the data by county to adjust for lower costs in some parts of the country.
- More than a quarter of adults skipped necessary medical care last year because they couldn't afford it.
- Twenty-two percent of adults aren't able to pay all of their bills every month.
- Only 38 percent of non-retired Americans think their retirement savings is “on track.”
- Only 65 percent of African Americans and 66 percent of Hispanics say they are “doing okay” financially versus 77 percent of whites.
The Fed and United Way findings suggest the U.S. economy isn't nearly as strong as statistics such as the unemployment rate and the GDP growth rate suggest. Taken alone, these metrics mask the fact that some Americans are doing well and some are not.
“We have a ‘Two Realities’ economy in America,” said William Rodgers, a professor at Rutgers University and chief economist at the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development. “One segment has truly recovered from the Great Recession and is at full employment. The other continues to experience stagnating wages, involuntary part-time employment, inflexible work schedules and weaker access to health care.”
Rodgers is worried about how families that don't have $400 in savings are going to handle rising gas prices, higher rents and credit card rates that are climbing as U.S. interest rates rise.
President Trump and many Republicans in Congress are focused on getting people back to work with the belief that once people have jobs they will be able to lift themselves out of poverty. But a growing body of research like the Fed and United Way studies and anecdotes from people working on the front lines at food banks and shelters indicates that a job is no longer enough.
Wages in the United States, especially for workers who aren't managers, have stagnated for two decades, making it difficult to save for emergencies, let alone save to buy a home or take extra classes to get ahead.
There's hope that low unemployment and the large number of companies complaining they can't find enough workers will finally cause wages to rise, but so far, that has yet to happen on a wide scale.
The result is that more and more people are showing up at food pantries who have jobs, but still don't have enough income for food and rent.
“Half of the people we serve are above the poverty level. They are working, but they are not making it,” said Catherine D'Amato, president of the Greater Boston Food Bank. “It’s a deep struggle for people to provide for themselves based on their wages.”
D'Amato has worked at food banks and pantries since 1979, but she says she's never seen it like it is today with so many people with jobs but still unable to survive. October and November were the highest food bank usage on record for her organization, a reminder that many are still not stable years after the Great Recession officially ended in 2009.
Nonwhite households continue to have a harder time finding good-paying employment. The unemployment rates for African Americans and Hispanics, while at record lows, are still significantly higher than that of whites. The Fed survey highlighted that far fewer minorities in America feel “okay” financially compared with whites.
In addition to low pay, many struggling Americans say a major problem is that their hours vary greatly from month to month. They may be able to make it one week, but not the next because their hours — and their earnings — fall substantially. Three in 10 adults say their family income varies from month to month, according to the Fed survey, and one in 10 say their income varies a lot, making it difficult to pay bills on time.
One of the most widely watched statistics in the Fed's “Report on the Economic Well-being of U.S. Households” is how many adults say they could cover an unexpected $400 expense. When the survey was released for the first time in 2013, half of those surveyed said they didn't have enough savings to cover an emergency expense of a few hundred dollars.
Today that has fallen to 40 percent, a figure that is better but still troubling to many economists. It means nearly 48 million households aren't saving or are unable to save.
“Nothing is more fundamental to achieving financial stability than having savings that can be drawn upon when the unexpected occurs,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com.