Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The well-being of the nation's households

For those who track trends, this is the most important time of the year. It's when we get a status update on the economic well-being of the nation's households. The Census Bureau releases the latest income data from the Current Population Survey. The Bureau of Labor Statistics releases the latest spending data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey. An added bonus this year is the Federal Reserve Board's release of findings from the triennial Survey of Consumer Finances. All three surveys tell the same story: the average American is still struggling to recover from the Great Recession.

Median Household Income Has Stalled
The $51,939 median household income of 2013 was not significantly different from the $51,758 of 2012, after adjusting for inflation. This is the second year in a row of no significant change in median household income, according to the Census Bureau, following two years of decline.

Median household income in 2013 was 8.0 percent below the median of 2007 (the Great Recession officially began in December 2007), after adjusting for inflation. But 2007 was nothing special as far as median household income is concerned because the median had peaked years before that--all the way back in 1999 at $56,895. Median household income in 2013 was 8.7 percent below that all-time high.

What Happened to Peak Earners?
Median household income peaks in the 45-to-54 age group. But the peak is smaller than it once was because middle-aged Americans have lost so much ground over the years, according to the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey.

In 1999, the year when the nation's median household income reached its all-time high, the median income of households headed by 45-to-54-year-olds was 40 percent greater than the overall median: $79,550 versus $56,895 (in 2013 dollars). Today, however, the median income of householders aged 45 to 54 is just 29 percent greater than the overall median: $67,141 versus $51,939. Between 1999 and 2013, the median income of householders aged 45 to 54 fell by a stunning 15.6 percent--a loss of more than $12,000. 

Anemic Household Growth, 2013-14
Reflecting the economic instability affecting so many Americans, the number of households in the United States increased by a tiny 0.4 percent between 2013 and 2014, according to the Census Bureau. In only two of the past forty years have households grown more slowly (in 2008-09 and 2009-10). The 492,000 households added to the nation's total between 2013 and 2014 is the fourth smallest numerical gain in four decades of tracking the numbers (smaller gains were recorded in 1982-83, 2008-09, and 2009-10).

Also notable, the number of non-Hispanic White households fell slightly between 2013 and 2014. This decline marks only the fourth time in forty years that the Census Bureau has estimated a drop in the number of non-Hispanic White households. Nearly one-third of the nation's households are now headed by Blacks, Asians, or Hispanics. Black households outnumber Hispanic households by more than 1 million, and they grew faster than Hispanic households between 2013 and 2014 (a 1.8 percent gain for Blacks versus a 1.4 percent gain for Hispanics). Asian households are far less numerous than Black or Hispanic, but they grew by a faster 4.1 percent between 2013 and 2014.

Households Declined in Three Age Groups
The number of households barely increased between 2013 and 2014, according to the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey. That's because of the decline in the number of households headed by people ranging in age from 25 to 54. 

The decline in households headed by people aged 35 to 54 is due to the small Generation X moving into those age groups. The increase in households headed by people aged 55 or older is due to the large Baby-Boom generation moving into those age groups. The troubling number, and a sign of economic distress, is the decline in households headed by 25-to-34-year-olds, a group that should be expanding with the Millennial generation.

Another Decline in Household Spending
Average household spending peaked in 2006, just prior to the Great Recession, and has yet to recover. In 2013, the average household spent just $51,100, according to the latest numbers from the Consumer Expenditure Survey. This is 2.1 percent less than the average household spent in 2012 and fully 8.6 percent less than it spent in 2006, after adjusting for inflation. 

The 2012-13 spending decline of 2.1 percent is equal to the decline that occurred between 2007 and 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession.

Most Households Are Spending Less
Average household spending fell 8.6 percent between 2006 (the peak year) and 2013, after adjusting for inflation--from $55,926 to $51,100. According to a Demo Memo analysis of the Consumer Expenditure Survey, only 16 percent of the $4,826 decline in average household spending during those years was due to the aging of the population--a consequence of the large Baby-Boom generation getting older, retiring, and reducing its spending. Most of the decline in average household spending was due to budget cutting in all but the oldest age group. 

In dollar terms, households headed by people aged 35 to 44 cut their spending the most. In 2013, these households spent a substantial $7,632 less than they did in 2006, after adjusting for inflation.

Spending Trends by Region
According to the latest data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey, the Northeast is the only region in which average household spending in 2013 exceeded spending in 2006 (the peak spending year, nationally), after adjusting for inflation. 

Households in the Northeast are now the biggest spenders. At the other extreme, households in the South spend the least and are losing ground. In dollar terms, the household spending gap between the Northeast and South has more than doubled, rising from $5,388 in 2006 to $11,071 in 2013.

40% Decline in Wealth, 2007 to 2013
More bad news: Americans are still reeling from the Great Recession, according to findings from the 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances. Median household net worth fell 40 percent between 2007 and 2013, after adjusting for inflation. Most of the decline occurred between 2007 and 2010, but net worth continued to drift down between 2010 and 2013.

Many households experienced double-digit declines in net worth between 2010 and 2013, after adjusting for inflation. Households headed by people aged 45 to 54, for example, saw their net worth fall by an additional 17 percent during those years, following a 39 percent decline between 2007 and 2010. Other household segments with double-digit declines in net worth between 2010 and 2013 were those headed by people 55 to 64, aged 75 or older, without a high school diploma, with only some college, and the broad segment "nonwhites or Hispanics." 

Household Economic Well-Being in 2013
Disturbing findings have emerged from a Federal Reserve Board survey of the economic well-being of American households in 2013. While the average household is doing alright, many are not. The struggling segments are large enough to raise eyebrows and pose a potential threat to the stability of the overall U.S. economy. These are the some of the worrisome findings...
  • 34% of households say they are worse off financially than they were five years ago. 
  • 45% did not save any portion of their income in 2012.
  • 58% do not have a rainy day fund that could cover expenses for three months.
  • 45% of renters say they rent because they can't afford a down payment.
  • 24% of households have education debt, owing a median of $15,000.
  • 37% of those with education debt say the cost outweighs the benefits.
  • 44% of households bought lottery tickets in the past year; only 33% own stock.
  • 54% would have to go into debt or would be unable to pay an unexpected $400 bill.
  • 28% of householders aged 60-plus say their retirement plan is to keep working.
Why Renters Aren't Buying
Renters aren't becoming homeowners like they once did. But is that because they don't want to own a home or because they can't afford to buy? To find the answer, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York added a series of questions to its Survey of Consumer Expectations, fielded in February. Were renters planning on moving in the next three years? Among those who planned to move, would they rent or buy their next home? If they did not plan to buy, why not?

It turns out most renters who plan to move and rent rather than buy just don't have the money to become homeowners. The 56 percent majority of these potential home buyers say they don't have enough money saved or they have too much debt to buy.

These are a sampling of posts published in the past few weeks in Cheryl Russell's Demo Memo blog. Please send questions or comments to demographics@newstrategist.com

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