Monday, December 29, 2008

Two Million Artists

Two million Americans are trying to make a living as artists, according to a new report by the National Endowment for the Arts. Every decade or so the NEA updates its profile of people whose primary employment is in the arts. The latest report, Artists in the Workforce, 1990-2005, finds 2 million workers who identify their primary occupation as actor, announcer, architect, fine artist, art director, animator, dancer, choreographer, designer, entertainer, musician, singer, photographer, producer, director, writer, or author. The 2 million figure excludes another 300,000 workers whose secondary employment is in the arts.  

Artists have a median age of 40. Most are college graduates. Among those who work full-time, median personal income was $45,200 in 2005--below the $52,500 median income of all professional workers. 

Architects have the highest median income ($63,500 among full-time workers), and actors have the lowest ($31,500). One in three artists is self-employed. Not surprisingly, women artists make less than their male counterparts. Another NEA report, Women Artists: 1990 to 2005 details the differences. 

Friday, December 19, 2008

Many Renters Use Only Cell Phones

Conveniently, every six months the federal government updates the nation on how many households use cell phones only. The latest survey, taken January to June 2008, finds that 16 percent of Americans aged 18 or older use only cell phones. 

Age is the most important factor in determining cell phone only use, with young adults most likely to spurn landlines. Among 18-to-24-year-olds, 31 percent use only cell phones. Among 25-to-29-year-olds, the figure is an even larger 36 percent. 

The demographic segments dominated by young adults are also the ones most likely to use only cell phones. A hefty 34 percent of renters, for example, are cell phone only users (compared with a paltry 9 percent of homeowners). Among Hispanics, 22 percent use only cell phones (versus a smaller 15 percent of non-Hispanic whites). Among unrelated adults who live together (many of them cohabiting couples), the 63 percent majority are cell phone only. 

Thursday, December 18, 2008

They Should Have Seen It Coming

The empty cash registers finally got their attention. Businesses large and small are in a panic, wondering where their customers went. Last week the Census Bureau reported that November 2008 retail sales were 7.4 percent below November 2007 sales--a record decline. More than a few captains of industry are expressing surprise at the severity of the downturn. But anyone with an Internet connection, a calculator, and a modicum of curiosity could have seen this coming. Middle Americans are in trouble and so are the businesses that have long ignored them.

Easy money. Entitlement. Short-term thinking. All go a long way toward explaining why businesses are hurting. During the credit expansion of the bubble years, companies grew complacent and lost touch with Middle America. Even as conditions worsened for the average American, there was money to be made by selling bigger houses, bigger cars, and bigger televisions to the small fraction of the population that was living large. A handful of businesses did not abandon their roots, such as Wal-Mart and McDonalds. Their focus on Middle America never wavered. That explains why November sales were higher than expected at Wal-Mart (same-store sales up 3.4 percent) and McDonalds (up 4.5 percent) while almost everyone else reported sharp declines. Now businesses are playing catch-up. They must reacquaint themselves with Middle America, and fast.

American Business, meet Middle America:

  • Where men's earnings have been declining for more than two decades. The median earnings of men who work year-round, full-time peaked in 1986.
  • Where household incomes are shrinking. Median household income fell 1 percent between 2000 and 2007, after adjusting for inflation.
  • Where, between 2000 and 2006, the average household had already cut its spending on restaurant meals, clothes, new cars, kitchen appliances, outdoor furniture, toys, newspapers and magazines, and a long list of other items.
  • Where the average home was worth a modest median of $191,000 in 2007, according to the American Housing Survey--and it is worth even less today.
  • Where, the percentage of people who moved fell to an all-time low of 13 percent in 2006-07 as the housing market seized up.
  • Where the much vaunted American entrepreneurial spirit is all but dead. The percentage of workers who are self employed fell to an all-time low of 7.1 percent in 2007.
  • Where the American dream of a college education is fading. The number of students enrolled full-time in four-year colleges fell 4 percent between 2005 and 2006 (the latest data available), according to the Census Bureau.
  • Where the return on a college degree is shrinking. The median earnings of men and women with bachelor's degrees who work full-time peaked in 2002 and has fallen by 3 to 4 percent since then, after adjusting for inflation.
  • Where the out-of-pocket cost of health insurance has climbed 27 percent since 2000, after adjusting for inflation.
  • Where people are scrimping on health care. The number of physician visits fell 6 percent between 2005 and 2006 (the latest data available), according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
  • Where 60 percent of workers do not have a 401(k) or an IRA, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.
  • Where a growing proportion of older workers cannot afford to retire. The labor force participation rate of men aged 65 or older climbed 3 percentage points between 2000 and 2007.
Falling incomes. Rising costs. Spending cuts. Long before the 2008 economic meltdown, Middle America had assumed crash positions. If businesses had been paying attention to their customers rather than their cash registers, they could have positioned themselves for the crash as well. Now all they can do is pick up the pieces.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cell Phone Spending Tops Landline

Recently released statistics from the 2007 Consumer Expenditure Survey show that average household spending on cell phone service has surged well above spending on residential phone service. Here are the numbers:

Average household spending in 2007
Cell phone service $608
Residential phone service $482

In 2006, spending on residential phone service ($542) was slightly greater than spending on cell service ($524).

Source: Unpublished tables from the 2007 Consumer Expenditure Survey

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Great American Shopping List

Oh, American consumer, how we miss you!

Consumer spending is falling at a 3.1 percent annual rate, according to the latest statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Many of the nation's retailers reported double-digit declines in October sales, with the New York Times calling it a "collapse" in spending. Since consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of our economy, the belt tightening hurts all of us. To weather what looks like a prolonged economic downturn, businesses large and small need to brush up on consumer spending patterns. There is no better place to start than with The Great American Shopping List.

You can learn most of what you need to know about consumer spending by taking a look at the list--the inventory of every product and service purchased by American households, ranked by how much the average household spends on each item. The federal government collects the information by surveying thousands of households each month, asking them how much they spend on everything from cookies and crackers to video games and recreational vehicles. The Consumer Expenditure Survey data are used to create the all-important Consumer Price Index. Although the list is long, with more than 350 products and services, just 10 items consume more than half of the $50,000 spent by the average household each year. Here they are.

1. Social Security payroll taxes The bad news is that Social Security is our single biggest expense. The average household paid $3,811 into the Social Security trust fund, according to the 2006 Consumer Expenditure Survey. The good news is that this flow of funds reverses direction when you retire. If you don't believe it, join the crowd--only 31 percent of today's workers think Social Security will be their most important source of income in retirement, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. The rest will be surprised. The fact is, most American workers do not have a 401(k) or an IRA. Those who do have managed to save very little--and that was before the stock market crash. You don't have to be a number cruncher to realize that Social Security will be even more important tomorrow than it is today. Among people aged 65 or older, 68 percent receive at least half their income from Social Security.

2. Mortgage payments Hyperbole is the word that best describes the media narrative about the dire financial straits of the nation's homeowners. In fact, most homeowners have a manageable, fixed-rate mortgage. Most owe far less on their mortgage than their home is worth. Although there are plans afoot to help homeowners renegotiate their mortgage payment, few will need to take advantage of these efforts. Nevertheless, because mortgage payments are the second largest expense for the average household--an expense that is pretty much non-negotiable--household budget cutting will target items further down the list.

3. Car payments U.S. auto sales are plummeting, down 32 percent in October. Further declines are likely as households cut costs. The automotive industry is caught in a perfect storm--a severe recession, a paradigm shift in what consumers want (hint: better gas mileage), and a demographic transition as SUV-loving baby boomers morph into downsizing empty-nesters. The car payment is one item on which the average household can and is cutting back, forcing car manufacturers to beg the federal government for handouts to stay afloat.

4. Groceries Food prices have been rising at a pace not seen for decades, and forecasters say costs will continue to climb. Americans do not like paying higher prices for food, but they have little choice unless they want to plow up the backyard. Groceries are the fourth largest item in the Great American Shopping List. For grocery stores, the cutback in consumer spending could be good news, since a growing proportion of budget-minded shoppers are likely to head to a grocery store rather than a restaurant. In the grocery aisles, private labels will flourish, as will fresh prepared food--the grocery store's answer to the demand for fast-food convenience. Fresh prepared food is already the single biggest item on America's grocery list. Average household spending on fresh prepared food from the supermarket deli climbed an enormous 53 percent between 2000 and 2006, after adjusting for inflation.

5. Restaurant meals Eating out is a necessity, not a luxury, for busy two-earner and single-parent families with children. Convenience drives them to restaurants and price steers them to fast-food. This is why fast-food restaurants will weather the downturn far better than full-service establishments. At McDonald's, same-store sales were up 8 percent in October. Meanwhile, full-service restaurants such as Bennigan's are filing for bankruptcy.

6. Gasoline Even before prices soared, gasoline was one of the biggest household expenses. Now that Americans are desperately seeking savings, gasoline is an obvious target. Memo to Detroit: Fuel efficiency will be the number-one priority for American car buyers from now on, regardless of the price of a gallon of gas.

7. Federal taxes Taxes are a perennial political issue because they are one of the biggest household expenses. Middle class tax cuts may be on the way, but do not expect this line item to fall much lower in the list.

8. Property taxes With home values declining and local governments strapped for cash, property taxes will become one of the most contentious local issues of the economic downturn.

9. Health insurance The average household devoted $1,465 out-of-pocket to health insurance in 2006, 27 percent more than in 2000 after adjusting for inflation. Most Americans will do just about anything to avoid losing their health insurance, which guarantees budget cutting elsewhere as the cost of health insurance rises.

10. Electricity The average household spent $1,266 on electricity in 2006, placing it 10th on the Great American Shopping List. Consumers are eager for ways to reduce this major expense. This desire will fuel green businesses that can help them save them money.

Every item at the top of The Great American Shopping List is a necessary expense. This is not good news for the hundreds of items further down the list--such as women's clothes in 16th place, television sets in 69th place, ice cream in 123rd place, whiskey in 285th place, or dating services in 359th place. With jobs disappearing, incomes falling, and consumers cutting back, necessities will command a growing share of household spending, leaving less for everything else.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

College Enrollment Is Declining

An article in today's New York Times on the rising cost of college includes the following sentence: "Although college enrollment has continued to rise in recent years...it is not clear how long that can continue."

I have posted on this topic before, and I will say it again: college enrollment is already declining. Traditional college enrollment--meaning undergraduates attending four-year schools full-time--fell 4 percent between 2005 and 2006 (the latest data available).

This dramatic reversal of the long-term trend is being masked by an enrollment surge at community colleges. All this was underway BEFORE the current economic collapse. The next few years are going to be very tough indeed for high-priced private four-year colleges.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Women Aged 50 to 59 Weigh the Most

The average American woman weighs 164.7 pounds, according to the latest government measurements. Since she is only 5 feet 4 inches tall, the average woman has a body mass index of 28.4 (calculated as weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared). This is decidedly overweight. Here is what the scales report, by age:

Women's weight by age (in pounds)
aged 20 to 29: 155.9
aged 30 to 39: 164.7
aged 40 to 49: 171.3
aged 50 to 59: 172.1
aged 60 to 69: 170.5
aged 70 to 79: 155.6
aged 80-plus: 142.2

Source: National Center for Health Statistics, Anthropometric Reference Data for Children and Adults, 2003-2006 For men's weight, see table 6.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Who Needs Social Security?

Percentage of people aged 65 or older who receive at least half their income from Social Security: 68.

Source: Congressional Research Service, Income and Poverty Among Older Americans in 2007

Eating Our Young

Percent change in median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers, 2000 to 2007 (in 2007 dollars)

Men aged 20 to 24: -15.9
Men aged 25 to 34: -12.5
Men aged 35 to 44: -5.7
Men aged 45 to 54: +1.1
Men aged 55 to 64: +12.4
Men aged 65 or older: +17.9

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Highlights of Women's Earnings

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Physician Visits Decline

This is news: The number of times Americans went to the doctor fell in 2006, a surprising reversal of a long-term trend--especially considering the aging of the population. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, physician visits fell from 964 million in 2005 to 902 million in 2006 (the latest data available)--a 6 percent decline.

The physician visit rate, or the number of visits per 100 persons per year, fell by an even larger 7 percent between 2005 and 2006--from 331.0 to 306.6.

Because of the decline in physician visits, doctors wrote fewer prescriptions--1.9 billion in 2006, down from 2.0 billion in 2005. The percentage of visits in which the doctor provided a prescription did not change, at 71 percent.

Americans are tightening their belts, and doctors and pharmaceutical companies are feeling the pinch.

Source: National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey: 2006 Summary

Monday, October 13, 2008

Don't Blame Main Street

Americans are standing with their mouths agape as the stock market lurches. They lie awake at night worrying about what the future holds for their jobs, their families, and their communities. Who is to blame for this unfolding financial crisis? The finger of blame is pointing in many directions, but one place that does not deserve the blame is Main Street.

Just in time to provide some perspective, the Census Bureau has released the latest American Housing Survey, with data collected only a few months ago in 2007. You can't get much more current than that. And what do the 2007 numbers tell us? They tell us that the average American has been betrayed by financial institutions that should have known better.

No doubt you have heard many a pundit exclaim--in print and on TV--that Americans did this to themselves. We bought houses we could not afford, we used our homes as ATM machines, and we have fallen so deeply in debt that millions of us face foreclosure. Our bad behavior has brought the nation's financial institutions to their knees.

Just because newspapers and television say so does not make it true. In fact, the average American has been careful with his money. But the institutions in which we entrusted our dollars gambled them away.

The 2007 American Housing Survey provides the evidence.

First, let's take a look at mortgages. In 2007, the 51 million American homeowners with mortgages remained well above water. They owed a modest median of $100,904 on their homes--just 54 percent of their home's value. This statistic has not changed much in years--it was 55 percent 10 years ago in 1997. Granted, home values have dropped since 2007 and are likely to fall even more. Still, for most homeowners a substantial cushion remains. Only 3 percent of homeowners owe more than their house is worth. The great majority of homeowners with mortgages have 30-year fixed-rate loans carrying a median interest rate of 6.4 percent. Things on Main Street appear to be in order.

Second, let's take a look at home equity loans. The way it is reported, you would think everyone has a home equity loan. But among the nation's 76 million homeowners, only 14 million had a home equity loan or line of credit in 2007. Do the math, and that translates into just 19 percent of homeowners. Or put it this way: 81 percent of homeowners do not have a home equity loan. Even those who have tapped into their equity have not been using their home as an ATM machine. The median amount owed on home equity loans is a reasonable $25,934. Again, nothing exciting to report on Main Street.

Third, let's take a look at foreclosures. Most of the foreclosure numbers in the press come from Realtytrac, an online business that sells foreclosed properties--and in the process of doing so, collects foreclosure data. Realtytrac provides foreclosure statistics to much of the media, including the Wall Street Journal. Not surprisingly, its data show a big increase in foreclosures. In 2007, says Realtytrac, "more than 1 percent of all U.S. households were in some stage of foreclosure." That sounds like trouble on Main Street. But read the fine print in the methodology, and you will discover that the definition of Realtytrac's "households" is the Census Bureau's count of "housing units." There is a big difference between the two concepts. When a household faces foreclosure, a family loses its home. A household is defined as an occupied housing unit--meaning that someone lives there. In contrast, many housing units facing foreclosure are vacant, owned by flippers and developers who gambled on rising prices and lost.

In 2007, 14 percent of the nation's housing units were vacant--a record high. Overbuilt, overpriced, and financed by cheap money, these housing units are the crux of the crisis--a crisis caused by lax lending standards. It was not Main Street, but Wall Street that drank the Kool-aid. Main Street, however, is paying the price.

How Many Have Health Insurance Through Their Own Employer?

Surprisingly few Americans have health insurance through their own employer. In 2007, the figure was just 31 percent, according to the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey. The percentage covered through the plan of a parent or spouse's employer is almost as large, at 28 percent. Another 28 percent of Americans are covered by government health insurance--either Medicaid, Medicare, or military. Just 9 percent buy their own private plan.

By age, only 45-to-54-year-olds are likely to be covered by their own employer's health insurance plan. Fifty-one percent of people aged 45 to 54 have their own employment-based health insurance. In every other age group, less than half have insurance in their own name.

Males are more likely than females to have their own insurance--35 versus 27 percent. Among non-Hispanic whites, 35 percent have health insurance through their own employer. The figure is 31 percent among Asians and 27 percent among blacks. Hispanics are least likely to have health insurance through their own employer, at 20 percent. A larger 32 percent of Hispanics have no health insurance.

Since 2000, the percentage of Americans covered by their own employer's health insurance plan has fallen by 2 percentage points.

Percentage of people covered by their own employer's health insurance plan by age, 2007:

under age 18 0.3%
aged 18 to 24 19.0
aged 25 to 34 47.3
aged 35 to 44 48.9
aged 45 to 54 51.2
aged 55 to 64 49.9
aged 65 or older 25.7

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Fewer Nuclear Families

Percentage of U.S. households headed by
married couples with children under age 18: 21

Percentage of U.S. households headed by
people who live alone: 27

Source: Census Bureau, 2007 American Community Survey

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Bet You Didn't Know

Percentage of homeowners who do not have
a home equity loan or second mortgage: 82.

Source: Census Bureau, 2007 American Community Survey

Monday, September 08, 2008

Only 13 Percent Moved

The latest geographical mobility statistics from the Current Population Survey were released last week. The nation's mobility rate—the percentage of people aged 1 or older who moved—fell to an all-time low of 13 percent between 2006 and 2007.

The 38 million who moved was the smallest number since 1982-83.

Source: Census Bureau, Geographical Mobility

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Household Income Gains—The Bad News

With the economy in a tailspin, the Census Bureau reported in a news conference this morning that median household income in 2007 had grown over the past year. What a surprise. The $50,233 median of 2007 was 1 percent greater than the $49,568 median of 2006, after adjusting for inflation. This is good news, right?

Wrong. A look at the factors that are driving median household income reveals more bad news than good. The only reason for the increase in the overall median is the rise in the incomes of householders aged 55 to 64. Between 2006 and 2007, this age group was the only one to experience a statistically significant increase in median household income (up 2.2 percent, after adjusting for inflation).

A longer view provides a better understanding of the dynamics at work. Take a look at household income trends by age since 2000:

Percent change in median household income, 2000 to 2007 (in 2007 dollars):

Total households -0.6
Under age 25 -5.2
Aged 25 to 34 -4.6
Aged 35 to 44 -4.0
Aged 45 to 54 -5.7
Aged 55 to 64 +6.3
Aged 65 or older +1.8

Note that householders aged 55 or older are the only ones who made any gains since 2000. Householders aged 55 to 64, in particular, experienced the biggest increase in income between 2000 and 2007. During those seven years, the number of households in the age group increased by an enormous 42 percent as it filled with baby boomers, boosting the share of households headed by 55-to-64-year-olds from 13 to 17 percent. The growing share of householders in the age group, coupled with their rising incomes, explains why overall median household income increased between 2006 and 2007 and fell by just 0.6 percent between 2000 and 2007.

What accounts for the rising incomes of 55-to-64-year-olds? In a word, work. Between 2000 and 2007, the labor force participation rate of men aged 55 to 64 climbed by 2.3 percentage points, to 69.6 percent, as boomer men postponed retirement. The labor force participation rate of women aged 55 to 64 climbed by an even larger 6.4 percentage points, to 58.3 percent, as the working women of the baby-boom generation filled the age group. Without the increasing labor force participation of 55-to-64-year-olds, their household incomes would not have grown, nor would the nation's median household income.

The rise in overall median household income between 2006 and 2007 may look like good news, but looks can be deceiving. In fact, most of the nation's households are losing ground.

Source: Census Bureau

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Who Cares about Polar Bears?

Global warming could cause the extinction of the polar bear, but do Americans really care? Maybe not so much.

When asked how much it would bother them if global warming caused polar bears to become extinct, only 46 percent of the public says it would bother them "a great deal," according to the General Social Survey. An almost equally large 44 percent say the extinction of polar bears would bother them only "some" or "a little," and 10 percent say it would not bother them at all.

It takes something more personal to alarm the American public. When asked whether it would bother them a great deal if global warming caused sea levels to rise more than 20 feet, a much larger 71 percent of the public says yes. No one wants to give up their week at the beach.

When the General Social Survey probed the public's attitude toward five global warming problems, the rise in sea level was the issue that concerned Americans the most. Number two was the melting of the northern ice cap. The extinction of polar bears ranked a lowly fourth, behind the threat to the Inuit way of life. Worries about arctic seals came in last.

The General Social Survey also asked the public how much influence environmental scientists should have in formulating global warming policy. The results are disturbing: only 49 percent of Americans think environmental scientists should have a "great deal" of influence on global warming policy.

The Middle Class Just Blinked

The back-to-school season is losing its luster. The traditional college student population is shrinking, according to the Census Bureau--an unexpected development that may be a harbinger of worse times to come for the higher education industry. The number of full-time students attending four-year colleges fell by 337,000 between 2005 and 2006 (the latest data available). This 4 percent decline, to 7.7 million, is unprecedented and occurred although the number of high school graduates is at a record high. The decline also defied projections by the National Center for Education Statistics, which had forecast a rise in full-time enrollment at four-year schools to 8.2 million.

The drop in traditional college enrollment is a sign that the increasingly strapped middle class has reached the tipping point. According to Pew Research Center, 79 percent of Americans say it is harder than it was five years ago for the middle class to maintain its standard of living. That is putting it mildly. Staring down depreciating houses, gas guzzling cars, rising food prices, stagnant wages, unaffordable health insurance, tightening credit standards, and spiraling college costs, the middle class just blinked. It can no longer afford to keep up appearances--even for the sake of the kids. You know families are in crisis when parents are forced to cut back on their investment in their children. The downturn in full-time college enrollment marks the beginning of a new era for the middle class as it reevaluates the costs and benefits of the traditional college experience.

It's about time. For decades, the nation's 2,600 four-year colleges have brazenly raised prices much faster than the cost of living and still had students knocking down their doors. The college experience became yet another bubble market. The question was not whether the kids would go to college, but which college they would go to. College brands were as much of a status symbol as a Lexus in the driveway. In the competitive frenzy to get their children into the best school at any cost, parents ceased to consider the fundamentals. This explains why the cost of a college education could double between 1976 and 2006 while median family income grew by only 16 percent, after adjusting for inflation. It also explains why two-thirds of bachelor's degree recipients graduate with debt. The biggest increase in debt has occurred among students from the middle class, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

With the economy teetering on recession, credit tightening, and housing values falling, the cost of the traditional college experience now far exceeds what the middle class can afford. The bubble has burst. To be sure, millions of young adults still yearn for the traditional college experience and are scrambling to pay the bills. Applications for federal student aid were up 17 percent through the first six months of this year, according to U.S. News & World Report. But many will be disappointed with the increasingly meager federal handouts. Four-year colleges have become so expensive that the maximum Pell grant covers only 32 percent of the average price of a public school--down from 52 percent two decades ago, according to the College Board.

The American middle class is rearranging its priorities. This may be bad news for overpriced four-year schools. But it is not necessarily bad news for financially savvy families, who have boosted the number of full-time students at two-year colleges to an all-time high.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The New Population Projections

The most interesting thing about the Census Bureau's new population projections, released today, is the huge increase in the projected Hispanic population compared with the numbers produced by the bureau just four years ago. The bureau foresees a total population of 439 million in 2050, up from 420 million in the earlier projection series. A larger Hispanic population accounts for the difference.

The Census Bureau now expects the Hispanic population to expand to 133 million by 2050, up from 103 million Hispanics projected for 2050 in the earlier series. Hispanics should account for 30 percent of Americans in 2050, according to the new projections, up from the 24 percent projected in the old series and double the 15 percent share of today.

The non-Hispanic white population, in contrast, will not grow as much as previously projected. The 210 million non-Hispanic whites which the bureau had projected for 2050 (50.1 percent of the population) has been reduced to 203 million in the new projections (46.3 percent of the population).

In the year 2050, 40 percent of babies born in the United States will be Hispanic, and only 37 percent will be non-Hispanic white.

Source: Census Bureau, 2008 National Population Projections

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A New Look at Families

The percentage of children living with two parents leaped upwards between 2006 and 2007, rising from 67.4 to 70.7 percent. But this increase was not due to improving relationships between husbands and wives. Instead, for the first time, the Census Bureau is including unmarried couples in the two-parent count. Among the nation's 74 million children under age 18, slightly more than 2 million live with two unmarried parents. These children were formerly categorized as living with only one parent.

Here is the percentage of children living with:

Two married parents, 67.8
Two unmarried parents, 2.9
Mother only, 22.6
Father only, 3.2
No parent, 3.5

Overall, 95 percent of children live with at least one biological parent, 6 percent live with a step-parent, and 2 percent live with an adoptive parent.

Source: Census Bureau, Families and Living Arrangements, 2007

Monday, July 07, 2008

Peak Time of Day

The American Time Use Survey continues to amaze as it lays bare the details of our daily lives. Here are calculations based on time use data collected from 2003 through 2007. Shown below are the times at which the largest percentage of Americans aged 15 or older participate in the following primary (main) activities on an average day:

sleeping, 3 am, 94 percent
working, 11 am, 31 percent
eating and drinking, noon, 18 percent
shopping, 2 pm, 4 percent
food preparation and cleanup, 6 pm, 8 percent
socializing and communicating, 7 pm, 7 percent
watching television, 9 pm, 34 percent

Source: American Time Use Survey

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The End of Early Retirement

Early retirement is no longer the norm. The proportion of workers who collect retired-worker benefits from Social Security beginning at age 62 has fallen sharply, according to a Center for Retirement Research cohort analysis.

Among men, the percentage who start collecting Social Security benefits at age 62 fell from 51 percent in 1985 to 43 percent in 2006. Among women, the figure fell from 62 to 48 percent during those years.

Source: Are People Claiming Social Security Benefits Later? Dan Muldoon and Richard W. Kopcke, Center for Retirement Research at Boston College

Monday, June 09, 2008

How Many Use Public Transportation?

Billions and billions. Public transit ridership reached an all-time high of 10.3 billion trips in 2007, according to the American Public Transportation Association. This is the highest level in 50 years, brags the APTA. Not to rain on their parade, but the U.S. population is also larger than ever, so it is only natural that the use of public transportation should be up. A more promising APTA statistic is this: the use of public transportation has grown 32 percent since 1995, more than double the 15 percent gain in population.

Still, the percentage of Americans who use public transportation is pitifully small. Overall, only 5 percent of the nation's workers use public transit to get to work, according to the 2006 American Community Survey. There is a good reason for this lack of use. Only 54 percent of households in the United States have public transportation available in their area, according to the American Community Survey. Narrow the focus to homeowners, and the numbers are even smaller. Only 47 percent of homeowners have access to public transportation. The figure is a higher 69 percent for renters, who are more likely to live in urban areas.

These numbers were collected a few years ago and are undoubtedly higher today. But not much higher. It takes years to get public transportation systems up and running. And we have another problem. The United States is the third largest country in the world. To make public transportation work here will require an enormous financial commitment at a time when the economy is already severely stressed. The way gasoline prices are rising, however, we may have no other choice.

Trapped in Gasoline Ghettos

OK, this is bad. The rapid rise in the price of gas is turning the nation's far-flung rural and suburban areas into gasoline ghettos, locking millions of Americans into houses they cannot sell, far from their jobs, with little hope of escape.

Even before prices soared, gasoline consumed a large portion of the household budget. In 2006--the most recent year for which there is household spending data--gasoline ranked sixth among items on which the average household spends the most. Back then, the average price of a gallon of gas was less than $3.00. Those were the good old days. With gasoline now above $4.00 a gallon, it is likely the fourth most costly item in the household budget, behind only Social Security deductions, mortgage interest (or rent), and car payments.

This is worse than ouch. Gasoline is the blood supply of the sprawling American lifestyle. Here are the facts: most of us drive to work, and three out of four workers drive to work alone. The average commuter spends 25 minutes getting to his job. Many are in the car much longer. Twenty-one percent of workers live 20 or more miles from their place of work. Among the unlucky workers who live in newer homes (built in the past four years), an even larger 29 percent live at least 20 miles from their work, according to the American Housing Survey.

Those newer homes are the epicenter of the housing crisis because of their distance from jobs. According to an analysis (pdf download) by David Stiff, chief economist for Fiserv Lending Solutions, single-family home prices are falling the most in areas farthest from employment centers. "Because of sharp increases in gasoline prices, living closer to work has become an even more important consideration in the location decisions of homebuyers," says Stiff. He maps housing price changes from the price peak through the first half of 2007 in two metropolitan areas, showing how prices in Los Angeles and Boston have fallen the most in the outer rings. The future doesn't look bright either. "When combined with large inventories of unsold housing on the edges of urban areas, this shift in preferences will mean that prices for homes in outlying neighborhoods will continue their more rapid decline and will be slower to rebound when housing markets finally start to recover."

On top of this bad news, most of the millions living in gasoline ghettos have no alternative but to drive. Only 54 percent of households in the United States have access to public transportation, according to the American Housing Survey. Among homeowners, the figure is a smaller 47 percent. Among homeowners in newer houses--the houses in exurban rings--just 27 percent have public transportation in their area.

If we are lucky, the spike in gasoline prices is only a bubble, which will deflate once speculators withdraw from the market, or the summer driving season ends, or a new administration is in the White House. The bursting of an oil price bubble will give us time to prepare for the permanent era of expensive gasoline. We will have time to build more efficient vehicles, encourage people to live closer to job centers, and invest in public transportation. If we are not lucky, then we have run out of time, and we are about to feel the fury of all those trapped many miles from stores, schools, and jobs.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

How Green Are We?

Are you kidding? Americans have a long way to go before they show the slightest hint of green. The first results from the federal government's Residential Energy Consumption Survey released a few weeks ago reveal how much energy households use--and waste. The survey, taken every five years, asks households about their heating and cooling practices, electronics ownership, and appliance use. The latest results are from the 2005 survey--admittedly a bit dated, but the U.S. housing stock is so massive that these numbers change slowly. Here is the bad news.

AIR CONDITIONING
  • Only 16 percent of American households are not air-conditioned. Fifty-nine percent have central air conditioning, and another 26 percent have window or wall units.
  • Sixty-one percent of households with central air-conditioning run the system all summer.
  • Only 48 percent of homes with central air-conditioning have large trees that shade their house.

HEATING
  • Twenty-four percent of homes have high ceilings, which require more energy to heat.
  • Only 19 percent of all homes use a programmable thermostat to reduce temperature settings at night.
  • Forty percent say their home is drafty in the winter.

APPLIANCES
  • Fifty-eight percent of households have a dishwasher, 79 percent have a clothes dryer, 83 percent have a clothes washer, and everyone has a refrigerator.
  • Twenty-two percent of homes have two or more refrigerators.

TELEVISION
  • Virtually every household (99 percent) has at least one color television set. Seventy-eight percent have at least two sets, and 43 percent have three or more.
  • Half of households have their television turned on most or all of the time.

Ten All-American Traits

In the run-up to the November election, we are engaged--once again--in ritual self-analysis. Who are the American people? What do we believe? How will our national identity play out in the election?

For the answers, let's peer into the statistical mirror--the General Social Survey. The GSS has been reflecting the American identity for more than 30 years. The most recent results from the 2006 survey reveal the good, the bad, and the ugly of the American identity. Take a look.

1. We are tough. Among the world's nations, the United States ranks number one in prisoners per capita, yet

68 percent of Americans still think the courts
are not harsh enough on criminals.

And our toughness extends well beyond law enforcement.

72 percent agree that it is sometimes necessary
to discipline a child with a "good, hard spanking."


2. We want it both ways. Fully 63 percent of the public wants to cut the government's purse strings. Only 13 percent oppose spending cuts. But when asked what we should cut, our enthusiasm wanes. These are the percentages of Americans who want to cut spending by specific program area:

education: 4
health care: 6
retirement benefits: 7
law enforcement: 8
environment: 13
natural disasters: 14
military: 26
arts: 30


3. We are careless. Americans are forever thumping their chests with pride, and the one thing we boast about the most is our freedom. Yet the majority of Americans are willing to give up that freedom without much of a fight:

56 percent think the government probably or definitely
should have the right to jail people without a trial.


4. We are religious. Among the world's developed countries, the United States stands alone in its religiosity.

59 percent pray at least once a day.
Only 50 percent believe in evolution.


5. We are hard working. In fact, we are workaholics. This may explain why American workers have so little vacation time compared to their European counterparts and why we do not demand more time off:

70 percent would continue to work even if rich.


6. We are diverse. The Census Bureau continually tells us how diverse we are, but does it matter much anymore? GSS results suggest that the racial divide is not so big after all:

74 percent of blacks have trusted white friends.
52 percent of whites have trusted black friends.

54 percent of blacks have white family members.
20 percent of whites have black family members.


7. We are alienated. Americans do not have warm and fuzzy feelings toward public officials or their fellow citizens:

Only 35 percent say politicians are interested
in the problems of the average person.

Only 32 percent believe most people can be trusted.

80 percent believe others will take advantage of you
if you are not careful.


8. We are uptight. Americans have a well-deserved reputation for being prudish about sex:

Only 46 percent believe premarital sex is not wrong at all.
Only 32 percent believe homosexuality is not wrong at all.

But we are also practical:

89 percent support sex education in the public schools.
54 percent think teens should have access to birth control.


9. We like to stay put. Americans live in the third largest country in the world, but they restrict themselves to a very small portion of it.

38 percent still live in the same city they lived in at age 16.
62 percent live in the same state they lived in at age 16.


10. We still dream. Perhaps the single defining characteristic of Americans in both good times and bad is our steadfast belief in the American Dream:

69 percent say hard work, rather than luck or connections,
determines success.

70 percent say the United States gives people like them
the opportunity to improve their standard of living.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Census Bureau Eliminates Income Table

If you want to know how family income affects college enrollment, the Census Bureau no longer has the answers. The bureau eliminated table 14, showing the college enrollment status of 18-to-24-year-olds by family income, from its school enrollment tabulations.

Year after year, this table has tracked the disparities in college enrollment by family income. Now we just have to guess.

Source: Bureau of the Census, School Enrollment

Monday, May 19, 2008

Only 16 Percent Exercise

Here is the latest nugget from the American Time Use Survey: only 16 percent of Americans exercise on an average day.

The time use survey, which started in 2003, records the minute-by-minute activities of a representative sample of Americans on an average day. Now that the survey has collected four years worth of data, analysts at the Bureau of Labor Statistics are combining years and coming up with a large enough sample size to reliably examine activities in which few Americans engage. Unfortunately, exercise is one of those infrequent activities. Here are a few of the highlights from the Sports and Exercise study, which examines data from 2003 through 2006.

• Among the 25 activities included in the time use survey, walking is most popular among exercisers (30 percent), followed by weightlifting (13 percent), using cardiovascular equipment (13 percent), swimming (8 percent), and running (7 percent).

• Women account for 57 percent of walkers, 42 percent of runners.

• People under age 25 account for 7 percent of walkers and 31 percent of runners.

• More than half of those exercising (52 percent) did so alone.

Source: Spotlight on Statistics: Sports and Exercise

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Golf Course Fatalities

If you have ever wondered where your tax dollars go, you can rest assured that at least a few cents goes toward collecting and analyzing information about every death in the United States. No death is unworthy of the government's attention, including the 106 workers who died at a golf course between 2001 and 2006.

During the six years of data analyzed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual number of workers dying at a golf course ranged from 11 to 24. The largest share of fatalities (33) were nonhighway vehicle accidents—9 of them overturned lawnmowers. Other causes of death included falling, trench collapse, getting struck by a falling object (a golf ball perhaps?), and even airplane accidents. The report notes that any deaths occurring at miniature golf courses were not included in the analysis.

Nearly half (51) of those killed in golf-course related incidents worked in landscaping. One-third were Hispanic.

Source: Fatal Occupational Injuries Associated with Golf Courses and Country Clubs, 2001-2006

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Why We Are Bitter

Americans are bummed out--some might even call us bitter. When asked whether the country is on the right track, a record 81 percent of the public says it has veered off course, according to a recent New York Times survey. The Reuters/University of Michigan Index of Consumer Sentiment for April finds consumer confidence at the lowest level since 1982. The percentage of Americans who tell the Gallup daily tracking poll that economic conditions in the country are getting worse, at 85 percent in mid-April, is close to an all-time high.

The roots of our bitterness run much deeper than the housing slump or credit crisis. The roots lie in the circumstances of the nation's primary breadwinners--men. Men's earnings are not keeping pace with inflation. This problem started more than two decades ago, but until recently American families have been singing and dancing up the yellow brick road as they made their way to the Emerald City--the American Dream.

Among men working year-round, full-time, median earnings stood at $42,261 in 2006 (the latest data available). But here is the problem: The average man earns less today than he did in 1986, when his median earnings were $44,303 (in 2006 dollars). Between 1986 and 2006, then, the median earnings of the average man with a full-time job fell by more than $2,000, a 5 percent decline. Blue-collar workers are not the only ones who have felt the pinch, either. After years of steadily rising wages, the median earnings of college-educated men peaked in 2002. Their earnings have fallen 3 percent since then.

Until recently, Americans have been largely unaware of these worrisome trends because women's growing incomes hid the decline in men's earnings. Between 1986 and 2006, the median earnings of women who work full-time grew 14 percent, after adjusting for inflation. That earnings growth not only masked the decline in men's earnings, it also boosted household incomes to record highs. Women were proud of their jobs. Men were proud of their family's rising standard of living.

Now we have reached the end of the road. We are at the Emerald City, but something is not right. Women's median earnings peaked in 2002 and have fallen 4 percent since then. Just when we thought we had achieved the American Dream, the curtain has fallen away from the Wizard and revealed him to be nothing more than our own ever-harder work. Our standard of living has been rising all these years not because workers are earning more, but because households are sending more workers into the labor force. There is nobody left to earn an additional paycheck unless we put our children to work. Median household income peaked in 1999, but costs continue to rise. In a world where globalization and technological change are rewriting the rules, Americans have finally noticed that they are not in Kansas anymore.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Voting Clout

Which generation will have the most clout in the 2008 presidential election? Although younger voters are becoming more important, the baby-boom generation will still cast the largest share of votes. Here is how the votes will stack up in November:

Millennial: 19 percent
Gen X: 20 percent
Boomer: 38 percent
Older: 23 percent

Millennial and gen X voters will be outnumbered by both boomers and the older generation. Together, however, the political clout of the two younger generations will exceed even that of the baby-boom generation itself.

Source: Numbers based on voting rates by age in 2004 and projections of the population for 2008, Census Bureau

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Most Homeowners Are Not in Trouble

"Tapped-Out Consumers" was the recent headline in a Business Week article about the unfolding housing crisis. The New York Times chimed in with the sweeping claim that "Everyone from first-time homebuyers to Wall Street chief executives made bets they did not fully understand, and then spent money as if those bets couldn't go bad."

Everyone made bets? Time out. Let's check those breathless reports from the front lines of the housing crisis.

In fact, the unfolding housing crisis is hurting only a tiny percentage of homeowners. To get a realistic perspective, you have to look beyond the numerator--the people in trouble. You must also consider the denominator--the total number of homeowners. The denominator is HUGE. Last year there were 75 million homeowners in the United States. Few of them are in trouble.

Here's why: nearly one-third of the nation's homeowners--24 million--own their home free and clear, according to the latest statistics from the American Community Survey. That means they have no mortgage, no home equity loans, and are in no danger of foreclosure. While the decline in housing values may make them uncomfortable, it will not affect their bottom line unless, for some reason, they have to sell their house before housing prices resume their historically slow upward climb.

Things are not all that bad for the 51 million homeowners with a mortgage either. Most have managed their asset wisely. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the nation's financial institutions, which is the reason our economy is on the brink of recession. Let's look at the facts.

1. Most homeowners with a mortgage have a traditional loan. Fully 81 percent of homeowners with a mortgage have a fixed-rate loan, and their median interest rate is just 6 percent according to the American Housing Survey.

2. Most homeowners have a substantial cushion of equity in their home, a cushion that will protect them from all but the most catastrophic price drops. Homeowners with a mortgage owe, on average, only 55 percent of their home's value--leaving room for a substantial price decline before they are in hot water.

3. Most homeowners have NOT used their home as an ATM machine. Only 13 percent of the nation's 75 million homeowners even have a home equity loan, according to the American Community Survey. This fact bears repeating because the media narrative has "everyone" spending down their housing equity on granite countertops and large-screen TVs. To repeat, more than 85 percent of the nation's homeowners do NOT have a home equity loan.

Of course, in a housing market as large as ours, even a small percentage in trouble means millions are drowning. The American Housing Survey reveals that only 3 percent of homeowners owe more than their house is worth, for example, but that 3 percent amounts to 2.5 million homeowners. Even so, these numbers are a far cry from "everyone." Everyone did not make foolish bets, but the unfolding crisis shows that everyone will be hurt by the few homeowners and the many financial institutions that did.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

What's Wrong with Young People?

By now everyone has heard that teenagers and young adults do not know much about history, cannot locate Ohio on a map, and spend way too much time texting when they should be doing more important things--like listening to their elders lecture them about their many shortcomings.

Who can blame them for not listening? For some reason, it is always the young--not the old--who are being told of their failings. The old have been complaining about the young since time immemorial. But turnabout is fair play, so let's explore for a moment whether older Americans are as wise and industrious as they pretend to be. Here are three stories about old folks that could be in the news:

Glued to the Tube: Why Can't the Elderly Find Something Better to Do?
Results from a national survey reveal that older Americans have a serious addiction to television. The latest American Time Use Survey shows that people aged 65 or older spend one-fourth of their waking hours watching television as their primary activity, far more than any other age group. People aged 65 to 74 spend 3.83 hours a day watching TV. For those aged 75 or older, the figure is an even larger 4.18 hours--twice as much time as young adults spend watching TV. For expert advice on what is behind this potentially harmful addiction to television, we turn to--

Technophobes: Irrational Fear Grips Older Americans as Times Change
Health experts have detected a new syndrome infecting Americans aged 55 and older. The syndrome manifests itself as a fear of pushing buttons and prevents millions from adopting modern conveniences such as cell phones, computers, and the Internet. With nearly every young adult online and using a cell phone, the young are increasingly frustrated and alarmed at the unwillingness of the older generations to communicate with them. "What's up?" ask young people. Only 37 percent of people aged 65 or older are online, according to Pew Internet & American Life Project. Cell phone ownership is also abysmally low in the age group. Psychologists have so far been unable to explain--

Whoa! Say Older Adults--Why They Impede Scientific Progress
A new study reveals that older Americans are wary of science. According to results of the 2006 General Social Survey, most people aged 60 or older agree with the statement, "Science makes our way of life change too fast." A much smaller 40 percent of young adults agree. What is behind the attitude gap? Some say education, since young adults are much better educated than older Americans. Most young adults have been to college, while few older Americans have any college experience. Yet, because of their high voting rate, older generations determine science funding in the United States. The only way to resolve this conflict--

These stories are just as newsworthy as the ones detailing the failures of young adults, but you won't see them in the news anytime soon. Why? Because older generations, not young adults, decide what makes the news.

Monday, March 24, 2008

What's in Store for Books?

Grab your hankies and prepare to weep. A National Endowment for the Arts report (To Read or Not to Read) warns of a decline in book reading over the past decade. The percentage of adults who have read a book for pleasure (not required for work or school) in the past year fell from 61 percent in 1992 to 57 percent in 2002--a 4 percentage point decline. Is this decline a cause for concern or, rather, a sign of the book's staying power? To get a better perspective, let's look at what has happened to two other traditional media outlets--the daily newspaper and the network evening news.

Between 1991 and 2002 (roughly the same time period is used for comparability; more recent data are available), the percentage of people who read a newspaper every day fell from 52 to 41 percent, according to the General Social Survey--a much larger decline than the one experienced by books. Even more telling, industry statistics show that since 1990 unit sales of trade books have increased, while weekday newspaper circulation has decreased.

Yes, average household spending on books has dropped. It fell by a painful 28 percent between 1991 and 2006 after adjusting for inflation, according to the Consumer Expenditure Survey. But much of the decline in spending can be explained by the growing sales of used books and the deep discounts offered by Amazon.com and other Internet retailers. No such benign factors can explain why household spending on newspapers and magazines fell by a heartrending 60 percent during the same years.

Network evening news is also experiencing a precipitous decline. The average number of people who watch network evening news plummeted from 42 million to 30 million between 1992 and 2002 (the same time period is used for comparability; more recent data are available), according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Not only is the network news audience shrinking, it is also aging. The median age of the viewers of evening news is now 60.

The fact is, the percentage of people who read for pleasure has remained remarkably stable over the past decade considering the enormous expansion of television channels and the adoption of computers and the Internet. Even more important, the demographics of book readers are healthy. Young adults are almost as likely as older Americans to be regular book readers, according to a 2004 NEA report (Reading at Risk). Forty-three percent of busy 18-to-24-year-olds have read a work of fiction in the past year, not too far below the peak of 52 percent among 45-to-54-year-olds. Contrast that 9 percentage point gap with this one: only 18 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds regularly watch network evening news compared with the peak of 56 percent among people aged 65 or older--a gap of 38 percentage points. Or this one: only 16 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds read a newspaper every day compared with 66 percent of people aged 65 or older--a gap of 50 percentage points.

Newspapers and network evening news are being supplanted by more efficient ways of getting up-to-the-minute information. Some claim electronic devices such as Kindle will replace books. But hand-held electronic devices are no more likely to replace books read for pleasure than video screens have replaced original art, virtual tours have replaced travel, or pills have replaced food.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Last of the Big Spenders

"Consumers stopped buying pretty much everything," commented the Associated Press in a news story about the 0.6 percent decline in February's retail sales. This bit of hyperbole about the $380 billion Americans spent at retailers in February is yet another example of the abysmal quality of reporting on trends in the consumer marketplace.

To put it bluntly, reporters just do not get it. They err--out of confusion or laziness--when they explain macroeconomic trends as if those trends describe the behavior of you and your neighbors. It is called anthropomorphizing, and it can be a harmless way of putting a human face on dry statistics. Not in this case. By anthropomorphizing macroeconomic trends, reporters are misleading the public about the real dynamics of the consumer marketplace.

For years, the people who bring us the news have been telling us what big spenders we are, when all along we have been cautious consumers. Now they are telling us what scrooges we are, when we are the same cautious consumers we have always been. How did reporters get so far off track?

It all started decades ago with the rise in personal consumption expenditures (PCE), a macroeconomic indicator. PCE is one of those dry statistics-the sum of all spending on consumer products and services in the United States. Between 1984 and 2006, PCE more than doubled after adjusting for inflation. Rather than explain the real reasons for the rapid growth in PCE, reporters simply anthropomorphized the trend and called Americans big spenders. In fact, average household spending grew by only 14 percent between 1984 and 2006, after adjusting for inflation--less even than the gain in real median household income. And the spending of baby boomers (the ones usually accused of being the most profligate spenders) increased by an even smaller 4 percent, according to the Consumer Expenditure Survey. This modest rise in spending is even more impressive when you consider the 59 percent increase in the price of a new single-family home during those years, the 100 percent increase in the cost of college, or the 101 percent increase in out-of-pocket health insurance expenses.

Clearly, the average American has been pinching pennies all along. What accounts, then, for the ballooning PCE? To answer the question, reporters needed to look under the hood of the macroeconomic trends and discover what drove the engine. If they had bothered to look, here is what they would have found:

The population is growing. The United States is one of the fastest growing developed countries in the world, so it is only natural that aggregate consumer spending will rise each year along with the population. This does not mean you and your neighbors are spending more, however.

Boomers filled the peak spending life stage. Over the past two decades the enormous baby-boom generation filled the 35-to-54 age group, the peak spending years. Consequently, the number of affluent households reached record levels, the housing market exploded, and the nation's aggregate spending soared--even as individual households held their spending in check.

The price of stuff plummeted. The average American home has multiple television sets, closets full of clothes, and a kitchen full of appliances. Americans have more stuff because stuff is cheap. Televisions, video recorders, microwaves, dishwashers, computers, cameras--if the product uses an electrical cord or a battery, chances are it costs a fraction of what it did two decades ago. Television sets, for example, cost 85 percent less than they did in the 1980s. Falling prices have affected more than electronics. Toys cost 32 percent less, and clothing is less expensive. Just because we have more does not mean we are spending more.

Credit card payments ballooned. Consumer borrowing has grown handily over the years, but not because the average American is drowning in debt. Consumers are paying with plastic as a convenience, not an easy-money scheme. According to a Pew Research Center survey, just 31 percent of consumers carry a balance on their credit card bill. Among those who carry a balance, the median amount owed is a modest $2,200, reports the Federal Reserve Board's Survey of Consumer Finances.

The real story behind consumer spending is this: Americans did not spend foolishly when times were good. And their skill at pinching pennies may help soften the landing in the bad times that lie ahead.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Bet You Didn't Know

Percentage of high school students aged 16 to 17 who have jobs

2007: 21
2000: 30

Source: "Youth enrollment and employment during the school year," Monthly Labor Review

Monday, February 25, 2008

New Mothers at Work

Percent of mothers who are working within 12 months of giving birth

1961-65: 17
2000-02: 64

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Dropout Rate Lower than Ever

Percentage of people aged 16 to 24 who are high school dropouts

1960: 27.2
1970: 15.0
1980: 14.1
1990: 12.1
2000: 10.9
2005: 9.4

Note: Dropouts are defined as people aged 16-to-24 who are not currently enrolled in school and have not completed a high school program.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Homeownership Rate Continues to Slide

The government's annual estimates of homeownership have just been released, and the Census Bureau reports another decline in the nation's homeownership rate. The rate fell from 68.8 percent of households in 2006 to 68.1 percent in 2007. This is well below the peak homeownership rate of 69.0 percent reached in 2004. 

The homeownership rate fell in almost every age group between 2004 and 2007, with the biggest loss occurring among 30-to-34-year-olds—a 3 percentage point decline. Only one age group did not see homeownership become less common during those years. The homeownership rate of 25-to-29-year-olds increased by 0.4 percentage points between 2004 and 2007. 

Here are the 2007 numbers by age:
Total households: 68.1
Under age 25: 24.8
Aged 25 to 29: 40.6 
Aged 30 to 34: 54.4
Aged 35 to 39: 65.0
Aged 40 to 44: 70.4
Aged 45 to 49: 74.0
Aged 50 to 54: 76.9
Aged 55 to 59: 79.9
Aged 60 to 64: 81.5
Aged 65 to 69: 81.7
Aged 70 to 74: 82.4
Aged 75 or older: 78.7

Source: Census Bureau, Housing Vacancy Survey

Friday, January 25, 2008

Millennials are Liberal

The nation's youngest adults are the most liberal Americans. The millennial generation (the oldest of whom turn 31 this year) is the only one in which liberals outnumber conservatives. Thirty-four percent of millennials say they are slightly to extremely liberal while a smaller 30 percent say they are slightly to extremely conservative. The remaining 36 percent are moderates.

You might think millennials are liberal only because they are young. Not true. Political viewpoints, in fact, are remarkably stable over a lifetime. Take the baby-boom generation, for example. Today, 25 percent of boomers say they are liberal. Twenty years ago, when boomers were in their twenties and thirties, almost the same proportion (27 percent) identified themselves as liberal. Today, 35 percent of boomers say they are conservative, nearly equal to the 36 percent who called themselves conservative two decades ago. 

The other generations also show remarkable stability in their political viewpoints over time. And each succeeding generation is more liberal than its predecessor. 

Source: General Social Survey

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Fewer Self-Employed

So much for America's entrepreneurial spirit. Self-employment is disappearing in the United States as workers cry uncle in the health insurance wrestling match. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics' projections, the percentage of non-agricultural workers who are self-employed will fall even lower than its current miniscule level of 6.7 percent during the next ten years.

Interestingly, the BLS forsees this decline despite the baby-boom generation's entry into the prime age of self-employment: 65-plus. People aged 65 or older are more likely to be self-employed than younger adults because Medicare—the universal health insurance program for the nation's elderly—solves their health insurance problem. 

The projected decline in self-employment despite the aging of boomers means only one thing: self-employment among younger Americans will drop to rock-bottom levels as Americans become contortionists in their hunt for affordable health care coverage.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Where the Jobs Are

Every two years the Bureau of Labor Statistics produces a new set of occupational projections, looking ten years into the future. The list of fastest-growing occupations says a lot about our demographics, economy, and culture. These are some of the 30 occupations projected to grow the fastest between 2006 and 2016:

Home health aides
Computer software engineers
Veterinarians
Personal financial advisors
Skin care specialists
Gaming surveillance officers
Marriage and family therapists
Environmental science technicians
Manicurists and pedicurists
Physical therapists

For more on the gainers and losers, see the November issue of the Monthly Labor Review.