Many Americans Still Face Financial Instability Despite Economic Growth

Interviews show continued challenges linked to income, job markets, and family situations

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Many Americans Still Face Financial Instability Despite Economic Growth

Editor's note: This analysis has been updated to clarify that the workers who were interviewed had household incomes of up to $75,000 a year.

National labor market data over the last few years show a strong, high-performing economy, but those big-picture numbers do not include microeconomic indicators that reflect the more difficult reality of many Americans’ financial lives.

For example, a recent Gallup survey shows that 40 percent of Americans say they are running into debt or barely making ends meet.  A third of respondents in a 2014 Pew Charitable Trusts survey reported having no savings, and more recent polling shows that many people do not have sufficient resources on hand to deal with an emergency. 

To gain additional insight into the way Americans are affected by the changing economy and what they want out of it, Pew conducted a series of in-depth interviews in 2018 with a diverse group of workers and employers in eight cities and three rural areas around the country. The workers had household incomes of no more than $75,000 a year. The interviews focused on the interrelationships between employer and employee needs—and people’s sense of their economic mobility.

The results highlight the continued economic pressures many people feel, despite the nation’s low unemployment rate and record high stock market. Many Americans in this wage bracket continue to struggle to balance work and family or make career changes that could give them more financial security.

Earlier this year, Pew’s Abby Lantz participated in a panel titled “In the Red: How Americans Experience the Economy” at the 2019 South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas. SXSW brings together people from a variety of industries as well as experts, policymakers, and influencers through conferences, festivals, and exhibitions.

Aparna Mathur, a resident scholar in economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, moderated the panel, which explored the financial challenges—such as stagnating wages, rising expenses, and income volatility—that can be obscured in analyses of macroeconomic data. Also on the panel were Christopher Cabaldon, mayor of West Sacramento, California, and Sheida Elmi of the Aspen Institute.

Drawing on Pew’s in-depth interviews, Lantz examined the issues facing many Americans, and potential strategies for providing those struggling financially with greater access to economic opportunity. Among the consistent issues were difficulties making ends meet or moving up the economic ladder—and the need for greater flexibility to help workers deal with family needs.

 Among the major themes were:

  • Caregiving. Many workers cited challenges in providing care to aging parents. For these employees, becoming the caregiver to an adult can be a more intense and frequent strain on time and finances than having a child. And when such changes are unexpected, they can lead to financial shocks.
  • Financial instability. Many of the workers interviewed said they felt some level of financial instability. In numerous instances, workers said income from their primary jobs does not cover the cost of living, meaning that families consistently feel vulnerable financially. And many do not have sufficient emergency savings to navigate fluctuations in their resources.
  • Flexibility. Both workers and employers expressed a desire for greater workplace flexibility. Workers wanted the ability to control their work schedules and work remotely when needed. For many, greater autonomy in scheduling was more important than wages or benefits. Some said they were more likely to stay with an employer that provided flexibility than leave for a job that paid more. And employers said providing such flexibility helped them retain good workers.
  • Job market challenges. Workers cited difficulties in landing a job or moving from one job to another, saying that it was hard to find a job and that they often felt confined to low-paying or less-competitive positions. They cited various barriers, such as difficulties transferring skills gained over time to currently available jobs, frustration with automated search engine filters that remove some qualified applicants, and difficult-to-meet education requirements. Employers, on the other hand, cited difficulties in finding workers that closely fit their job criteria.
  • Multiple jobs.  Employees talked about the need to work an additional job—supplementing a primary position that provides critical benefits—to make ends meet. Part-time, seasonal, and consulting work help them cope with financial instability. Many of those interviewed did not view the extra work as an official “second job,” often because it is temporary, occasional, or without benefits.

These issues affect workers in rural and urban areas alike, although they can be exacerbated in the former because of economic isolation. Conversations such as those conducted in Pew’s interviews—and then the discussion at SXSW—can serve as catalysts for solutions to the economic uncertainty and financial insecurity felt by many Americans.

Karen Kavanaugh directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ project on financial security and economic mobility.

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