Paying the bills: a closer look

 Yesterday’s post about how people were finding it harder to pay the bills didn’t get into any demographic detail. Time to do just that.

According to the Census Bureau’s biweekly Household Pulse Survey, as of the two weeks ending October 11, 47.7% of adults were having no difficulties paying their bills, down just over 2 percentage points from May, which was the best period in the covid era. The numbers bounce around some from one survey to the next, no doubt an indeterminate mix of noise and trend, so it’s a good practice to average a couple to smooth things out.

First, bill-paying capacities by demographic group—and not just by the usual categories like race, income, sex, and education. In August, the Bureau started asking questions about gender and sexual orientation in the survey, a nice increase in the richness of the data.

Averaging the two surveys covering September 13 through October 11, you get a pattern like the one graphed below. Almost 48% of all adults reported no difficulties in paying their bills. Cisgender men come in a few points above that, and cis women a few below. Transgender and “none of these” come in well below. Among cis men, almost five times as many have no trouble as report finding “very difficult.” (To keep the number and density of the graphs down, I’m only showing the no trouble figures.) Among cis women, it’s three-and-a-half times. For trans and “none of these,” the numbers are almost equal. Being gay or lesbian puts you about 3 points below average, but being bi puts you 18 below. 

Results by race, education, and income hold no surprises. Whites are 7 points above average, and Asians are 6; Hispanics or Latinos, 14 points below; blacks, over 17 points below. (The classification scheme and labels are all the government’s choice, not mine.) Not finishing high school puts you 23 points below; having a bachelor’s or more, 17 points above. Gaps correlate perfectly with income ranges—though it’s striking that over 40% of those with incomes between $75,000 and $99,999 are not comfortably paying their bills—and 13% of those over $200,000.

 

Difficulties Sept-Oct

 

And now the changes since spring, graphed below. Most demographic groups have been finding it harder to pay bills than it was five or six months ago. From the averages of the May surveys to the September 13–October 11 average, the share of people reporting no difficulties paying their bills fell by 2.2 percentage points. Here the damage looks more widely distributed than you might expect. (Gender and sexual orientation can’t be compared because they weren’t part of the survey in May.) Hispanics or Latinos found it slightly easier, but whites had a bigger negative shift than blacks. Those who didn’t finish high school took a hit of over 5 points—but those with some college or more did a bit worse than high school grads. And changes by income class didn’t follow the usual stairstep pattern—the categories just above the median did worse than those below them (though of course their absolute levels are lower, as the graph above makes clear).

 

Spending detail change

As I said in yesterday’s post, these aren’t enormous shifts, but they’re going in the wrong direction. Despite gains in employment—strong at first, now faltering some—more people look to be struggling.

This all makes you wonder about The Great Resignation—record-high quit rates and a stubborn refusal by many to take any crappy job on offer, which is getting uncommonly close coverage. Can it continue as prices rise and savings are drawn down? Or is something breaking in the governing order? It’s not every day you read a New York Times columnist—even one as good as Farhad Manjoo—interviewing anti-work scholar Kathi Weeks and writing words like these:

I’ve been reading /antiwork for months, and I’ve been surprised to find myself joining in the visceral thrill of seeing people wrest the reins of their lives from the soul-sucking, health-destroying maw of capitalism.

A problem is that capitalism usually makes it very hard to reclaim one’s life from it. Having to pay the bills is usually a work discipline without any appeal. Maybe something is happening though.

 

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