Wednesday, June 28, 2017

As Bad As Ninja

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[Ninja: No Income, No Job, No Assets. Term coined during subprime loan era]

Mirella Casares has what used to be considered the keystone of economic security: a job. But even a reliable paycheck no longer delivers a reliable income.

Like Ms. Casares, who works at a Victoria’s Secret store in Ocala, Fla., more and more employees across a growing range of industries find the number of hours they work is swinging giddily from week to week — bringing chaos not only to family scheduling, but also to family finances.

And a new wave of research shows that the main culprit is not the so-called gig economy, but shifting pay within the same job.

“Since the 1970s, steady work that pays a predictable and living wage has become increasingly difficult to find,” said Jonathan Morduch, a director of the U.S. Financial Diaries project, an in-depth study of 235 low- and moderate-income households. “This shift has left many more families vulnerable to income volatility.” [..]

Stability is worth a lot to workers. On average, employees are willing to give up a fifth of their weekly wage to avoid a schedule set by an employer on a week’s notice, according to a field experiment where workers were offered a range of alternative hours at different pay levels. [..]

In the course of a year, for example, the monthly income of a California family with one child that Mr. Morduch’s team tracked jumped to $5,279 from as low as $1,175. (Strict ethics protocols prohibit the release of participants’ names.) The husband supplemented his steady $400-a-week salaried construction job with extra remodeling work that could add from $323 to $1,588 a month to his total. His wife picked up from zero to $1,824 a month from babysitting, and from selling jewelry, clothing and flowers. [..]

Monthly expenses can pendulum as much as income, but the two do not necessarily move in tandem. An analysis of 250,000 bank accounts by the JPMorgan Chase Institute, a nonprofit research arm of the bank, found that roughly 80 percent of households had an insufficient cash buffer to manage the mismatch between income and expenses in a given month.

Few people can comfortably ride out the inevitable financial bronco ride. “Only households that earn $105,000 or more a year are secure against the volatility they are exposed to,” said Diana Farrell, the institute’s president and chief executive. “It’s not just about the unemployed or the poor.”

Middle-income households, for example, saw their monthly expenses deviate by nearly $1,300, the equivalent of a month’s rent or mortgage payment. And one uh-oh expense — usually in the form of a medical, tax or car repair bill — can wreck a family’s balance sheet for a year or more.

Even a single month’s volatility can have a cascading effect. One month, a family copes by using the money earmarked for, say, the utility bill to cover the cost of replacing a busted water heater. The next month, it’s the telephone company that goes unpaid as the family struggles to make up the missed utility bill plus late fees and interest — and so on. [..]

Ms. Waggoner’s work schedule depends on her ability to find care for her 15-year-old son, who has epilepsy. So sometimes she works a weekend at $17 an hour and sometimes three $15-an-hour weekdays. [..]

“Stable, predictable work schedules are essential to economic security,” said Susan J. Lambert, a professor at the University of Chicago who is studying new data supplied by the General Social Survey, a respected national survey that began asking in-depth questions about work schedules only last year.

The latest data shows that 41 percent of all hourly workers say they are not given more than a week’s notice of their schedule; nearly half have little or no say on their work hours. [..]

The ubiquity of the phenomenon has frequently been masked by annual measures of income and spending or one-time snapshots of savings and debt that fail to capture fluctuations week to week or month to month. [..]

The number of Americans living comfortably or doing all right financially has grown since the recession. Still, the new Fed report found that 30 percent — roughly 73 million adults — say they are finding it difficult to get by financially, or are just getting by.

To Mr. Morduch and his co-author, Rachel Schneider, the rise in income volatility is an indication of how businesses in an era of advancing technology and global competition have shifted risk onto employees.

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