MONEY The Economy

Sex Keeps Getting Cheaper Around the Globe

Exterior of the Love Ranch at night
Brad DeCecco

The going rate for sex with a prostitute has plummeted in recent years, according to analysis from the Economist.

In 2006, the price for one hour of sex with a female prostitute averaged $340 around the globe. Today, the average rate is down to $260.

The Economist came up with this data after reviewing the online profiles and listings of 190,000 female sex workers in a total of 84 cities in 12 countries. There are several reasons cited for why the price of prostitution has fallen steadily in recent years, including the migration of poor sex workers into wealthier countries, which has pushed prices down. There’s also some indication that the increased availability of legal prostitution in countries such as Germany has put downward pressure on rates for paid sex.

Overall, the explanation for the decline in the price of sex boils to the same two factors that have affected so many other industries over the last decade or so: The responsibility (or blame, if you will) can be traced back to the Great Recession, and the rise of the Internet’s facilitation of virtually every aspect of life. “The fall in prices can be attributed in part to the 2007-8 financial crisis,” the Economist reported. “The increase in people selling sex online—where it is easier to be anonymous—has probably boosted local supply.”

Increased supply means increased competition, and lower prices in order to win customers’ business. This turn of events should put a smile on the face of folks like comedian Jim Norton, who wrote a stunning pro-paid-sex essay titled “In Defense of Johns” last week for TIME.com.

Naturally, sex workers are upset about the decline in asking prices for prostitution. An analysis by the Economist on all the different ways the Internet has impacted the oldest profession indicates that the shift online hasn’t been all bad for prostitutes, however. By being able to advertise and sell sex online, prostitutes don’t have to rely as much on brothels, pimps, or other intermediaries, so less of a sex worker’s money is going to a middleman. Selling sex on the web is certainly not safe, but it’s considered safer than streetwalking, partly because prostitutes can do rudimentary background checks on clients and share information about violent or abusive customers.

Generally speaking, however, it’s hard to come away after reading the Economist’s investigation and not be depressed. Here’s a group of workers who suffered mightily during the recession years and are still feeling its lingering effects. It’s more difficult to make a living in this trade than it has been in the past, what with clients who have less cash to spend and who have more, lower-priced options to choose from thanks to the Internet and other technology.

That description could be used to sum up the recent plight of many retail employees, travel agents, factory workers, or, heck, journalists. Instead, in this instance, it describes the situation facing women who feel forced to sell sex for money.

MORE: Dear Johns: Actually, You Should Be Ashamed to Buy Sex

TIME Money

Bank of America Reported Close To Record DOJ Settlement

Paying up for their role in the housing crisis

Bank of America may pay $16 billion to $17 billion to the Department of Justice as a settlement for their role in the housing crisis, according to media reports.

That would be the highest payment to the DOJ for mortgage securities fraud to date, exceeding the $13 billion settlement that J.P. Morgan Chase negotiated in November.

Bank of America issued the most mortgage securities of any large bank on Wall Street in the years leading up to the financial crisis. According to the Wall Street Journal, of the $965 billion in mortgage securities that the bank issued between 2004 and 2008, $245 billion in securities have defaulted or become delinquent.

 

TIME cities

The Rise of Suburban Poverty in America

Rooftops in suburban development in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Rooftops in suburban development in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Blend Images/Spaces Images/Getty Images

The suburbs aren't the middle-class haven many imagine them to be as new numbers show 16.5 million suburban Americans are living beneath the poverty line

Colorado Springs is often included on lists of the best places to live in America thanks to its 250 days of sun a year, world-class ski resorts and relatively high home values. But over the last decade, its suburbs have attained a less honorable distinction: they’ve experienced some of the largest increases in suburban poverty rates.

The suburbs surrounding Colorado Springs now have seven Census tracts with 20% or more residents in poverty, according to a report released Thursday by the Brookings Institution. In 2000, it had none. In those neighborhoods, 35% of residents are now considered to be below the poverty line, defined as a family of four making $23,492 or less in 2012.

“We’ve seen this all over the state,” says Kathy Underhill of Hunger Free Colorado, a statewide anti-hunger organization, referring to the growth of suburban poverty. “But I think the American public has been slow to realize this transition from urban poverty to suburban poverty.”

Poverty in the U.S. has worsened in neighborhoods already considered to be poor, but it’s now becoming more prevalent in the nation’s suburbs, according to the Brookings report.

“Poverty has become more regional in scope,” says Elizabeth Kneebone of the Brookings Institution and a co-author of the report. “But at the same time, it’s more concentrated and it’s erased a lot of the progress that we made in the 1990s.”

In the last decade, the number of Census tracts considered “distressed” — in which at least 40% of residents live in poverty — has risen by almost 72%. The number of poor people living in those neighborhoods has grown by an even faster rate—78%—from 3 million to 5.3 million. In 2000, the percentage of poor people who live in economically distressed neighborhoods was 9.1%. Today, it’s 12.2%.

Those areas are leading to what Kneebone calls a “double burden” for impoverished residents—being poor while living in a low-income area that often has failing schools, inadequate healthcare systems and higher crime rates. And as those areas are increasingly located in suburban areas, low-income Americans don’t have the kind of social safety nets often found in urban centers.

The numbers of suburban poor are growing at a more rapid rate than those in urban areas. In 2012, there were 16.5 million Americans living below the poverty line in the suburbs compared with 13.5 million in cities. The number of suburban poor living in distressed neighborhoods grew by 139% since 2000, compared with a 50% jump in cities. Overall, the number of poor living in the suburbs has grown by 65% in the past 14 years—twice as much growth as in urban areas.

It’s easy to pin the growth of concentrated and suburban poverty on the recession, but the spread of poverty throughout the U.S. has broader and more varied explanations. The numbers of suburban poor have been swelled by low-income residents who might once have lived in urban cores, but have been priced out of gentrifying cities, and have moved into affordable housing more prevalent in the suburbs.

Suburban areas also tend to be centered around industries most affected by the economic downturn, like manufacturing and construction, and the jobs that have taken their place are often low-paying, like retail and service positions.

There are also few social programs to help the suburban poor ascend the economic ladder. In the counties surrounding the Denver and Colorado Springs area, for example, many charitable organizations and anti-poverty programs have historically been focused on urban cores and haven’t caught up to changing demographics.

“The charitable infrastructure over the decades have focused on the inner city,” says Underhill of Hunger Free Colorado. “They’ve traditionally not had big case loads and aren’t accustomed to the level of service that’s needed.”

The Brookings report highlights a few suburbs that have seen decreases in poverty, including those around El Paso, Texas; Baton Rouge, La.; and Jackson, Miss. But they were outliers. In North Carolina, three suburban areas—Winston-Salem, Greensboro-High Point, and Charlotte—saw significant increases in both the number of economically distressed neighborhoods and the percentage of poor in those areas. Atlanta now has 197 areas with poverty rates above 20%, up from 32 in 2000.

“Suburban areas are no longer just homes to middle- and upper-income households,” says University of New Hampshire demographer Ken Johnson. “There were always poor suburbs, but much of the outflow of population from urban cores to suburbs has historically been middle- and upper-income. That is less true now.”

Kneebone agrees, saying the perception that suburban areas were some sort of middle-class haven “was always a bit too simplistic.”

“Poverty is touching all kinds of communities,” Kneebone says. “It’s not just over there anymore.”

MONEY Shopping

Why We Spend So Many of Our Dollars at Dollar Stores

99 cent sign
joeysworld.com—Alamy

And why the $8.5 billion Dollar Tree–Family Dollar deal is probably a sign that the dollar store's heyday is coming to an end

The dollar store has been one of the great success stories of the recession era, with chains such as Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, and Dollar General posting record sales figures, broad expansions, and soaring stock prices over the past half-dozen or so years. Now that Dollar Tree is purchasing Family Dollar for $8.5 billion, it appears as if the era of rampant dollar store growth is plateauing, even while many household finances remain pinched and dollar store shopping continues to be popular.

How did we get to the point where such a colossal merger would make sense? Here’s a look back at the recent evolution of the dollar store, with a particular focus on why many shoppers have come to view them as handy neighborhood general stores—and not just for cheap stuff.

The Great Recession destroyed shopper budgets. In the late ’00s, the housing bubble burst, the stock market crashed, and the jobs market took an ugly turn. All of the factors combined meant that the free-spending habits developed by consumers in the preceding years would have to be broken and replaced by new strategies to live cheaply. The much-heralded demise of conspicuous consumption spelled trouble for products like GM’s Hummer, but it also meant boom times for low-price retailers—dollar stores especially.

With little money to spend, especially if they’d cut up their credit cards as many had in a move to a cash-only existence, consumers stretched what few dollars they had at dollar stores. Consequently, dollar stores flourished. Dollar General doubled its store locations in the first decade of the millennium, for instance. According to one study, by 2011 there were more dollar stores than drugstores in the U.S.

Dollar stores pushed one-stop shopping. Shrinking American household budgets helped the rise of dollar stores. So did the broad campaign by dollar stores to push beyond the idea that they were good only for junky throwaway trinkets, off-brand canned goods, and anything else that had grown stale on the shelves of mainstream stores.

Among the goods shoppers started seeing more of at dollar stores are groceries, home decorating items, and even beer and wine. In some cases, dollar store offerings have been celebrated as surprisingly chic: A New York Times columnist wrote about his adventures decorating his apartment with dollar store purchases, while the 99-Cent Chef developed a following based on recipes that use ingredients purchased only at 99¢ Only stores. According to one survey from 2010, 18% of shoppers said that they were buying food and drinks for holiday parties at dollar stores.

Chances are, they were also buying wrapping paper and some stocking stuffers at dollar stores too. And that’s the point. When a shopper can buy fresh bread, produce, a gallon of milk, birthday cards, laundry detergent, shampoo, Christmas presents, and maybe a few bottles of cheap Chardonnay at the dollar store, there’s less need to hit the supermarket, liquor store, drugstore, or big box retailer. Dollar stores have been actively promoting themselves as one-stop shopping options with almost anything you need to buy—and with more locations and a smaller, easier, more manageable layout than, say, the nearest Walmart.

They’re not as cheap as you think. While there are undoubtedly some great bargains at dollar stores, shopping experts also advise against the purchasing of certain items there. Like, say, electronics and pots and pans. If you’re surprised that dollar stores even have such items, bear in mind that oftentimes, not everything in a dollar store is priced at $1. Dollar Tree has stuck to $1 pricing for everything in its stores, but Family Dollar and Dollar General don’t bother abiding by the $1 price rule. Among other items, the Dollar General website lists a Craig Android tablet for $78 more than $1.

Dollar stores employ the age-old strategy of drawing shoppers in with bargains and hoping that they grab some other (non-bargain) goods while they’re at it. A Family Dollar spokesperson told the New York Times columnist mentioned above that low-priced cleaning supplies were “almost like the gateway product” for dollar store shoppers. “It starts with cleaning goods,” he said, “and ends up with a bedspread.”

Or perhaps a tablet, or a bottle of wine—which will also cost more than a buck ($2.99 and up, usually, when available.) Shopping centers have been embracing dollar stores in their slight turn upscale because they’re able to attract slightly better-off clientele. But budget-conscious consumers must be careful: In many cases, dollar stores charger higher prices per unit than what’s to be found at Walmart, Target, or a warehouse club such as Costco. It’s just that dollar stores seem like bargains because the items are low quality or they come in exceptionally small sizes. Just last week, a controversy was stirred up when Dollar General offered a special on diapers in “all counts and sizes” that Walmart and Target failed to match, even though they have price matching policies. Why? Because Walmart and Target offer diapers in far bigger sizes than what’s available at dollar stores.

Speaking of Walmart and Target, they’ve slowly been rolling out a counteroffensive to dollar stores by way of smaller retail locations, often in the densely populated urban hubs where dollar stores are ubiquitous. Supermarkets have entered the battle too, with stores that are half the size of the usual grocery shop. The smaller size means these stores can easily fit in a strip mall or city block, making them a lot more convenient and practical for millions of shoppers.

So now we have a situation in which dollar stores do what Walmart and Target do best by stocking groceries, electronics, and a little bit of everything, and Walmart, Target, and grocery chains do what dollar stores do best by offering small, convenient locations (and more of them) and many bargain-priced goods. The retail lines are blurring. Every player wants to be the convenient, one-stop shopping destination for shoppers, and it has gotten much tougher for a dollar store or any retailer to stand out. When it’s hard to differentiate yourself in the marketplace, and it’s hard to grow, it’s probably time to combine with someone in the same boat to help you compete. That’s what seems to be happening with Dollar Tree’s purchase of Family Dollar.

TIME Economy

Surprise: The Economy isn’t As Bad As You Think

7 signs America has turned the corner

Nearly seven years after the onset of the Great Recession, the national mood remains troubled. Surveys find entrenched pessimism over the country’s economic outlook and overall trajectory. In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 63% of respondents said the U.S. is on the wrong track. It’s not difficult to see why. Set aside the gridlock in Washington for a moment and appreciate the weakness of the economic recovery: Households whose finances were too weak to spend. Large numbers of unemployed workers who couldn’t do so either. Younger Americans who couldn’t afford their own homes. Banks that were too broken to lend. Yet nearly a year ago, I wrote an essay for TIME suggesting that the economy could surprise on the upside. That hypothesis looks even more valid today.

Despite the pessimistic mood, America is experiencing a profound comeback. Yes, too many Americans are out of work and have been for far too long. And yes, we have a huge amount of slack to make up. In fact, if the 2008 collapse had not happened, the U.S. GDP would be $1 trillion–or more than 5%–higher than it is today.

But in terms of the growth outlook, the news is good. Goldman Sachs and many private-sector forecasters project a 3.3% growth rate for the remainder of 2014. The first half of 2014 saw the best job-creation rate in 15 years. Total household wealth and private employment surpassed 2008 levels last year. Bank loans to businesses exceeded previous highs this year. And income growth will soon improve too. America is finally returning to where it was seven years ago.

As halting as the U.S. recovery has been, the economy is now leaner and more capable of healthy, sustained growth through 2016 and beyond. Our outlook shines compared with that of the rest of the industrialized world, as Europe and Japan are stagnant. The 2008 economic crisis and Great Recession forced widespread restructuring throughout the U.S. economy–not unlike a company gritting its teeth through a lifesaving bankruptcy. Manufacturing costs are down. The banking system has been recapitalized. The excess and abuse that defined the housing market are gone. And it’s all being turbocharged by an energy boom nobody saw coming.

It’s not just economic trends that are looking up: crime rates, teen pregnancy and carbon emissions are down; public-education outcomes are improving dramatically; inflation in health care costs is at a half-century low. That points to something I did not foresee last year: that the social health of America seems to be mending. Americans may still feel discontented, but winter is finally over.

AMERICANS ARE SPENDING LIKE THEY MEAN IT

The biggest piece of the U.S. economy, by far, is the consumer sector. It represents 70% of GDP in most years. But consumers suffered historic setbacks in 2008 and 2009. According to a Federal Reserve Board report, 13% of households experienced “substantial financial stress.” This compares with only 1% during the previous two recessions. And it is why consumer spending fell so sharply in 2009, as frightened households cut back.

It has taken years for total household finances to recover fully, but now they have. Total household net worth is now well above its 2007 peak, driven by the recovery in stock prices and home values. Household debt-to-income ratios are the lowest in more than 30 years. And the first half of 2014 has seen employment begin to take off.

Indeed, consumer spending is strengthening alongside consumer confidence, which is nearly back to prerecession levels. For all of 2014, consumer spending should grow around 3% as real disposable income rises and the savings rate moderates. With an average of 248,000 new jobs having been added in each of the past five months, the unemployment rate is probably on course to fall to 5% in 2016. Although part of the decline in the unemployment rate to date is due to stubbornly low labor-participation rates, the overall outlook for consumer spending, the engine of our economy, is healthy again.

HOUSING HAS COME BACK TO LIFE

A good recovery in the housing sector was inevitable because both the supply of viable housing and household-formation rates had dropped to very low levels. That combination finally triggered a snapback.

At first, it was housing prices that turned up. Over the past year, they rose in each of the 20 largest metropolitan areas. And since its low point in early 2012, the Case-Shiller Home Price Index has risen more than 25%. This revived the housing market and helped restore overall household balance nationwide.

Single-family and multifamily housing starts have also recovered strongly. They exceeded 1.5 million annually in the decade before the crisis but collapsed to less than 500,000 in its aftermath. Now they are over 1 million and should go higher. Most forecasts envision a rate of roughly 1.2 million next year, continuing to rise to 1.6 million over the next few years. Keep in mind that new housing construction and renovations drive a wide range of manufacturing and services output, from appliances to trucking. Indeed, private residential investment has jumped by more than 27% since 2012.

Finally, economic hardship forced record numbers of grown kids to stay with their parents, depressing household formation to rates far below normal. But this too is improving. Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies estimates that formation rates will double to 1.2 million annually as kids finally move out and the adult population increases.

AMERICAN-MADE MAKES SENSE AGAIN

A new factor to add since my previous analysis is manufacturing. A near consensus that this sector was in permanent decline has existed for many years. It was accentuated by the loss of nearly 6 million manufacturing jobs from 2000 to 2010 and by the sense that much lower wages in Asia made continued offshoring inevitable.

But recently the greater role of technology in manufacturing and rising wages in Asia have given our manufacturing sector some life. A recent Brookings Institution report on manufacturing stresses how robotics, 3-D printing and the relentless advance of digital technology are transforming big parts of U.S. manufacturing. Moreover, as China’s GDP has continued to grow, its wages have risen considerably, narrowing the cost differential with the U.S. In many industries, the cost-to-produce difference is now down to 15%.

That explains why certain U.S. producers are reversing themselves and committing to manufacturing goods at home. Walmart announced that it would sell $50 billion more in American-made products over the next 10 years, and the Boston Consulting Group recently estimated that up to 30% of offshore production would return. Although manufacturing has added 668,000 jobs since the 2010 nadir, continued automation will prevent this sector from being a major contributor of new jobs in the future. But the role of manufacturing in our GDP is stable, and the sense that other sectors of the economy would need to compensate for continued declines in manufacturing is out of date.

ENERGY PRODUCTION IS BOOMING

If ever there was proof of the difficulty of forecasting, it is the stunning recovery in our oil-and-gas production. Virtually no one from ExxonMobil on down saw this coming. Nor the way in which made-in-the-USA technology made it happen. The idea that America, whose oil production has been declining for the past 40 years, is now on track to become the world’s biggest producer by 2015 is still hard to grasp. As is the notion that after similar declines in production of natural gas, we now have a 100-year supply of natural gas at current rates of consumption. The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects total U.S. crude-oil production to increase more than 25% to 9.3 million barrels per day by 2015, which would mark the highest level since 1972. Daily natural gas production, which grew by 5% over the past year, is expected to continue climbing, with the U.S. becoming a net exporter by 2018.

This is a plus for growth, for household budgets and consumption, for climate protection and for America’s national security. Given our huge new supplies, natural gas is cheaper here–around $4.70 per 1,000 cu. ft.–than anywhere else. This means lower utility bills across the country. It also means that gas is being substituted rapidly for the dirtiest fuel, coal, to produce electricity. And that both America’s stake in the unstable Persian Gulf and our borrowing from China are diminished as we import less energy. The rise, fall and rise of the American oil-and-gas sector is probably, together with development of the Internet, the biggest economic breakthrough in this country in 50 years.

OUR ENVIRONMENT IS GETTING HEALTHIER

Although there remains a heated political debate over climate change and its causes, few people, regardless of their views on that, actually favor more carbon emissions. But there is also an unexpected positive trend. Carbon emissions in the U.S. actually have been falling. Today they are down nearly 10% from 2005 levels. It is possible that the U.S. will meet its goal of cutting emissions by 2020 to 17% below that 2005 baseline.

Technology and regulation explain this surprising trend. Take the auto industry. At one level, Washington upped fuel-efficiency requirements to a stiff fleetwide average of 54.5 m.p.g. by model year 2025. At another, galloping advances in engine technology and vehicle weight are enabling automakers to improve their mileage more quickly than anyone forecast. And the EPA has just mandated sharp reductions in emissions from coal-fired plants.

The U.S. has been among the worst offenders in emissions. To have any credibility in leading global negotiations on these issues, we need to lead the way.

AMERICAN SCHOOLS ARE WORKING SMARTER

How often have you read that America’s education system, especially public education, is a failure? It has a long way to go, but it has started to improve. This is crucial because differentials in lifetime earnings by level of education are widening. Driven by globalization and technology, labor markets are demanding higher and higher levels of skills. Therefore, to improve incomes for younger Americans, we must get better educational outcomes.

For 25 years, those outcomes were stagnant. High school graduation rates had fallen to 60% or lower in many large cities and rural areas. And just over half of first-year college students would graduate within six years. These are poor results by the standards of advanced countries.

But beginning in 2006, the decline began to reverse. High school completion rates are now up almost 10 points, crossing 80% for the first time.

According to a recent report from Johns Hopkins University, the turnaround reflects countless grassroots efforts toward public-school reform. Instigated by parents, business groups, nonprofits, state and local governments and, in some areas, teacher unions, these efforts have concentrated on teacher training and evaluation, better collection and use of data in supporting students, improved curriculum materials and the restructuring or closing of underperforming schools, sometimes called dropout factories.

It is crucial that these reforms continue because if they do, that same Johns Hopkins study predicts that U.S. high schools will reach a 90% completion rate by 2020. That would be a huge achievement. Over the past decade, college-completion rates also have strengthened, nearing 60%. True, the college readiness of high school graduates has not improved in line with graduation rates. But recent advances that tie online education to different approaches in the classroom may soon improve this too.

SOCIAL TRENDS ARE MOVING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION

America has seen a drop in crime rates that in earlier years would have been universally viewed as impossible. The overall crime rate has plummeted by 45% since peaking in 1991 and by 13% just since 2007–counterintuitively continuing to drop through the recession and sharp spike in unemployment.

Since 1991, according to FBI data, the number of violent crimes has fallen 36% nationally and 64% in the nation’s largest cities. And in New York and Los Angeles, our two largest cities, it has fallen even further. Property crime has also become increasingly rare. Incredibly, in New York City, car thefts have plunged 94% in the past two decades.

How is this possible? In the mid-1990s, few saw this decline coming, and many warned that crime would surge once again as teens of that era grew into young adults. Today, criminologists still differ on what has caused the nationwide turnaround in crime rates and why those dire predictions never came to pass. But crime-fighting technology, better policing, aging societies, growing urban populations and declining usage of hard drugs are widely cited.

For many Americans, the drop in crime has resulted not only in a much higher quality of life but in a reduced economic burden as well. Safer cities generally mean stronger urban economies.

In the same category of big surprises, teen-pregnancy rates have fallen to their lowest level in more than 30 years, according to the widely respected Guttmacher Institute. They have declined 51% from their 1990 peak, based on the latest available data, and the teenage birthrate is down 43% from that year’s level. Today, fewer teens are becoming pregnant and becoming mothers than at any point since reliable data has been collected by the National Center for Health Statistics. This is also true for women in the 20-to-24 age group. To put it mildly, there were very few predictions to this effect a generation ago.

In addition, overall birthrates in the U.S. have turned up for the first time since 2007–including for children born to women with a college education–to just shy of 4 million.

THE CHALLENGE AHEAD

Our country’s biggest challenge now is the plight of lower-income Americans, who are under severe and sustained economic pressure. Today, America resembles a tale of two cities. Those who own homes or stocks have benefited from the recovery in these asset classes and are moving up again. But 40% of our working-age families earn $40,000 a year or less. Generally they live within 250% of the official poverty level, which is the eligibility threshold for food stamps. Indeed, judging from current trends, half of today’s 20-year-olds will receive food stamps during their adult lives. More broadly, median household income is still 8% below the precrisis level, and those who have not completed college are seeing declines in anticipated lifetime earnings compared with their peers with college degrees.

This is our primary economic challenge. If a third of our population has little purchasing power, it will be hard to achieve the rate of long-term growth we want. We need to improve the work skills of this group, strengthen the social safety net and increase the number of young Americans receiving a full college education.

Although doing more to relieve the financial burdens of working Americans is good economics, it is also, and perhaps more important, a matter of values. For much of the 20th century we strove, with much success, to build a fairer and more inclusive society. But today, too many working families are living paycheck to paycheck or even in outright poverty, while the toeholds to economic stability become fewer and farther between.

With our economy’s near- and medium-term economic outlook strong, now is the time to remove the barriers that are keeping hardworking Americans walking a far too thin financial line.

Altman, who served as Deputy Secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton Administration, is the founder and executive chairman of Evercore Partners

TIME Economy

Economy Takes Biggest Hit Since End of Recession

Polar Vortex drops over United States and Canada
People bundling up in their coats walk outside in New York City, United States, January 7, 2014. Bilgin Sasmaz—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

GDP contracted by 2.9% in the first quarter

The U.S. economy shrank by 2.9% in the first quarter of 2014, according to newly revised government data Wednesday, its biggest contraction since the end of the recession in 2009.

The revised figure was nearly one percentage point worse than previous estimates, taking into account a more complete set of data that revealed a sharp downturn in exports and a deceleration in consumer spending. Health care spending fell by 0.2%, reversing previous estimates that it would grow as the health care reform law took effect. Exports dropped off by 8.9%, down from 9.5% growth in the previous quarter.

The good news? This is the third and final revision to a quarter in which the economy was walloped by blizzards and crippling cold, and leading indicators point to a rebound in the second quarter.

01_real_gdp_2007-2014

 

MONEY The Economy

Wealth Inequality Doubled Over Last 10 Years, Study Finds

An analysis by researchers at the University of Michigan shows a drastic increase in wealth inequality since 2003.

A new study finds wealth inequality among U.S. households has nearly doubled over the past decade.

The analysis, performed by researchers at the University of Michigan, shows households in the 95th percentile of net worth had 13 times the wealth of the median household in 2003. By 2013, this disparity had increased almost twofold, with the wealthiest 5% of Americans holding 24 times that of the median.

In dollars terms, the median wealth of a US household was $87,992 in 2003, and by 2013 had decreased 36% to $56,335. In contrast, the richest 10% actually saw their net worth increase from 2003 to 2013, with the highest gains going to the top 5%. The median wealth of the households in the top five percent grew over 12% during the same time period, from $1,192,639 to $1,364,834.

The study also shows similar wealth inequality growth between median and poor households. In 2013, the 50th percentile held 17.6 times the wealth of the least wealthy 25%—over twice the disparity found in 2003.

A principal reason for the rapid increase in wealth disparity over the last 10 years is the different ways various economic groups invest their money. According to the study’s lead author, Fabian T. Pfeffer, more than half of the median household’s wealth in 2007 was in home equity. By comparison, the median household in the richest 5th percentile held only 16% of their wealth in home equity, with the lion’s share being kept in real assets, including business assets (49%) and financial instruments like stocks and bonds (25%).

Pfeffer explains that because stocks have recovered more quickly than the real estate market—the S&P reached its pre-recession high in March of 2013, while home prices are still far from their 2006 peak—average households were hurt far more than richer Americans when the housing bubble popped. When home equity is excluded from household wealth, the impact of the housing crash on average Americans is especially clear. A median household’s total net worth declined by $42,000 between 2007 and 2013, but their wealth held in non-real estate assets declined by only $6,900. The Great Recession’s disproportionate impact on real estate allowed the richest households, who could afford to diversify their investments, to grow wealth even during a deflating housing market.

Source: YCharts

Another concern for middle class households is that many sold off investments during the recession in order meet expenses, and are now less able to enjoy the benefits of a recovering economy. “Part of the lack of recovery is that they [median American households] had to divest,” says Pfeffer. “The troubles will stay with them for the next couple of decades as they try to reclaim these assets.”

Will wealth inequality continue to increase at its current pace? Pfeffer believes it would take another deep recession for inequality to double again in the next 10 years, but says his research confirms what economists like best-selling author Thomas Piketty have been saying for years: that returns to capital have been increasing at a rapid pace over the last century, creating a persistently swelling gap between the wealth of the haves and the have-nots. “I don’t see many hopefully signs that we’re going to get back to where we were 10 years ago,” Pfeffer says.

Some have claimed inequality is less important as long as all Americans see wealth gains over time. The rich may get richer faster, but that might not matter if the poor and middle class are also seeing their wealth increase. Pfeffer disagrees. A rising tide may lift all boats, but the Michigan professor points out that wealth not only tends to determine political influence, but also that wealth inequality greatly affects the opportunities available to the children of the middle class, especially in terms of education. “The further families pull apart [in net worth], the more disparate the opportunities become for their offspring,” he says.

MONEY The Economy

Why’s the Job Market Still Weak? Look At These 3 Charts

construction workers
Zigy Kaluzny—Getty Images

Construction, which had been a major engine of job creation before the financial crisis, is now a big drag on hiring.

In May, the U.S. economy added 217,000 jobs, a good-but-not-great showing. The construction industry, however, did little of the heavy lifting — adding only a seasonally adjusted 6,000 positions.

While construction jobs have been slowly recovering since 2011, they’re still nowhere near their pre-financial crisis levels. By contrast, the broader economy has now made up for all the jobs lost in the downturn.

REALJOBS
Source: BLS

Why has construction been so slow to rebuild? One big factor has been housing. There are just a lot fewer people working to build houses after, you know, the biggest housing crisis in a generation. And that’s still the case even though housing has come back some.

ycharts_chart (2)

Another way to view construction’s struggles is to look at the total number of hours worked. In the last month of 2006, construction workers were on the clock for a seasonally adjusted 295.87 million hours. Last month, that number down at just 233.56 million hours. “Unlike the manufacturing and information sectors, the construction sector, which represents 5% of aggregate hours, had experienced a long trend prior to the Great Recession,” writes St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank economist Carlos Garriga.

Aggregate Weekly Hours

The bottom line: The Federal Reserve will most likely continue its accommodative policy (i.e. super-low interest rates) as long as there is a lot of slack in the labor market. And thanks to the weak construction industry, there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

TIME

The Single Most Depressing Thing About the Recession Has Just Been Put Out of Its Misery

The most depressing jobs graph in more than 60 years has finally kicked the bucket thanks to the latest jobs report

The economy gained 217,000 jobs in May, bringing the total number of workers back to its pre-recession peak and finally putting one of the glummest graphs of job creation out of its misery. The graph created by Calculated Risk, below, shows that jobs in our current recession (the red line) took a longer and deeper dive than at any other point since WWII.

EmployRecMay2014

Now, with total employment 98,000 jobs higher than pre-recession levels, the red line is officially history, and hopefully won’t return any time soon.

Not that total employment is the final measure of workforce well-being. After all, the population has grown alongside the job market. The percentage of the working age population in the workforce is still at a decades-long low-point, as Calculated Risk shows compliments of another worrisome graph. There are still plenty of dipping lines to worry about yet.

EmployPopMay2014

Source: Calculated Risk

TIME Fatherhood

Most Stay at Home Dads Not There By Choice

Lynn Koenig—Getty Images/Flickr RF

More dads are raising their kids full time, but that's not necessarily good news.

There has been a sharp rise in the number of fathers staying at home with their kids in the last 25 years, but most of them are not doing it voluntarily. More than a third of full-time non-working dads are there because of illness or disability.

While the at-home dad has become a popular cultural figure, the reality is a little different. A new analysis of Census data from the Pew Research Center has found that in 2012, only 7% of all fathers who live with their kids were at home full time. That’s about 2 million dads at home, down from 2.2 million right at the end of the recession in 2010 but up compared to the 4% in 1989.

But only 21% of the dads now at home say their primary reason for staying home is to take care of their family. The biggest share of them, 35%, say their health prevents them from working, and another 23% say they’re not able to find work. The other quarter are in school or retired or home for other reasons such as working for no pay for a family business.

The large numbers of dads who are home unwillingly is reflected in the economic wellbeing of those families. Almost half of all stay at home fathers live below the poverty line. A fifth of them don’t have a high school diploma. A recent Pew study found that a third of stay at home mothers lived in poverty too, but the figure among non-working dads is much higher.

Fathers who’ve voluntarily eschewed a career in favor of raising their kids full time are still nowhere near the norm, but the numbers are growing. They represent 21% of all stay home dads in 2012. In 1989 they were 5%. Even more surprisingly about half of working dads say they would stay at home to look after their kids if they didn’t have to work, which is roughly the same as the number of moms who say that.

But those pioneering dads still face something of an uphill battle for respect. While Pew has found that about half of the population thinks that the ideal family arrangement is to have mom home with their kids, only 8% of Americans feel that way about dads.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser