American Consumers Newsletter

by Cheryl Russell, Editorial Director, New Strategist Press
November 2013

Housing Markets and Homeownership


To see Cheryl Russell’s Demo Memo blog, click here.

1. Hot Trends 

Housing Markets and Homeownership: Before and After the Great Recession  

It’s hard to summarize the contradictory trends contained in the Census Bureau’s report, Home Value and Homeownership Rates: Recession and Post-Recession Comparisons from 2007-2009 to 2010-2012. The report is one of the first with three-year estimates and comparisons from the American Community Survey, which replaced the census “long form” and provides demographic and socioeconomic data for small geographic areas.


At first glance, the report seems to show that the Great Recession and the collapse of the housing market passed millions of Americans by without creating so much as a statistical ripple. For example, in the great majority of the nation’s smaller counties (the 1,038 counties with populations of 20,000 to 65,000), the bureau found no statistically significant change in median home value or homeownership rate between 2007-2009 and 2010-2012. Only 12 percent of American live in those smaller counties, however, making their stability a minority perspective.


In the 50 most populous counties, the story is different–median home values fell in most areas and the homeownership rate took a hit in all of them, the bureau reports. A larger 30 percent of Americans live in these counties, and their struggles are well known. The collapse of the housing bubble is readily apparent in the steep decline in median housing value in Contra Costa County, California (San Francisco), where median value fell by a stunning $141,500. Declines topping $100,000 also occurred in Los Angeles County and in Clark County, Nevada (Las Vegas), among others. Even so, among the 50 largest counties a few saw home values rise even during the darkest days of the Great Recession. Median home value grew in Bexar and Travis counties in Texas (San Antonio and Austin) and Allegheny County in Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh).


Perhaps the report’s ultimate meaning can be summed up by the old real estate axiom: location, location, location.


2 Million Fewer Nuclear Families

The Great Recession and its aftermath changed the lives of young adults, and the nation is experiencing the consequences. The number of nuclear families (married couples with children under age 18) is shrinking because young adults are postponing marriage and childbearing, creating a new baby bust and driving the median age at first marriage to a record high.


There are 25 million nuclear families in the United States, according to the 2013 Current Population Survey, down from 27 million in 2007. Only 21 percent of the nation’s households are headed by married couples with children under age 18. A larger 27 percent are headed by people who live alone.


Average Household Size Hits New Low 

The average household is home to just 2.54 people, according to the 2013 Current Population Survey, the smallest on record. The economic turmoil of the Great Recession barely disturbed the long-term decline in average household size. From 2.56 people in the average household in 2007, the figure inched up to 2.59 by 2010 and has fallen in every year since.


The powerful force shrinking the nation’s households is the aging of the population. Millions of boomers are becoming empty-nesters and others are becoming widowed. Among the 122 million households in the United States today, 61 percent are home to only one or two people.


The Problem with Households, as Currently Defined

The Census Bureau is tying itself in knots trying to categorize our living arrangements based on the old-fashioned concept of a marriage license. Since 1950, the percentage of households headed by married couples has fallen from 78 to 48 percent, yet a marriage license is still central to the Census Bureau’s definition of household types. According to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, this is the distribution of households by type in 2013…


Percent distribution of households by type

Married couples: 48%

People living alone: 27%

Female-headed families, no spouse present: 13%

Male-headed families, no spouse present: 5%

Male-headed nonfamilies: 4%

Female-headed nonfamilies: 3%


The last four household types on that list account for a substantial 25 percent of total households. But here’s the problem: many of the households in those four categories are interchangeable and would be recognized as the same type of household, except for the lack of a marriage license.


This is how it works. Let’s say two unmarried people, Joe and Ellen, live in an apartment leased in both their names. Depending on who responds to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, their household will be categorized as either a male-headed nonfamily household (Joe responds) or a female-headed nonfamily household (Ellen responds). Let’s say Joe and Ellen have a biological child. Depending on who responds to the survey, their household will be categorized as either a male-headed family household (Joe responds) or a female-headed family household (Ellen responds). Let’s say the child is Ellen’s from a previous relationship. If Ellen responds to the survey, then they live in a female-headed family household. If Joe responds, they live in a male-headed nonfamily household.


If Joe and Ellen had a marriage license, all these permutations of their household type would disappear. They would be a married-couple household regardless of who responded to the survey or the paternity of the child. Perhaps it’s time to rethink household definitions, remove marriage from the equation, and recognize “couple” households instead.


Women Are Not the Majority of the American Labor Force

How can so many people get this so wrong? The latest example is in a recent New York Times op-ed, where economist Stephen D. King writes: “Women now make up the majority of the American labor force.”


No they do not. In 2012, women accounted for 46.9 percent of the American labor force. Of the 155 million in the labor force, there were 73 million women and 82 million men. Men account for the 53.1 percent majority of the labor force.


“What Are We Not Doing When We’re Online”

That is the provocative title of a National Bureau of Economic Research study (Working Paper #19549) by Scott Wallsten of the Technology Policy Institute. The paper examines how much time Americans spend in “computer use for leisure” and what they’re not doing because they’re online. He has answers.


Using the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), which collects data on how a representative sample of Americans aged 15 or older spent their time, minute-by-minute, in the previous 24 hours, Wallsten calculates how online time correlates with time spent in other activities. He does this using the ATUS category “computer use for leisure,” which excludes activities such as emailing, gaming, watching television and videos, reading, and working–all of which are coded under separate categories. What that leaves, then, is social networking, web surfing, and search. Americans are spending a growing amount of time in those activities. In 2011, the average person spent 13 minutes a day engaged in “computer use for leisure,” or 4 percent of leisure time. That doesn’t sound like much because it’s an average. In fact, those who spend any amount of leisure time online devote roughly 100 minutes a day to the activity, says Wallsten, which is about one-third of their leisure time. And that means they aren’t doing something else.


So what aren’t they doing while online? They aren’t watching television, for one. Online time has the biggest negative impact on time spent watching television and videos. The second largest negative impact is on socializing in traditional ways. Online leisure time also reduces time spent working, participating in educational activities, and sleeping.


Warm Feelings for Christians

Just how warmly do Americans feel toward religious groups? A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute asked respondents to rate religious groups using a “feeling thermometer” with a scale ranging from 1 (coldest) to 100 (warmest). A temperature of 51 or higher means the respondent feels warmer toward a group. A temperature of 1 to 49 means the respondent feels colder toward a group. If the feeling is neither warm nor cold, the rating would be 50. Here are the temperatures…


74.6 degrees for Christians

67.8 degrees for Jews

64.8 degrees for Catholics

43.0 degrees for atheists

42.4 degrees for Muslims


Interestingly, Americans on the whole feel cold toward atheists (43.0) but more warmly toward “non-religious people,” whose temperature on the feeling thermometer was a higher 56.1.


The End of the Rise in Women’s Earnings

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the decades-long increase in the earnings of women who work full-time came to an end. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ report Highlights of Women’s Earnings in 2012, the median of $691 per week earned by women who work full-time in wage and salary employment was less than the $704 they earned in 2010, after adjusting for inflation. Women are joining men in the struggle to stay even. In 2012, their male counterparts earned a median of $854 per week, less than the $867 they earned in 2010 and the $861 they earned all the way back in 1979.


Over the years, the rise in women’s earnings has kept American families afloat. With women and men now experiencing earnings stagnation or outright decline, household incomes have fallen. The $51,017 median household income of 2012 was more than $5,000 below the 1999 peak of $56,080, after adjusting for inflation.


The Flaw in Labor Force Data

There’s a flaw in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ report, Labor Force Characteristics by Race and Ethnicity, 2012. The same flaw occurs in most labor force statistics produced by the bureau–the failure to distinguish “non-Hispanic whites” from the “white” racial category. By not making this distinction, a serious analysis of labor force characteristics by race and Hispanic origin is impossible.


Because Hispanics may be of any race and most (89 percent) are white, lumping Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites together distorts the picture. This wouldn’t matter so much if white Hispanics were a tiny fraction of all whites in the labor force, but they are a substantial 18 percent. The report states, for example, that “whites make up the majority of the labor force in 2012 (80 percent).” But if you subtract Hispanic whites from total whites, you discover that non-Hispanic whites are a much smaller 66 percent of the labor force–a more interesting and useful perspective on the American labor force.


Lumping Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites together also would not matter if workers were similar, but they are polar opposites. Non-Hispanic whites are one of the best-educated segments of the labor force while Hispanics are the least educated. Non-Hispanic whites are some of the workers most likely to be managers or professionals while Hispanics are least likely. Non-Hispanic whites have some of the highest wages while Hispanics have the lowest wages. By lumping them into one category, what could have been an interesting comparison of workers becomes a muddled mess.


Homeownership Falls  

among Retiring Boomers

It’s time for another look at changes in homeownership by birth cohort using data from the Census Bureau’s Housing Vacancy Survey. By comparing homeownership rates for five-year age groups in the third quarter of 2013 with those in the third quarter of 2008, cohort decisions regarding homeownership can be teased out of Census Bureau data .


Such a comparison reveals the expected rise in homeownership among young adults as they age into their thirties and early forties. Cohort homeownership rates decline slightly (by 0.4 to 0.9 percentage points) as householders age into their late forties and fifties. The largest and most surprising decline in homeownership rate by cohort is among householders aged 60 to 64–retiring baby boomers.


In the third quarter of 2013, only 76.8 percent of householders aged 60 to 64 owned their home. Five years earlier when this cohort was aged 55 to 59, their homeownership rate was a larger 79.3 percent. Between 2008 and 2013, the homeownership rate of the cohort (boomers born between 1949 and 1953) fell by a substantial 2.5 percentage points.


Homeownership rates by five-year age group have been calculated by the Census Bureau since 1982. In 2012, for the first time, the 78.6 percent homeownership rate of 60-to-64-year-olds fell below what would round to 80 percent. The 2013 data show the downward trend picking up speed as boomers make decisions about their retirement years. In a MacArthur Foundation Study released earlier this year, a substantial 49 percent of homeowners aged 50 to 64 said they would be willing to consider renting in the future. Maybe that explains the homeownership decline.


Less Time with the News

Younger generations spend less time than older adults following the news, and over the years the differential has not diminished. For years, Pew Research Center has been tracking the number of minutes per day each generation spends watching, reading, or listening to the news. Here are the averages in 2012…


Average minutes per day following the news

Millennials: 46

Generation X: 66

Baby Boomers: 77

Older Americans: 84


Interestingly, these numbers have barely changed since 2004. “Today’s younger and middle-aged audience seems unlikely to ever match the avid news interest of the generation they will replace, even as they enthusiastically transition to the Internet as their principal source of news,” concludes Pew.


Changes in Household Energy Consumption

Heating and cooling account for a shrinking share of household energy consumption, according to an analysis of the most recent Residential Energy Consumption Survey data by the Energy Information Administration. Only 48 percent of the energy consumed by the average American household in 2009 was used for heating and cooling, down from 58 percent in 1993. Behind the decline is more efficient heating and cooling equipment, as well as better insulated homes, more efficient windows, and migration to the Sunbelt.


Water heating accounts for 18 percent of home energy consumption, a share that has not changed over the decades. The big increase in household energy consumption has occurred in the category appliances, electronics, and lighting. Thirty-five percent of household energy consumption is devoted to keeping computers, televisions, refrigerators and the like up and running. This figure was just 24 percent in 1993.


These are a sampling of posts published in the past few weeks in Cheryl Russell’s Demo Memo blog. Please send questions or comments to


Pet spending ranks 22nd among items on which the average household spends the most, higher than retirement savings, alcoholic beverages, or landline telephone service.


2. Q & A

How Is the Baby-Boom Generation Segmenting in Retirement?  

The baby-boom generation is retiring by the millions. Among boomers aged 60 to 64, nearly 4 million retired in the past five years. Many others, however, are still on the job and plan to stay there. The generation is segmenting not only by work status but by the reason for continuing to work–some are working because they have to, others because they want to.


According to an Associated Press-NORC survey of people aged 50 or older, the 59 percent majority say it is at least somewhat likely that they will work for pay in retirement. The Employee Benefit Research Institute has found the same attitude its annual Retirement Confidence Survey. It should come as no surprise that a growing share of older workers plan to “retire” but keep working. A lengthy work life goes hand in hand with higher levels of education, and boomers are highly educated. A study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College finds that higher levels of education account for most of the increasein the labor force participation rate of men aged 60 to 74.


With many boomers struggling to afford any kind of retirement and others unwilling to give up a stimulating career, the generation is splitting apart into four different retirement markets as they enter their sixties. This fragmentation has been documented by AARP in a probe of the attitudes of a nationally representative sample of workers aged 50 to 65 without a traditional pension. AARP’s Retirement Attitudes Segmentation Survey describes four types of retirees emerging in the baby-boom generation:


1. Cautious clockwatchers This segment is what you might call “traditional” retirees, and it accounts for the largest share of the total–33 percent. Cautious Clockwatchers are confident about their finances, plan to stop working completely in retirement, and look forward to enjoying their leisure time.


2. Day-to-day life embracers This segment is what you might call “pragmatic” retirees, and 27 percent of 50-to-65-year-olds are taking this approach to retirement. Day-to-Day Life Embracers see retirement as a time to be creative but envision a gradual transition to ending their career. Ongoing financial needs are holding them back.


3. Proactive self-actualizers This segment is what you might call “emeritus” retirees, and it accounts for a substantial 24 percent of the total. Highly educated and confident, Proactive Self-Actualizers want to work in retirement because they love what they do. This segment may be one of the fastest growing as the educational attainment of the older population rises with the boomer surge. Proactive Self-Actualizers are the biggest reason the labor force participation rate of older men is rising, according to the Center for Retirement Research study.


4. Doubters This segment is what you might call “troubled” retirees. It is the smallest retirement segment, but still a considerable 17 percent of the total. Doubters are least confident about their finances and do not envision retirement as a time of leisure. These are the workers who say they will  never be able to retire. Many will be forced to stop working and live on less as health problems arise.


Percentage of Americans who believe in God without a doubt, by race and Hispanic origin…

82% of blacks
67% of Hispanics
52% of non-Hispanic whites