American Consumers Newsletter

by Cheryl Russell, Editorial Director, New Strategist Press
October 2018

Big Drop in Spending on Cable TV


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1. Hot Trends 

Big Drop in Spending on Cable TV

Americans really are cutting the cord. Unpublished results of the 2017 Consumer Expenditure Survey, analyzed by Demo Memo, show a substantial drop in spending on cable and satellite television service. The $638 spent by the average household on cable service in 2017 was 18 percent below the 2016 level, after adjusting for inflation. Cable has now relinquished its position as the number-one entertainment item on which the average household spends the most. Spending on pets surpassed cable spending in 2017.

Behind the decline in spending is the shrinking percentage of households purchasing service. Just 58 percent of households spent on cable/satellite service in the average quarter of 2017–10 percentage points below the 68 percent of 2016 and 16 percentage points below the all-time high of 74 percent in 2010. The decline in the share of households spending on cable/satellite service is occurring in every age group, with the biggest drop among younger adults…

Percent of households spending on cable/satellite service during an average quarter of 2017 (and percentage-point change since 2010)
Under age 25: 23.0% (-26)
Aged 25 to 34: 41.9%(-26)
Aged 35 to 44: 53.5% (-22)
Aged 45 to 54: 62.2% (-15)
Aged 55 to 64: 65.6% (-12)
Aged 65-plus: 69.9% (-9)

How Many Watch TV at Midnight? 

On an average day, 79 percent of Americans aged 15 or older watch television as a primary activity–meaning their main activity at the time. The percentage who watch television is lowest among 15-to-19-year-olds (73 percent) and highest among people aged 65 or older (89 percent). These facts come from a Bureau of Labor Statistics’ analysis of the American Time Use Survey.

The time use survey collects additional detail about the activities in which people engage on an average day. It records time of day, for example, and whether respondents are alone or with others. Here is the percentage of Americans aged 15 or older who watch television at selected hours of the day…

Percent watching television
6% are watching from midnight to 1 am
1% are watching from 3 to 4 am (lowest point)
13% are watching from noon to 1 pm
38% are watching from 6 to 7 pm
59% are watching from 8 to 9 pm (highest point)

For many, watching television is a solitary activity. Forty-eight percent of television time is spent alone.

Americans Are More Afraid, Survey Finds

Americans are increasingly afraid. This is one of the most striking findings from the 2018 Chapman University Survey of American Fears. This year as in past years, the number one fear–mentioned by the largest share of the public–is fear of corrupt government officials. But the percentage of Americans who say government corruption scares them has climbed, rising from 61 to 74 percent between 2016 and 2018.

Corruption is not the only thing Americans are increasingly frightened about, Chapman University reports. Many things are scaring them more. In fact, all of the top 10 fears in 2018 scare more than half the public. In 2016, most of the top 10 fears scared only about one-third of the public.

Top 10 fears of 2018 (percent saying they are afraid)
1. Corrupt government officials: 74%
2. Pollution of oceans rivers, and lakes: 62%
3. Pollution of drinking water: 61%
4. Not enough money for the future: 57%
5. Someone you love will become seriously ill: 57%
6. People you love dying: 56%
7. Air pollution: 55%
8. Extinction of plant and animal species: 54%
9. Global warming and climate change: 53%
10. High medical bills: 53%

Another trend Chapman University sees in the list of fears is the rise of environmental concerns. Five of the top 10 fears of 2018 are environmental. In 2016, the number of environmental concerns in the top 10 list was zero.

Home Is the Most Likely Place of Death

For the first time in a long time, home is the most likely place of death, according to the National Center for Health Statistics’ Health, United States, 2017. Among people who died in 2016, the 30.5 percent plurality died at home–slightly larger than the 29.4 percent who died in a hospital…

Place of death, all ages, 2016
30.5% died at home
29.4% died in a hospital
19.3% died in a nursing home or long-term care facility
7.7% died in a hospice facility
13.1% died in other places, including DOA at hospitals

Among people under age 65 who died in 2016, the percentages who died at home or in a hospital were identical, at 33.4 percent. Not so for decedents aged 65 or older….

Place of death, aged 65-plus, 2016
29.4% died at home
27.9% died in a hospital
24.7% died in a nursing home or long-term care facility
8.5% died in a hospice facility
9.5% died in other places, including DOA at hospitals

Ten years earlier in 2006, the home ranked third as a place of death for people aged 65 or older. Only 23.5 percent died at home, 28.2 percent in a nursing home/long-term care facility, and 35.9 percent in a hospital.

Many Americans Believe in Reincarnation

One in three adults (33 percent) believes in reincarnation, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Even among those who profess to be neither religious nor spiritual, a substantial 22 percent believe in it.

Women (39 percent) are more likely than men (27 percent) to believe in reincarnation. Blacks (43 percent) and Hispanics (37 percent) are more likely to believe than non-Hispanic Whites (29 percent). By education, college graduates are least likely to believe (24 percent) while those with no more than a high school diploma are most likely (39 percent). Here is the percentage who believe in reincarnation by age…

Believe in reincarnation
Aged 18 to 29: 39%
Aged 30 to 49: 34%
Aged 50 to 64: 34%
Aged 65-plus: 22%

How Wrong Are the Government’s Official Counts of Gig Work?

Eyebrows were raised a few months ago when the Bureau of Labor Statistics Contingent Worker Supplement revealed no growth in the alternative workforce between 2005 (the last time the survey was taken) and 2017, despite the apparent growth of the gig economy. Surprise turned to dismay when the Bureau admitted its failure to successfully measure “electronically mediated employment”— or gig work arranged and paid for through online platforms.

Could it be that the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ effort to measure a growing and vital segment of the workforce is way off track? The answer is yes.

Although study after study after study finds a substantial percentage of Americans participating in the gig economy, these workers are eluding the government’s official efforts to measure them.

There’s a reason for this. The employment questions asked by the monthly Current Population Survey, which is the official measure of the labor force, do not capture a large portion of informal work activity. This is the finding of a National Bureau of Economic Research study by Katharine G. Abraham of the University of Maryland and Ashley Amaya of RTI International.

The Current Population Survey asks respondents whether they did any work for ‘pay’ or ‘profit’ during the survey reference week. It also asks whether respondents have more than one ‘job’ or ‘business.’ Abraham and Amaya have a problem with these questions, which were formulated years ago when the labor force was less complex: “It is not clear…that respondents are likely to think of money earned through informal work activity as either ‘pay’ or ‘profit’ or to consider such activity to be a ‘job’ or ‘business.'” To test this hypothesis, they surveyed Mechanical Turk (Amazon’s crowdsourcing platform) participants and asked respondents not only the standard CPS employment questions but also additional questions to probe for informal work activity.

What a difference those additional questions made. Fully 22 percent of respondents had engaged in additional work activity in the past week that would have been missed by the CPS. Among those identified by the CPS questions as having no work activity in the past week, 23.5 percent had engaged in informal paid work. Among those identified by the CPS as having one job in the past week, 23.3 percent were engaging in informal work as well. Among those the CPS identified as having two jobs, an additional 15.9 percent also performed informal paid work on top of their busy schedules. Those who engaged in informal work in the past week devoted a substantial 8.2 hours, on average, to the activity.

The researchers admit that their Mechanical Turk sample is not representative of the U.S. population as a whole. But, they say, their findings “provide important evidence about the sensitivity of survey estimates to asking more probing questions.” It’s too late for this insight to make a difference in the long-awaited (12 years!) 2017 Contingent Worker Supplement, which took “as its starting point the employment reported in response to the standard CPS questions.” Let’s hope the Bureau of Labor Statistics will take these findings seriously and field a better survey of the gig workforce–ASAP.

An Historic Moment in Tech Adoption

We may be at an historic moment. “The share of Americans who go online, use social media, or own key devices has remained stable the past two years,” reports Pew Research Center. Pew knows because it has been surveying these things for decades, all the way back to 1994, when the percentage of people who “use the Internet” was just 6 percent.

According to Pew’s 2018 survey, 89 percent of American adults use the Internet, 77 percent own a smartphone, 73 percent own a desktop or laptop computer, 69 percent are on social media, and 53 percent have a tablet computer. These percentages are nearly identical to the 2016 figures. Behind the stability is the “near-saturation levels of adoption of some technologies. Put simply, in some instances there just aren’t many non-users left.”

That’s not to say technological change has come to a halt. The Internet of Things is rising, says Pew, with the growing use of smart TVs, wearable devices, digital voice assistants, and so on. But we are in a new phase, and “the method for tracking certain adoption metrics may need to change.” Pew’s panel of experts, for example, has advised Pew that it may want to stop asking people whether they “use the Internet.” The reason? That’s like asking them if they use electricity. A silly question.

More than 25% of Older Americans Have Diabetes

As Americans put on weight, diabetes is on the rise. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey measures the prevalence of diabetes–both diagnosed and undiagnosed–not only through interviews but also by testing a nationally representative sample of the population. Respondents are classified as having diagnosed diabetes if they report having ever been told by a health professional that they have diabetes. Undiagnosed diabetes is defined as having a fasting plasma glucose level greater than or equal to 126 mg/dL.

Percent of people aged 20 or older with diagnosed or undiagnosed diabetes
2013-16: 14.0%
2011-14: 11.9%
2007-10: 11.4%
1999-02:   9.9%
1988-94:   8.8%

Diabetes is highest among older Americans. The percentage of people aged 65 or older with either diagnosed or undiagnosed diabetes climbed from 19.4 percent in 1988-94 to 26.3 percent in 2011-14. More recent data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics shows an even higher 28.2 percent of people aged 60 or older with diabetes in 2013-16.

Trends in Health Insurance, 2013 to 2017

How has health insurance coverage changed with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act? Surprisingly, it hasn’t changed all that much, according to Current Population Survey statistics. Most Americans get their health insurance through an employer (either their own employer or a spouse’s or parent’s employer). The percentage of the population with employer-provided health insurance in 2017 was identical to the percentage who had it in 2013–before most provisions of the ACA went into effect. Here is the distribution of the population by type of health insurance in 2017 and the trend since 2013…
  • 56.0% of the population has employment-based health insurance, nearly identical to the 55.7 percent of 2013.
  • 19.3% of the population has Medicaid coverage, higher than the 17.5 percent of 2013 because of the ACA’s Medicaid expansion.
  • 17.2% of the population has Medicare coverage, higher than the 15.6 percent of 2013 because the large baby-boom generation is filling the 65-plus age group.
  • 16.0% of the population has direct-purchase health insurance, up from 11.4 percent in 2013. Behind the increase are the ACA’s marketplace plans, providing access to health insurance for millions who were once shut out because of preexisting conditions or price. The number of people with direct-purchase health insurance grew by 16 million between 2013 and 2017– a 45 percent increase and the single biggest change in health insurance coverage during the time period.
  • 4.8% of the population has military coverage, up from 4.5 percent in 2013.
  • 8.8% of the population had no health insurance at any time during 2017, down from 13.3 percent who were without health insurance in 2013. The number of people without health insurance fell by 13 million during those years, a 32 percent decline.
Note: The percentage of the population with health insurance by type sums to more than 100% because some people have more than one type of coverage.

Three Generations of Married-Couples

It is difficult to grasp just how much living arrangements have changed in the United States unless you mine the Census Bureau’s archives to uncover the nitty gritty of the way we used to live. The most dramatic change over the decades is the decline in the share of households headed by married couples. In three generations, the share of all households headed by married couples fell 26 percentage points–from 74 to just 48 percent. Among the youngest adults, the drop is a stunning 68 percentage points! Here is the married-couple share of households by age of householder today (2018), one generation ago (1990), and two generations ago (1960)…

Percent of households headed by married couples
Total households
Under age 25
Aged 25 to 34
Aged 35 to 44
Aged 45 to 54
Aged 55 to 64
Aged 65 or older
What replaced all those married couples? Single-parent families, single-person households, and people living together outside of marriage. These once uncommon living arrangements were the consequence of rising educational attainment and women’s growing economic independence. The steep decline in married couples reveals much of the social change of the past half century.

How Long Are the Golden Years?

Just how long are the golden years? If you are nearing retirement, how many years can you and your spouse expect to spend together? This is not an easy calculation. The answer is not simply the shorter life expectancy of the husband. Instead, the calculation of joint life expectancy requires incorporating the probabilities of both husband and wife surviving in each successive year.

It’s a tedious job, say economists Janice Compton and Robert A. Pollack, but they did it. Their results are published in a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, which examines trends in joint life expectancy over time and by race, Hispanic origin, and education. They illustrate their findings throughout the paper by considering a wife aged 60 married to a husband aged 62. “We focus on 60 year old wives and their husbands because these are ages at which many couples make crucial retirement-related decisions such as leaving career employment and claiming social security benefits,” the authors explain. Here are some of the findings by race, Hispanic origin, and education based on life expectancy stats in 2010…

Joint life expectancy for wife at 60 and husband at 62 (and probability wife will be survivor)
Blacks: 15.45 years (63%)
Hispanics: 18.79 years (65%)
Non-Hispanic Whites: 17.66 years (63%)

Neither is a college graduate: 15.53 years (65%)
Only wife is a college graduate: 17.17 years (68%)
Only husband is a college graduate: 18.31 years (59%)
Both are college graduates: 18.99 years (63%)

Joint life expectancy has expanded over the decades as individual life expectancy has grown, the researchers find. For non-Hispanic White couples, joint life expectancy has stretched from just 12.06 years in 1950 to the 17.66 years of 2010. Black couples can look forward to 15.45 golden years, up from just 9.99 in 1950.

What Would You Do to Stay Employed?

Among the nation’s employed adults, here are the percentages who would be willing to do the following to avoid being unemployed, according to a Demo Memo analysis of the 2016 General Social Survey

87% would be willing to learn new skills
74% would accept temporary employment
60% would accept a longer commute
56% would accept lower pay
40% would be willing to move within the United States
17% would be willing to move to another country

Rural Residents Are Big Spenders on Transportation

Households in rural areas spend slightly less than their urban counterparts. The average rural household spent $58,241 in 2017, according to a Demo Memo analysis of the Consumer Expenditure Survey–4 percent less than the $60,468 spent by the average urban household. But, not surprisingly, rural households are the biggest spenders on several transportation categories…
  • Vehicle purchases: Rural households own more vehicles than urban households (2.6 versus 1.8), and they spend 28 percent more than the average household on vehicle purchases. Their spending is particularly high (48 percent above average) on used vehicles. Households in urban areas spend 6 percent less than average on vehicle purchases.
  • Vehicle finance charges: Rural households spend 31 percent more than average on vehicle finance charges. Urban households spend 7 percent less than average.
  • Gasoline: Rural households spend 26 percent more than average on gasoline. Households in urban areas spend 6 percent less than average.
  • Vehicle maintenance/repair: Rural households spend 53 percent more than average on vehicle repair. Households in urban areas spend 12 percent less.

Because their spending is above average on these items, rural households are the biggest spenders on the overall transportation category. The average rural household spent $11,466 on transportation in 2017–$2,315 more than the $9,151 spent by the average urban household. Rural residents devote 20 percent of their household budget to transportation. For urban households, the figure is 15 percent.

One in Five Young Adults Vapes 

Among Americans aged 18 or older, only 9 percent say they occasionally or regularly vape (use e-cigarettes), according to a Gallup survey. But the vaping rate is much higher among young adults, with 20 percent vaping and a smaller 16 percent smoking cigarettes…

Percent who occasionally/regularly vape (or smoke cigarettes)
Aged 18 to 29: 20% (16%)
Aged 30 to 49:   9% (23%)
Aged 50 to 64:   7% (26%)
Aged 65-plus:    0% (10%)

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



Births by birth order…
First birth: 38%
Second birth: 32%
Third or more: 30%




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Largest generation by race and Hispanic origin…
Asians: Millennials
Blacks: Millennials
Hispanics: Millennials
Non-Hispanic Whites: Boomers