American Consumers Newsletter

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

Technology: Never Say Never


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1. Hot Trends 


Technology: Never Say Never
Technological change turns the novel into the essential. Such is the case with cell phones, according to a Gallup analysis of cell phone adoption over time.

Way back in 2000, Gallup surveyed the public to determine cell phone ownership. Fifty percent of people aged 18 or older owned a cell phone in 2000 and another 25 percent planned to get one. But a substantial 23 percent of Americans reported that they would never get a cell phone–17 to 21 percent of people under age 65 and fully 50 percent of people aged 65 or older.”Many in the 2000 poll misjudged themselves or the technology–or both,” notes Gallup in its report, linking to the results of a 2018 Pew Research Center survey of cell phone ownership…

Percent owning a cell phone in 2018
Total adults: 95%
Aged 18 to 29: 100%
Aged 30 to 49: 98%
Aged 50 to 64: 94%
Aged 65-plus: 85%

Demographic change contributed to the rise of cell phone ownership, Gallup acknowledges. “Many older Americans who may have accurately predicted their non-adoption of cellphones have passed away since 2000.” But demographic change doesn’t account for the entire rise in adoption, Gallup says. The introduction of the smartphone in 2007 turned cell phones into an essential tool of modern life.


Fastest-Growing Entertainment Categories
The average household spent $2,913 on entertainment in 2016, only 3 percent more than the $2,828 of 2006, after adjusting for inflation. But spending has surged in some categories over the decade, according to a Demo Memo analysis of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey. These are the five entertainment categories with the fastest growth in average household spending between 2006 and 2016, after adjusting for inflation…
1. Streamed and downloaded video: The average household spent just $1.23 on this category in 2006, and $30.06 in 2016–an increase of more than 2,000 percent as streaming and downloading video replaced watching videos and DVDs.
2. Pets: Average household spending on pets climbed 55 percent between 2006 and 2016. The $586 spent by the average household on pets ranked 21st among the items on which the average household spent the most in 2016–higher than women’s clothes, alcoholic beverages, and internet service.
3. Hunting and fishing equipment: Guns are included in this entertainment category. Between 2006 and 2016, average household spending on hunting/fishing equipment increased 54 percent. The biggest spenders on hunting/fishing equipment are non-Hispanic Whites. Between 2006 and 2016, households headed by non-Hispanic Whites boosted their spending on hunting/fishing equipment by 63 percent.
4. Toys, games, arts and crafts: Average household spending on the toy category grew 47 percent between 2006 and 2016. While this is an impressive rise, toy spending did not grow as fast as pet spending. In 2016, the average household spent only about one-quarter as much on toys as it spent on pets.
5. Bicycles: It may be no coincidence that average household spending on bicycles grew by an impressive 46 percent just as spending on new cars and trucks fell 23 percent. The 2006-to-2016 surge in spending on bicycles may explain why bicycle repairer is projected to be the 11th fastest-growing occupation in the decade ahead.


Student Loans: “Worse than We Thought”
“Worse than we thought” — those chilling words are in the title of a Brookings report on student loan debt and repayment. Analyzing data from the Department of Education’s Beginning Postsecondary Student survey, a nationally representative longitudinal survey of first-time college students, Brookings’ senior fellow Judith Scott-Clayton has produced “the most comprehensive assessment yet of student debt and default from the moment students first enter college to when they are repaying loans up to 20 years later.” Her analysis of the 1996 and 2004 college-entry cohorts lays bare so much bad news…
  • For the 2004 cohort, “nearly 40 percent may default on their student loans by 2023.”
  • Behind the sky-high level of default are for-profit schools. For the 2004 cohort, the 12-year default rate for students who ever attended a for-profit school was 43 percent. For those who never attended a for-profit, the default rate was 11 percent.
  • “Debt and default among black or African-American college students is at crisis levels.” Among Blacks in the 2004 entry cohort who ever attended a for-profit school, the 12-year default rate was 58 percent.

There’s much more bad news in the 10-page report, which concludes: “The results provide support for robust efforts to regulate the for-profit sector, to improve degree attainment and promote income-contingent loan repayment options for all students, and to more fully address the particular challenges faced by college students of color.”


Many Have Past-Due Medical Bills

Medical debt looms over millions. Fully 21 percent of Americans aged 18 or older had unpaid, past-due medical bills in 2016, according to a FINRA Investor Education Foundation survey.

Women are more likely than men to have unpaid, past-due medical bills–23 percent of women versus 18 percent of men. Younger adults are more likely to have past-due medical bills than older Americans. Among adults under age 55, nearly one in four (24 percent) had unpaid, past-due medical bills. Among those aged 55 or older, the figure was 14 percent.


Millennial Generation Faces Perfect Storm

For many Millennials, the future may be dire indeed. A perfect storm of more debt, lower earnings, reduced homeownership, less wealth, and skimpier retirement savings relative to older generations suggests that many will experience a third-world standard of living in old age. The Center for Retirement Research reviews many of these concerns in a report examining whether Millennials will be ready for retirement.

“Many of today’s workers will have inadequate income when they reach retirement,” the report begins, “but the prospects for Millennials seem more challenging than for the generations ahead of them.” CRR researchers count the ways millennials are behind. Compared to Gen Xers and late Boomers at the same age…

  • Their earnings are lower
  • They are less likely to participate in an employer-sponsored retirement plan
  • They are less likely to be covered by employer-provided health insurance
  • They are less likely to be homeowners
  • They are more likely to have student loans
  • They have accumulated less wealth
“Millennials are well behind other cohorts at the same age even though they will live longer and receive less from Social Security relative to pre-retirement earnings,” the report concludes. The only good news is: “retirement is still a long way off for these Millennials.”


Average Age at First Birth, 2016

The average age at first birth has reached a new record high, according to the National Center for Health Statistics report, Births: Final Data for 2016. At 26.6 years, the average age at first birth was 1.4 years older in 2016 than it was in 2010. The age varies by race and Hispanic origin, however…

Average age at first birth
24.7 for Hispanics
24.8 for Blacks
27.4 for non-Hispanic Whites
30.1 for Asians


Medicaid Pays for 43% of Births

Having a baby costs a lot–about $10,000 for a normal delivery. Who pays the price? Private health insurance pays 49 percent of the costs of childbirth, reports the National Center for Health Statistics in Births: Final Data for 2016. Medicaid pays almost as much–another 43 percent.

There’s a good reason Medicaid funds such a large portion of deliveries. The federal government requires states to provide Medicaid coverage for pregnancy and childbirth for woman whose incomes are below 133 percent of federal poverty level. Because younger women have children, and because younger adults have low incomes, Medicaid often kicks in.

Percentage of births paid for by Medicaid by age of mother
Under age 20: 76.7%
Aged 20 to 24: 63.5%
Aged 25 to 29: 44.0%
Aged 30 to 34: 28.7%
Aged 35 to 39: 27.0%
Aged 40-plus: 29.1%


Young Adults Who Don’t Go to College

Is going to college pretty much the only path to financial security for today’s young adults? That’s what is suggested by the results of the National Center for Education Statistics’ longitudinal survey of the ninth-grade class of 2009. The 2016 follow up, seven years later, provides a disturbing look at the financial situation of those who did not go to college.

A substantial 28 percent of the nation’s 2009 ninth graders had not enrolled in a postsecondary institution since graduating from high school, according to the 2016 follow up. When asked why they never went to college, 43 percent cited personal reasons and 42 percent financial.

Anxiety was widespread among these young adults, with 60 percent worried about having enough money to pay for regular expenses. Many depended on parents to get by: 26 percent said their parents regularly helped them pay for their rent or mortgage; 26 percent said their parents regularly helped with health care costs; and 19 percent said their parents regularly helped pay their monthly bills. Among those who were employed, 39 percent reported having an income of less than $10,000 in the previous year.


Working Longer vs. Saving More
Yadda, yadda, yadda…you’ve heard it all before. Work longer, claim Social Security benefits later, and you will have more money in retirement. You may have heard it before, but you haven’t seen evidence as convincing as this. A National Bureau of Economic Research study computes the power of working longer relative to saving more, and it is mind boggling…
  • Let’s say you’re relatively young and want to increase your standard of living in retirement. So you decide to save more in your 401(k). You save 1 percentage-point more for 30 years. How much longer would you need to work to equal 30 years of additional savings? Three months.
  • Let’s say you’re relatively old and want to increase your standard of living in retirement. So you decide so save more in your 401(k). You save 1 percentage-point more for 10 years. How much longer would you need to work to equal 10 years of additional savings? One month.
There are a number of assumptions and a flurry of calculations behind these numbers, of course, but the bottom line is this: “Our primary conclusion is that working longer is relatively powerful compared to saving more for most people.”


Delayed Retirement Increases Inequality

With defined-benefit pensions a thing of the past for most retirees, many older Americans are working longer to allow their retirement savings and Social Security benefits to grow. But will the rising labor force participation of older Americans result in greater income inequality? It already is, according to an analysis by Richard W. Johnson of the Urban Institute. His study examines the growing economic polarization between older Americans healthy enough to delay retirement and continue to work and older Americans whose poor health prevents them from working longer.

Analyzing data from the Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal survey of Americans aged 50 or older, Johnson’s analysis compared the health and economic status of people aged 63 to 65 in 2014 with their counterparts in 1996. Over the time period, the health of people in their early sixties worsened…

  • A larger share of 63-to-65-year-olds reported having health-related work limitations in 2014 (31.8 percent) than in 1996 (28.5 percent).
  • The trend is most pronounced among the least educated–those who never attended college. Among 63-to-65-year-olds who never attended college, 42.3 percent had health-related work limitations in 2014, up from 33.6 percent in 1996.
  • Among 63-to-65-year-olds who had attended college, 25.5 percent had health-related work limitations, up from 19.6 percent in 1996.
Older Americans with health-related work limitations are falling behind as the healthy work longer and add to their retirement incomes, Johnson finds. Between 1996 and 2014, he says, gains in real, median household income among people in their early sixties were limited to those in robust health. “As older adults have delayed retirement and worked longer, the impact of health status in late working life on retirement income has grown,” Johnson concludes. “These finding are particularly concerning as evidence mounts that health status at midlife and older ages is worsening and health disparities by income and education are growing.”


Same-Sex Couple Households, 2010 to 2016

The number of same-sex couple households grew by nearly 50 percent between 2010 and 2016, according to Census Bureau estimates from the American Community Survey. Not surprisingly, the number of same-sex married couples more than tripled during those years, which saw the legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide following the 2015 Supreme Court ruling. As more same-sex partners married, the number of same-sex unmarried partner households fell 9 percent.

Total same-sex couple households
2016: 887,456
2010: 593,324

Same-sex married couples
2016: 486,994
2010: 152,335

Same-sex unmarried partners
2016: 400,462
2010: 440,989

Same-sex couple households are almost evenly split between male partners (49 percent) and female partners (51 percent). The typical same-sex couple is middle aged (householders have an average age of 48), educated (50 percent of householders have a bachelor’s degree), and affluent (median household income of $90,493 in 2016). Overall, same-sex couples have a higher median income than married, opposite-sex couples ($85,581) or opposite-sex unmarried couples ($61,909).


Millennials: A Demographic Bridge

The Millennial generation is “a demographic bridge to America’s diverse future,” according to a Brookings analysis of the generation by William H. Frey. Millennials (defined as 18-to-34-year-olds) are only 55.8 percent non-Hispanic White. The generations ahead of them are dominated by non-Hispanic Whites (61.5 percent of 35-to-54-year-olds and 75.0 percent of people aged 55-plus). The generation behind them is almost minority majority (51.5 percent of people under age 18 are non-Hispanic White). Millennials are the bridge for this “cultural generation gap” between old and young.

Frey’s study calculates the cultural generation gap for states and large metropolitan areas. He defines the gap as the difference between the non-Hispanic White share of the pre-Millennial population (aged 35 or older) minus the non-Hispanic White share of the post-Millennial population (under age 18). Nationally, the gap is 16 percentage points (68 minus 52 percent). But in some states and metropolitan areas, the gap is much larger. By state, the gap is largest in Arizona–27 percentage points (67 minus 40 percent). By metropolitan area, the gap is largest in Cape Coral, Florida–30 percentage points (78 minus 48 percent).

The lasting legacy of Millennials is yet to be determined, says Frey. It will be “based on how successfully they serve as a social, economic, and political bridge to the next racially diverse generation,” he concludes.


Average Household Size, 2017 

The average household in the United States was home to 2.54 people in 2017, according to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. But household size varies by race and Hispanic origin. Hispanics have the largest households and non-Hispanic Whites the smallest…

3.25 people in the average Hispanic household
2.90 people in the average Asian household
2.51 people in the average Black household
2.37 people in the average non-Hispanic White household

The younger age of the Hispanic population (median age = 29) explains their larger household size, with many Hispanics in the family formation years. The older age of the non-Hispanic White population (median age = 43) explains their smaller household size, with many non-Hispanic Whites in the empty-nest lifestage. Non-Hispanic Whites head 70 percent of the nation’s single-person households and 74 percent of two-person households. But as household size increases, non-Hispanic Whites are a shrinking share of householders: they head 61 percent of three-person households, 60 percent of four-person households, 53 percent of five-person households, 47 percent of six-person households, and just 41 percent of households with seven or more people.


8% of Americans Experience Depression

Depression is a common condition, according to a National Center for Health Statistics study. Among adults aged 20 or older, 8.1 percent were found to be depressed in a given two-week period of 2013-2016. The NCHS measured depression by administering a nine-item depression screening instrument to a nationally representative sample of the population.

Women are more likely to be depressed (10.4 percent) than men (5.5 percent). Asians are much less likely to be depressed (3.1 percent) than any other race or Hispanic origin group. Interestingly, the prevalence of depression falls as family income increases…

People aged 20-plus with depression by family income
Less than 100% of poverty level: 15.8%
100% to 199% of poverty level: 10.9%
200% to 399% of poverty level: 7.8%
400% or more of poverty level: 3.5%


Declining Well-Being in 21 States 

Well-being fell in 21 states in 2017, according to a Gallup survey, a record decline surpassing the 15-state drop in 2009. No state saw an improvement in well-being–the first time without a winner since Gallup started tracking well-being by state in 2008. Gallup’s well-being index is based on a number of questions probing five areas: sense of purpose, social support, financial security, sense of community, and physical health.

On a scale of 0 to 100, national well-being fell to 61.5 in 2017, down from 62.1 in 2016 and “the largest year-over-year decline since the index began in 2008,” according to Gallup. Among states with declines in well-being, the metrics that worsened included…

  • more experiencing worry on a given day
  • decline in reports of receiving positive energy from friends and family members
  • decline in those who say they have a leader who makes them “enthusiastic about the future”

Fifteen of the 21 states with declines in well-being were in the South and West, reports Gallup, and include biggies such as Florida, Texas, and California. The six states in the Northeast and Midwest with declines in well-being included New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Ohio.

Scoring the highest in well-being were South Dakota, Vermont, Hawaii, Minnesota, and North Dakota. At the bottom were West Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Oklahoma.


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


At least 1 in 10 Americans ranging in age from 15 to 55 have used marijuana in the past year.


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Increase in number of households, 2000 to 2016:
Married couples: 4.9 million
People living alone: 8.1 million