Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Watch Of The Hours

Forget the "living paycheck-to-paycheck" economy, in 2017 it's all about "How many hours do I get this week" at the job, and unless your household is pulling down six figures, most of us are one bad week or two away from crashing.

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

Ever-changing schedules at Victoria’s Secret, for example, make it difficult for Ms. Casares, 27, to find care for her 2-year-old and 6-year-old and to cover the bills. “The lowest hours I’ve gotten is 15 and the highest I’ve gotten is 39,” said Ms. Casares, who started in October, earning $10 an hour. The schedule is usually posted a month in advance, she said, but there are frequently last-minute changes.

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

“That is totally the story,” said Mr. Morduch, who watched household incomes in his study rise and fall. “And that instability and insecurity are increasingly a part of middle-class life, too.”

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

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

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

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

Even a single month’s volatility can have a cascading effect. One month, a family copes by using the money earmarked for, say, the utility bill to cover the cost of replacing a busted water heater. The next month, it’s the telephone company that goes unpaid as the family struggles to make up the missed utility bill plus late fees and interest — and so on. Emergencies are not the only source of expense spikes. So are bridal showers, Christmas gifts and outgrown winter coats.

People have jobs.  But they're being scheduled and micromanaged within an inch of their lives as businesses cut labor costs whenever and wherever they can.  Some states have laws on the books to help workers get paid for a half shift even if they are called in and sent home early. But for most of us, depending on how much OT you get or how much work at all you get this week means that side gig or two you're working on, and we've all done it.

It also means that varying schedule means it's hard to work in that second job regularly.  That hasn't changed much over the years.  But more of us are doing it.  That busted carburetor or balloon payment still happens, much less being able to save for college or retirement.

We're all living on the knife's edge it seems, and that knife is not really stable these days.

Another Tough Night For Europe

Another terrorist attack, this time in London itself as a van plowed through pedestrians on London Bridge before the people in the vehicle exited to take knives to bystanders and patrons.

The death toll rose to seven Sunday, following the latest terrorist attack to strike Britain, with Prime Minister Theresa May blaming the “evil ideology of Islamist extremism” and vowing to conduct a review of the nation’s counterterrorism laws.

London Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick confirmed that seven people were killed in Saturday night’s incident that saw a van mow down pedestrians on London Bridge before the vehicle’s occupants got out and started stabbing patrons of nearby bars and restaurants. That toll does not include the three attackers, who were fatally shot by officers within eight minutes of the first emergency call, Dick said.

London Ambulance Service earlier said it had taken “at least 48 patients to five hospitals across London.”

As doctors and nurses tended to the wounded, police carried out raids in the east London neighborhood of Barking in a signal that authorities are probing at least the possibility that others may have been involved in the attack’s planning. A dozen people were arrested, police said.

The low-tech but high-profile attack will raise questions about how British security services failed to stop yet another mass-casualty strike after years of thwarting such attempts. May, who is running for another term in this week’s general election, said the nation needs to step up its fight against radical ideologies in response, asserting that there is “far too much tolerance for extremism in our country.”

“Things need to change,” May said Sunday, speaking outside of the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street

The recent spate of terrorist attacks — Saturday’s was Britain’s third in as many months — were not connected, May said. But she described it as “a new trend” in which terrorists are “copying one another and often using the crudest means of attack.”

May had returned from the campaign trail to 10 Downing Street late Saturday for emergency meetings with security officials. On Sunday morning, all the major parties, including May’s Conservatives, suspended campaigning ahead of an election due on Thursday.

The outcome of Thursday's UK general elections is at this point anyone's guess.  Polls are showing that the voters are not happy with the Tories, who promised safety and security along with Brexit, a disengagement from the EU that would protect Britain from the chaos in Europe.

Needless to say that has not happened.  Whether or not Jeremy Corbyn and Labour are ready, well who knows.  The Tory lead has dropped from 18 points in mid-April when May called for the elections to less than six now, and closing fast.

Things could get very dicey from this point on in the UK.  If May loses, what happens to Brexit negotiations?   We'll see shortly.

Sunday Long Read: Wild, Addicted West Virginia

Margaret Talbot's profile of West Virginia's communities on the front-lines of the opioid crisis is our Sunday Long Read for the week, Talbot travels with a paramedic in Berkeley County, in the far eastern tip of the state's panhandle along I-81, a hour northwest of Washington DC.  It's not a poor mountain county by any means, being next to Maryland and Hagerstown, with more than 110,000 people in the county proper.

But it does have the worst overdose rate in the worst state for heroin overdoses in the nation.

Martinsburg, which has a population of seventeen thousand, is a hilly town filled with brick and clapboard row houses. It was founded in 1778, by Adam Stephen, a Revolutionary War general. The town became a depot for the B. & O. Railroad and grew into an industrial center dominated by woollen mills. Interwoven, established in the eighteen-nineties, was the first electric-powered textile plant in the U.S. The company became the largest men’s-sock manufacturer in the world, and at its height, in the nineteen-fifties, it employed three thousand people in Martinsburg. The Interwoven factory whistle could be heard all over town, summoning workers every morning at a quarter to seven. In 1971, when the mill closed, an editorial in the Martinsburg Journal mourned the passing of “what was once this community’s greatest pride.” In 2004, the last woollen mill in town, Royce Hosiery, ceased operations.

It’s simplistic to trace the town’s opioid epidemic directly to the loss of industrial jobs. Nevertheless, many residents I met brought up this history, as part of a larger story of lost purpose that has made the town vulnerable to the opioid onslaught. In 2012, Macy’s opened a distribution center in the Martinsburg area, but, Knowles said, the company has found it difficult to hire longtime residents, because so many fail the required drug test. (The void has been filled, only partially, by people from neighboring states.) Knowles wonders if Procter & Gamble, which is opening a manufacturing plant in the area this fall, will have a similar problem.

The Eastern Panhandle is one of the wealthier parts of a poor state. (The most destitute counties depend on coal mining.) Berkeley County is close enough to D.C. and Baltimore that many residents commute for work. Nevertheless, Martinsburg feels isolated. Several people I met there expressed surprise, or sympathy, when I told them that I live in D.C., or politely said that they’d like to visit the capital one of these days. Like every other county in West Virginia, Berkeley County voted for Donald Trump.

Michael Chalmers is the publisher of an Eastern Panhandle newspaper, the Observer. It is based in Shepherdstown, a picturesque college town near the Maryland border which has not succumbed to heroin. Chalmers, who is forty-two, grew up in Martinsburg, and in 2014 he lost his younger brother, Jason, to an overdose. I asked him why he thought that Martinsburg was struggling so much with drugs. “In my opinion, the desperation in the Panhandle, and places like it, is a social vacancy,” he said. “People don’t feel they have a purpose.” There was a “shame element in small-town culture.” Many drug addicts, he explained, are “trying to escape the reality that this place doesn’t give them anything.” He added, “That’s really hard to live with—when you look around and you see that seven out of ten of your friends from high school are still here, and nobody makes more than thirty-six thousand a year, and everybody’s just bitching about bills and watching these crazy shows on reality TV and not doing anything.”

The Interwoven mill, derelict and grand, still dominates the center of Martinsburg. One corner of it has been turned into a restaurant, but the rest sits empty. Lately, there’s been talk of an ambitious renovation. A police officer named Andrew Garcia has a plan, called Martinsburg Renew, which would turn most of the mill into a rehab facility. Todd Funkhouser, who runs the Berkeley County Historical Society, showed me around one day. “Martinsburg is an industrial town,” he said. “That’s its identity. But what’s the industry now? Maybe it will be drug rehab.

I know, you're saying "Another story of Trump-voting white junkies who ruined the country for the rest of us?"

I'm starting to think that people voted for Trump in the Rust Belt for the same reason these states have succumbed to smack: they've tried everything else and they're still miserable.  Then along comes heroin in the same way Donald Trump came along with the cheap high of outrage and racism.  But like heroin, you need more and more outrage and hatred to be effective, and pretty soon you're addicted to it.

When these states -- and Kentucky is one of them, believe me -- crash from the high, it's going to get ugly, violent, and deadly.
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