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.