Women bear the brunt of financial stress in the US economy, study says

16 November 2023

(The Hill) – The economy looks a lot better than it did last year, but persistent inflation, ballooning debt and dwindling savings have hit women especially hard.

Nearly 6 in 10 women are living paycheck to paycheck, compared to 41 percent of men, according to a recent study by Varo Bank, Morning Consult and THRIVE Financial Empowerment Services of 1,004 Americans who regularly spend most or all of their income.

This economic strain is felt across the political spectrum, and Americans living paycheck to paycheck — regardless of party — cited the cost of living as their greatest financial concern.

Eroding savings and increasing debt round out the top three concerns for people living paycheck to paycheck, the study found.

“It’s impacting everyone,” Colin Walsh, founder and CEO of Varo Bank, told The Hill. “Sometimes you see political headlines and other things that would maybe lead you to believe there’s concentrations, but [financial stress] was pretty widespread.”

Making less than men affects the entire budget

Women represent two-thirds of those considered financially fragile, a subset of Americans living paycheck to paycheck who lack any financial slack or support.

“Women are still facing the brunt of not being as economically advantaged as men right now for a host of reasons that are generations old,” said Ayesha Whyte, the founder of Ellevator, an online platform that provides career development resources to women of color.

Whyte noted women have historically been paid less than men for the same jobs, leaving them with less surplus money to invest in the stock market or put in savings for an economic downturn.

“If you want to look at something more contemporary and recent, you can just look at the pandemic,” she added. “We’re still kind of recovering from that era. At that time, a number of women walked away from their jobs due to childcare duties at home.”

The Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey started during the pandemic to measure how it impacted people’s lives. As of mid-October, the survey found 39 percent of women had trouble paying for household expenses versus 35 percent of men, Marisa DiNatale, head labor economist at Moody’s Analytics, told The Hill.

“Women, generally speaking, are making less than men (on average) as they tend to be employed in lower-paying occupations than men and still bear the bulk of household and childcare responsibility, making them also more likely to be working part time or to have had gaps in their work experience which also affects pay,” DiNatale said.

Macy Norman, center, serves guests at Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant in 2021 in Nashville, Tenn. The net worth of the typical U.S. household grew at the fastest pace in more than three decades from 2019 through 2022, when pandemic stimulus funds and low interest rates made it easier for households to pay their debts. Mark Humphrey / AP

Rising prices force some Americans to forgo basic needs

Economic hardship took center stage in last week’s Republican primary debate, with candidates blasting “Bidenomics” but offering few solutions to make life better for Americans.

Consumer outlook on the economy has also soured as their savings, once padded by pandemic-era stimulus payments, have been eroded by higher prices.

The Biden administration is grappling with stubbornly high inflation, which has fallen precipitously from its 9 percent year-over-year peak last June. New consumer price index data released Tuesday found prices were still 3.2 percent higher in October than they were a year ago, above the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent target for annual inflation.

The Fed has hiked interest rates to a range of 5.25 percent to 5.5 percent as part of its crusade to cool the economy and bring down inflation. 

While the Varo Bank study points to financial institutions and the media that “focus heavily” on interest rates, rates are higher than they’ve been in two decades and make it significantly more expensive to borrow money, pinching Americans looking to buy a house, get a car loan or carry a credit card balance.

Nearly half of all respondents — 48.2 percent — said they had sacrificed at least one basic need in the past six months because of cost. Basic needs include doctor’s visits, medication, healthy food and safe housing. Twenty-eight percent went without at least two basic needs.

Younger people reported more difficulty asking for financial help, with 38 percent of Generation Z respondents saying they were embarrassed or ashamed to ask for support.

A doctor uses a Doppler probe on a pregnant woman to measure the heartbeat of a fetus in 2021 in Jackson, Miss. U.S. births were flat in 2022 as the nation continued to see fewer babies born than before the pandemic. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

Trust in financial institutions falls

Heightened financial fragility has eroded trust in financial institutions, with nearly three-quarters of respondents saying they believe U.S. financial institutions are “rigged against the poor.”

Women, who are more likely to identify as financially fragile, were found to be less trusting of financial institutions than men. 

Ethnicity did not correlate with a significant difference in trust, which surprised Walsh, who noted overall trust in financial institutions has been falling.

“The only truly surprising thing about the financial strain we are putting on youth, women and communities of color is how resilient they are and how entrepreneurial they remain,” Nathalie Molina Niño, co-founder and chief strategy officer at the financial services platform Known, told The Hill. 

Despite the persistent divide, women’s economic situations have steadily improved from where they were at the start of the pandemic.

“Since the pandemic ended, women’s employment has grown quickly (especially since kids are back to in-person learning) and they have recouped all the jobs that were lost,” DiNatale said. 

“Furthermore, there is some evidence that flexible work arrangements (including remote work) has improved job matching and now prime age women (those between 25 and 54) are participating in the labor force at higher rates than they ever have historically,” she added.

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