Rachel Schneider & Jonathan Morduch: Why do people make the financial decisions they make?

Deep within the American Dream lies the belief that hard work and steady saving will ensure a comfortable retirement and a Financialbetter life for one’s children. But in a nation experiencing unprecedented prosperity, even for many families who seem to be doing everything right, this ideal is still out of reach. In The Financial Diaries, Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider draw on the groundbreaking U.S. Financial Diaries, which follow the lives of 235 low- and middle-income families as they navigate through a year. Through the Diaries, Morduch and Schneider challenge popular assumptions about how Americans earn, spend, borrow, and save—and they identify the true causes of distress and inequality for many working Americans. Combining hard facts with personal stories, The Financial Diaries presents an unparalleled inside look at the economic stresses of today’s families and offers powerful, fresh ideas for solving them. The authors talk about the book, what was surprising as they conducted their study, and how their findings affect the conversation on inequality in a new Q&A:

Why did you write this book?
We have both spent our careers thinking about households and consumer finance, and our field has reams and reams of descriptive data about what people do—savings rates, the number of overdrafts, the size of their tax refunds. We have lots of financial information but very little of the existing data helped us understand why—why people make the financial decisions they make, and why they get tripped up. So we decided to spend time with a group of families, get to know them very well, and track every dollar they earned, spent, borrowed, and shared over the course of one year. By collecting new and different kinds of information, we were able to understand a lot of the why, and gained a new view of what’s going on in America.

What did you learn about the financial lives of low- and moderate-income families in your year-long study?
We saw that the financial lives of a surprising number of families looks very different from the standard story that most people expect. The first and most prominent thing we saw is how unsteady, how volatile households’ income and expenses were for many. The average family in our study had more than five months a year when income was 25% above or below their average.

That volatility made it hard to budget and save—and it meant that plans were often derailed. How people were doing had less to do with the income they expected to earn in total during the year and more to do with when that income hit paychecks and how predictable that was. Spending emergencies added a layer of complexity. In other words, week-to-week and month-to-month cash flow problems dominated many families’ financial lives. Their main challenges weren’t resisting temptation to overspend in the present, or planning appropriately for the long term but how to make sure they would have enough cash for the needs they knew were coming soon.

The resulting anxiety, frustration, and a sense of financial insecurity affected families that were technically classified as middle class.

How does this tie into the economic anxiety that fueled Trump’s election?
The families we talked to revealed deep anxieties that are part of a broader backdrop for understanding America today. That anxiety is part of what fueled Trump, but it also fueled Bernie Sanders and, to an extent, Hillary Clinton. A broad set of the population feels rightly that the system just isn’t working for them.

For example, we met Becky and Jeremy, a couple with two kids who live in small town Ohio where Trump did well. Jeremy is a mechanic who fixes trucks on commission. Even though he works full-time, the size of his paychecks vary wildly depending on how many trucks come in each day. This volatility in their household income means that while they’re part of the middle class when you look at their annual income, they dipped below the poverty line six months out of the year.

One day we met with Becky, who was deciding whether or not to make their monthly mortgage payment a couple of weeks early. She had enough money on hand, but she was wavering between paying it now so she could rest easy knowing it was taken care of, or holding onto the money because she didn’t know what was going to happen in the next couple weeks, and was afraid she might need the money for something else even more urgent. She was making decisions like this almost every day, which created not only anxiety but a sense of frustration about always feeling on the edge.

Ultimately, Jeremy decided to switch to a lower-paying job with a bigger commute doing the exact same work – but now he’s paid on salary. They opted for stability over mobility. Becky and Jeremy helped us see how the economic anxiety people feel is not only about having enough money, but about the structure of their economic lives and the risk, volatility, and insecurity that have become commonplace in our economy.

One of the most interesting insights from your book is that while these families are struggling, they’re also working really hard and coming up with creative ways to cope. Can you share an example?
Janice, a casino worker in Mississippi, told us about a system she created with multiple bank accounts. She has one bank account close to her she uses for bill paying. But she also has a credit union account where she has part of her paycheck automatically deposited. This bank is an hour away, has inconvenient hours, and when they sent her an ATM card, she cut it in half. She designed a level of inconvenience for that account on purpose, in order to make it harder to spend that money. She told us she will drive the hour to that faraway bank when she has a “really, really need”—an emergency or cost that is big enough that she’ll overcome the barriers she put up on purpose. One month, she went down there because her grandson needed school supplies, which was a “really, really need” for her. The rest of the time, it’s too far away to touch. And that’s exactly how she designed it.

We found so many other examples like this one, where people are trying to create the right mix of structure and flexibility in their financial lives. There’s a tension between the structure that helps you resist temptation and save, and the flexibility you need when life conspires against you. But we don’t have financial products, services, and ideas that are designed around this need and the actual challenges that families are facing. This is why Janice has all these different banks she uses for different purposes—to get that mix of structure and flexibility that traditional financial services do not provide.

How does this tie into the conversation we’ve been having about inequality over the last decade or so?
Income and wealth inequality are real. But those two inequalities of income and assets are hiding this other really important inequality, which is about stability. What we learned in talking to families is that they’re not thinking about income and wealth inequality on a day-to-day basis—they’re worrying about whether they have enough money today, tomorrow, and next week. The problem is akin to what happens in businesses. They might be profitable on their income statement, but they ran out of cash and couldn’t make payroll next week.

This same scenario is happening with the families we met. We saw situations where someone has enough income or is saving over time, but nonetheless, they can’t make ends meet right now. That instability is the hidden inequality that’s missing from our conversation about wealth and income inequality.

How much of this comes down to personal responsibility? Experts like Suze Orman and Dave Ramsey argue you can live on a shoestring if you’re just disciplined. Doesn’t that apply to these families?
The cornerstone of traditional personal finance advice from people like Orman and Ramsey is budgeting and discipline. But you can’t really do that without predictability and control.

We met one woman who is extremely disciplined about her budget, but the volatility of her income kept tripping her up. She is a tax preparer, which means she earns half her income in the first three months of the year. She has a spreadsheet where she runs all her expenses, down to every taxi she thinks she might need to take. She budgets really explicitly and when she spends a little more on food one week, she goes back and looks at her budget, and changes it for the next few weeks to compensate. Her system requires extreme focus and discipline, but it’s still not enough to make her feel financially secure. Traditional personal finance advice just isn’t workable for most families because it doesn’t start with the actual problems that families face.

What can the financial services industry do to better serve low- and moderate-income families?
The financial services industry has a big job in figuring out how to deal with cash flow volatility at the household level, because most of the products they have generated are based on an underlying belief that households have a regular and predictable income. So their challenge is to develop new products and services—and improve existing ones—that are designed to help people manage their ongoing cash flow needs and get the right money at the right time.

There are a few examples of innovative products that are trying to help households meet the challenges of volatility and instability. Even is a new company that helps people smooth out their income by helping them automatically save spikes, or get a short-term “boost” to cover dips. Digit analyzes earning and spending patterns to find times when someone has a little extra on hand and put it aside, again automatically. Propel is looking to make it much easier and faster for people to get access to food stamps when they need them. There are a number of organizations trying to bring savings groups or lending circles, a way of saving and borrowing with friends and family common everywhere in the developing world, to more people in the United States.

There is lots of scope for innovation to meet the needs of households—the biggest challenge is seeing what those needs are, and how different they are from the standard way of thinking about financial lives and problems.

Jonathan Morduch is professor of public policy and economics at the New York University Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. He is the coauthor of Portfolios of the Poor (Princeton) and other books. Rachel Schneider is senior vice president at the Center for Financial Services Innovation, an organization dedicated to improving the financial health of Americans.

The Financial Diaries

FinancialThe Financial Diaries by Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider details the results of a groundbreaking study they conducted of 235 low- and middle-income families over the course of one year. What they found is that the conventional life-cycle method of approaching finances, wherein a family saves steadily to prepare for eventual retirement, is unrealistic for many. This book combines hard facts with the personal stories of people struggling to make ends meet, even in a time when America is experiencing unprecedented prosperity. You’ll meet a street vendor, a tax preparer, and many more as Schneider and Morduch challenge popular assumptions about how Americans earn, spend, borrow, and save. Read on to learn more about the everyday challenges of a casino dealer from central Mississippi.

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Janice Evans has worked at the Pearl River Resort— a family-friendly destination on the Choctaw reservation in central Mississippi with water slides, a spa, two golf courses, a steakhouse, and a casino—for close to twenty years, since she was in her mid-thirties. She works the night shift, starting at 8am and finishing up at 4am. As a single, African American mother with a high school degree, she makes $8.35 per hour, but in a good week she can double that in tips. Customers can put chips in her “toke box,” and at the end of each shift they are collected and counted; the equivalent amount in dollars is then added to Janice’s next paycheck. She does well during the summer months, but fall is much slower. Her income also rises and falls based on where the local college football team is playing that year—when they play near Pearl River people often come to the casino after a game, and when they don’t the casino does not get that business. Over the course of the year Janice makes just over $26,000, or an average of about $2,200 a month. However, due to the fluctuating income from tips, her actual take home pay each month can vary from around $1,800 to approximately $2,400. That represents a 30% deviation between paychecks. Just before the study began, Janice’s son Marcus was laid off from his maintenance job when his employer lost a contract; as a result, he and his three-year-old daughter moved in with Janice. Since he no longer had an income, he qualified for food stamps, an average of $125/month, but this income was unsteady as well: at one point the local social services agency mistook Janice’s income for Marcus’s and canceled his food stamps. It took two months to get them back. And while he also qualified for unemployment benefits, several months passed before the first check arrived. Altogether, the benefits boosted the household’s net income to $33,000, but with the increased funds came increased inconsistency. Whereas before Janice’s income swung 30%, it now swung 70% from high to low months. Given the nature of Janice’s work in a seasonal, low-skill, tipped job and the unreliability of Marcus’s benefits, you might assume that her family’s income would be among the most erratic of the 235 households studied in the U.S. Financial Diaries. In fact, it’s not—the degree of inconsistency in Janice’s household was on par with most families that the authors got to know throughout the course of their study. Morduch and Schneider’s study of families who struggle with income volatility revealed new insights into how Americans make money, borrow, spend, and save.

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To learn more, pick up a copy of The Financial Diaries by Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider.

Q&A with Kenneth Scheve and David Stasavage on Taxing the Rich

Taxing the RichWho to tax, how much to tax, and what the taxes should pay for are questions sure to elicit an array of responses in today’s politically charged climate. Kenneth Scheve and David Stasavage combine forces on this comprehensive history and reflection on how the rich have (or haven’t) been taxed. Taxing the Rich: A History of Fiscal Fairness in the United State and Europe tackles what is sure to be a hot election topic using an approach that manages to showcase both sides of the often contentious issue. Recently the authors took the time to answer some questions on their book.

Why did you write this book?

KS & DS: Taxing the rich is a subject of considerable political conflict today. There has been a great deal of debate about what government should do in this area, but we know far less about the reasons why some governments actually do tax the rich and others do not. We think answering this question requires a long run historical perspective, and one that doesn’t just look at developments in the United States. Our book considers income, inheritance, and other taxes from 1800 to the present in a set of twenty countries.

What’s your main argument?

KS & DS: Countries tax the rich when the public thinks the state has failed to treat citizens as equals and in so doing has privileged the rich. [a more colloquial version: Countries tax the rich when people think the deck is stacked in favor of the wealthy and the government has done the stacking.]

Debates about taxation revolve around self-interest (no one likes paying taxes), economic efficiency, and fairness. We argue that fairness considerations center on what it means for the state to treat citizens as equals in income tax policy. Historically, there are three main fairness arguments that have been used for or against taxing the rich. Equal Treatment arguments claim that everyone should be taxed at the same rate just like everyone has one vote. Ability to Pay arguments contend that states should tax the rich at higher rates because they can better afford to pay when compared with everyone else. Compensatory Arguments suggest that it is fair to tax the rich at higher rates when it compensates for unequal treatment by the state in some other policy area. We argue that over the last two centuries compensatory arguments have been the most powerful arguments in favor of taxing the rich.

What are examples of compensatory arguments in history?

KS & DS: Compensatory arguments were important in the early development of income tax systems in the 19th century when it was argued that income taxes on the rich were necessary to compensate for heavy indirect taxes that fell disproportionately on the poor and middle class. But the most significant compensatory arguments over the last two centuries have been arguments to raise taxes on the rich to preserve equal sacrifice in wars of mass mobilization. These conflicts, particularly World War I and World War II, led states to raise large armies, often through conscription, and citizens and politicians alike adopted compensatory fairness arguments to justify higher taxes on income and wealth. Mass war mobilization led governments of both left and right to tax the rich.

When have countries taxed the rich?

KS & DS: Well, one thing our book shows is that governments haven’t taxed the rich just because inequality is high, nor have they done this simply because the poor and middle class outnumber the rich when it comes to voting. The main occasion when governments have moved to tax the rich is during times of mass mobilization for war, especially in democracies in which the norm of treating citizens as equals is held more strongly. The real watershed for taxing the rich for many countries came in 1914. The era of the two world wars and their aftermath was one in which governments taxed the rich at rates that would have previously seemed unimaginable.

How do we know that the effect of wars was due to changes in fairness considerations?

KS & DS: We show in the book that when countries shift from peace to war, or the reverse, there has also been a big shift in the type of fairness arguments made in favor of taxing the rich. During times of peace debates about whether it is fair to tax the rich center on competing equal treatment and ability to pay arguments. During times of war supporters of taxing the rich have also been able to make Compensatory arguments. If the poor and middle class are doing the fighting, then the rich should be asked to pay more for the war effort. If some with wealth benefit from war profits, then this creates another compensatory argument for taxing the rich. These compensatory arguments had the biggest impact in democracies that are founded on the idea that citizens should be treated as equals. The fact that war had a much bigger impact on taxes on the rich in democracies than in autocracies also suggests that the rich weren’t being taxed out of simple necessity. It was because war determined what types of fairness arguments could be made.

What are the implications for future tax policies in the United States?

KS & DS: Don’t expect high and rising inequality to necessarily lead to a return to the high top tax rates of the post-war era. What really matters is what people believe about how inequality is generated in the first place. If it is clear that inequality has risen because the government failed to treat citizens as equals in the first place, then there is room for convincing compensatory arguments. Today, in an era where military technology favors more limited forms of warfare — drones rather than boots on the ground — the wartime compensatory arguments of old are no longer available. Absent new compensatory arguments, we expect some to argue for taxing the rich based on ability to pay, but this probably won’t suffice to produce radically higher tax rates. More politically plausible reforms include those that involve increasing taxes on the rich by appealing to the logic of equal treatment to remove deductions, exemptions, and cases of special treatment.

Kenneth Scheve is professor of political science and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. He is the coauthor of Globalization and the Perceptions of American Workers. David Stasavage is Julius Silver Professor in the Wilf Family Department of Politics at New York University. He is the author of States of Credit: Size, Power, and the Development of European Polities (Princeton). Together they wrote Taxing the Rich: A History of Fiscal Fairness in the United States and Europe.