Poll shows how financial security varies by age, income

No surprises here: Older, more affluent Americans feel more financially secure.

By Josh Boak and Hannah Fingerhut / Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Just how financially secure you feel depends on your age, your race, your education and — perhaps not surprisingly — your income.

A new survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows that college graduates feel far more confident than high school graduates that they could afford an emergency $1,000 expense.

People ages 18 to 29 are more optimistic about finding a good job than those in their 60s are.

But Americans in their 60s are more confident than adults under 30 are about affording credit card and other expenses.

Most white Americans say they can manage their housing costs; blacks and Hispanics are far less confident that they can keep up.

The poll’s findings reflect the sharp demographic divides in the U.S. economy. The nation’s prosperity since the Great Recession ended nearly a decade ago has benefited some groups of people far more than others and is obscuring economic soft spots caused by a persistent wealth gap.

Overall, about 6 in 10 Americans describe their personal finances as good. Most of the rest say they’re in poor shape financially.

The nation’s unemployment rate is a healthy 4 percent, the pace of hiring has accelerated in recent months and average hourly earnings have risen 3.2 percent over the past 12 months. Yet whatever financial confidence people feel depends largely on their individual circumstances and challenges. And compared with last year, fewer Americans overall expect the good economy to last in 2019.

Some of the doubts reflect souring opinions of President Donald Trump, who partially shut down the government for 35 days over his demand for a wall along the southern U.S. border with Mexico. Though Trump failed to secure his requested $5.7 billion, the resulting temporary standoff deprived many government workers of paychecks and raised doubts about the president’s economic stewardship.

The poll shows that Trump’s rating on handling the economy — a strength throughout his presidency — fell to 44 percent in January from 50 percent in December. His overall approval rating in the poll was 34 percent.

“I can’t say he’s been all bad on the economy,” said Ellen Collins, 70, of Centerville, Ohio. “But he’s a child. He’s egotistical.”

Forty-four percent say they think the economy will worsen over the next year. About a quarter (27 percent) say the economy will improve; just as many think it will stay the same. That’s in contrast to a year ago, when expectations of the year ahead were almost evenly split: 33 percent said then that they thought conditions would deteriorate, and 34 percent expected them to improve.

Collins said the stock market’s sell-off in the closing months of 2018, likely fueled in part by Trump’s trade war with China, hurt her retirement savings. She figures, though, that stocks will ultimately rebound to cover those losses.

Collins, a retired teacher and information technology specialist, stressed how fortunate she felt to have enough savings and insurance to cover the costs of two years of chemotherapy treatments she needed for cancer.

“I don’t know what people who don’t have insurance do,” she said.

Health care costs and other unexpected expenses are a source of concern for many in the AP-NORC survey. Americans who are most likely to feel financially secure are those who earn more than $100,000 — nearly double the median household income.

Likewise, a college education appears to be a significant buffer against financial risks. A majority of college graduates (58 percent) say they’re very confident they could afford an emergency expense of $1,000. By contrast, more than half of Americans with a high school education or less (54 percent) say they have little or no confidence that they could pay a surprise bill that high.

And while younger workers might not have as high a starting income as previous generations did, people 18 to 29 are more hopeful about finding decent jobs than Americans in their 60s are. Thirty-five percent of those under 30 say they’re very confident about hiring possibilities. Just 23 percent of those over 60 feel that way.

Even some workers in their 50s find it difficult to land a job that meets their financial needs.

Sarah Apwisch, 52, said she was recently laid off as a market researcher only to be rehired in a new role at the same company at just 60 percent of her previous pay.

“I’m honestly taking this job because I’m afraid of losing health care,” said Apwisch, who is married and lives in the small city of Three Rivers, Michigan, where she works remotely for a company in Chicago.

She says she’s optimistic about the overall economy but says the growing role of big data and social media has caused the market research industry to fall into decline.

“If I lose the connection with my current employer, it will be harder for me to get a job in my industry because most of the jobs are in the big cities,” she said.

Though older Americans don’t feel as much job security, most of them do have the benefit of decades of income and savings. About six in 10 Americans in their 60s say they’re confident about paying their credit card and other payments, while 43 percent of Americans under 30 feel that way.

On housing affordability, a stark racial divide exists: About six in 10 white Americans say they can manage their housing costs, compared with just about a third of black and Hispanic Americans. White Americans are far likelier to own a home than are those minority groups, who face rising rents in many high-cost urban areas.

Chris Edwards, a 28-year-old African-American in Columbia, Missouri, said he couldn’t afford a major emergency expense. A renter, Edwards relies on Medicaid and income from Social Security’s disability program.

If he were hit by a sudden expense of $400?

“I wouldn’t know,” Edwards said. “I wouldn’t know.”

The AP-NORC poll of 1,062 adults was conducted Jan. 16 to 20 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.

Respondents were first selected randomly using address-based sampling methods, and later interviewed online or by phone.

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