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Fed: Tight labor market 'did little' to narrow economic disparities

Brian Cheung
Reporter
Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome Powell speaks at a news conference following a two-day meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee, Wednesday, May 1, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The Federal Reserve says record low unemployment has done “little to narrow the persistent economic disparities by race, education, and geography,” suggesting that the economic recovery could have done a better job at lifting the disadvantaged.

In a survey of U.S. household well-being released Thursday, the Fed said the financial health gap between white adults and black and Hispanic adults did not narrow over the last year, despite solid economic growth and talk of a labor market near maximum employment.

The survey results show 78% of whites were at least doing okay financially, compared to 66% of blacks and 67% of Hispanics. Compared to 2017, each of those three figures was up by 1%.

“The gaps in economic well-being by race and ethnicity have persisted even as overall well-being has improved since 2013,” the report read.

Although unemployment is at a 49-year low, the Fed report confirms that not all workers are enjoying the benefits of a tighter labor market. About 4% of all respondents are not working but actively looking for work, which matches up with the 3.8% unemployment rate as measured in the fourth quarter of 2018 (that number dipped to 3.6% as of April).

But two in 10 adults are unsatisfied with the amount of work they have right now. Blacks, Hispanics, and those with less education are most likely to be disappointed with their level of work.

The gig economy

The yearning for more work is leading many workers to turn to “gig work” on the side. Three in 10 adults said they have worked at least one gig activity in the month leading up to the survey, with a median time spent of five hours.

Gig work covers activities like child care, house cleaning, or — most notably as of late — driving ride-sharing services like Uber (UBER) or Lyft (LYFT).

The Fed said that “surprisingly” little of the gig work appeared to be from websites or apps — which would suggest that the ride-sharing apps and other sharing economies (like Airbnb and Taskrabbit) are not representative of a huge percentage of working income in the U.S.

Still, the Fed caveated that there are questions over how to account for gig activities, since not all respondents consider gig work as “traditional paid work.” The survey noted that over one-quarter of those doing gig activities reported that they do not consider gig activity to be “work for pay or profit.”

For workers either looking for additional work or juggling multiple jobs, maintaining financial stability can be of serious concern. The survey added that gig workers have a difficult time handing a $400 unexpected expense, which means that many Americans are a health bill or car breakdown away from financial disaster.

The survey said 42% of gig workers would need to borrow, sell something, or simply would not be able to pay a theoretical $400 expense. Among those not doing gig work, a still-large 38% of workers said the $400 expense would push them to the edge.

Gig workers are also more likely to rely on alternative financial services that could bury them in unmanageable levels of debt. The survey said a third of workers relying on gigs as a primary source of income use alternative lenders like payday shops, services that are notorious for charging high interest rates.

“Results from the survey indicate that many adults are not well prepared to withstand even small financial disruptions,” the report read. But when looking at the total population of surveyed households, the Fed said the ability to pay current bills and to handle unexpected expenses has slightly improved since 2013, as more respondents (compared to 2017) said they could tap into cash, savings, or a credit card to cover a hypothetical $400 charge.

Brian Cheung is a reporter covering the banking industry and the intersection of finance and policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter @bcheungz.

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