COVID-90, Men Answering the (Scam) Call, and Ending the Racial Wealth Gap

Beyond the Headlines: Personal finance news and research you may have missed

Beyond the Headlines

If you’re following financial news, you know that COVID-19 cases are down, vaccines are being administered, and in turn, things are starting to look up for the U.S. economy. 

Consumers seem to be spending their stimulus checks—giving a much-needed boost to retailers—and even slightly higher mortgage rates aren’t dampening the real estate market. (More than half of homes are now selling within two weeks of being listed.) Plus, those struggling to pay their mortgages just got a little more time to get back on track, thanks to an extension of foreclosure protections on some federally-backed mortgages. 

In fact, some people are so flush with cash from stimulus checks that they have turned to playing the stock market.

But here’s what you may not have read: Did you know that men in a recent survey lost almost three times as much from phone scams last year as women did? Or that we should actually count ourselves lucky that COVID-19 didn’t strike in 1990, given the nation’s reliance on work-from-home technology? And how about the latest research on whether the federal government’s extra unemployment benefits actually deter people from getting a job? 

To reach beyond the biggest headlines, we scoured the latest research, surveys, studies, and commentary to bring you the most interesting and relevant personal finance news you may have missed.

What We Found

Con Artists and the Gender Gap

Scammers have had a field day during the pandemic, which has caused enough financial  desperation to provide them with a steady stream of victims. And for the con artists who work their trade over phone lines, men are particularly susceptible, according to a new survey.

In survey findings released this month by Hiya, maker of an anti-spam and fraud app that blocks unwanted calls, a startling 38% of respondents reported losing money to scam phone calls in 2020. But even more surprising? Among those respondents, men lost an average of $297, compared with $109 lost by women. The average overall was $182, though 7% of respondents reported a loss of more than $500. 

Scam phone calls have become incredibly common, according to Hiya’s research, which drew on data from about 150 billion voice calls the company processed in 2020 in addition to an online survey of 2,030 U.S. consumers conducted by Censuswide. Consumers received an average of 144 spam calls last year, 58% of which were fraudulent, Hiya found. 

Scammers have exploited fear of the virus by picking up the phone to hawk fake vaccines and run stimulus package scams. Hiya logged a 583% increase in COVID-19-related scams in March, and then saw a fairly consistent rate until recently. Between October and January, pandemic-related scams increased an average of 18% each month.

As for the reason men were more vulnerable? A spokesperson for Hiya didn’t immediately reply when asked if there was a theory.

Alternate History: COVID-90

Mortgage rates may be on a slight upswing, but during the pandemic they have stayed low enough to help fuel one hell of a housing boom. Another major accelerant is the pandemic itself, which has created legions of telecommuters hungry for extra home office space.

But what if the pandemic had hit in 1990 instead of 2019? What would have happened to an economy in a world without affordable PCs, ubiquitous work email, and high-speed Internet and videoconferencing? 

It wouldn’t have been pretty from an economic perspective, according to an academic working paper recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, but not yet peer reviewed. Why? Just 2% of work hours would have been shifted to home offices, researchers from Rutgers University, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill estimate, and incomes for both high and low-skilled workers would have declined much more than they did in the actual pandemic.

Back in reality, the paper found that the shift to work-from-home has been so successful that the increase in productivity “will permanently affect incomes, income inequality, and city structure.”

The Price of Equality: $840,900

It seems there’s new evidence of the long-standing causes of a racial wealth gap all the time. Indeed, the median Black household had only 12 cents of wealth for every $1 held by the median White household in 2019, according to data from the Federal Reserve.

The question on the minds of economists: What can be done to shrink it? Speakers at a virtual event held Thursday by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis’s new Institute for Economic Equity put forth several proposals.

Direct cash payments of $260,000 to $300,000 to every descendant of enslaved people, adding an average of $840,900 to the wealth of most Black households, should just about cover it, said William “Sandy” Darity and Kirsten Mullen, the authors of “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century.” 

While it would cost the government an eye-popping $10 trillion to $12 trillion, it would be enough to bring the proportion of wealth owned by Black Americans in line with the percentage of the population that they make up, Darity said.

“The wealth gap should be eliminated,” he said at the event.

Other economists had alternate ideas. Simple transfers of income do not create wealth, said C. Eugene Steuerle, cofounder of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center think tank. Instead, the government should promote racial wealth equality with tools such as a first-time homebuyer tax credit, which would disproportionately benefit Black and Latino buyers and which would allow families to gain assets that build value over time, he said.

A race-neutral policy was also suggested. The government giving out “baby bonds” would help families build wealth and close the income gap, said Scott Winship, director of poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute. It would also be more politically feasible than Darity and Mullen’s “extraordinarily expensive” proposal, he said. 

Extra Unemployment Benefits Don’t Kill the Desire to Work

The number of people around the country initiating claims for unemployment insurance remains discouragingly high, with the 4-week moving average stuck above 800,000 for 10 weeks now.

All the more reason, many argue, for the federal government to be supplementing state benefits like it is. But others say the extra money (currently $300 a week) deters people from looking for a job. In fact, conservatives have argued against unemployment supplements for fear that small businesses hit by the pandemic would find it difficult to re-hire their workforces. 

Well, a new study suggests there’s no such downside. Last year the CARES Act provided an extra $600 a week, enough to provide many workers with more money while unemployed than they had earned at their jobs. 

An economist at the University of Massachusetts looked at what happened after that supplement ended in July, studying data from the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey to determine that there was “surprisingly little” impact on employment levels, especially for the groups most likely to collect unemployment—people that hadn’t graduated college or lower-income households. His work was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research this month but has yet to be peer reviewed. 

How Romantic: When ‘Financial Benefits’ Keep Love Alive

Love and money have always been intertwined, but the interplay between finances and fiancees is evolving along with technology: According to one recent survey, 36% of people in relationships reported sending their partner money with a payment app at least once a week.

But where does money rank as a reason to be in (or exit) a romantic relationship? While money is a reason that some couples break up, it’s an even more common reason for them to stay together, according to psychology researchers who asked 400 people questioning their relationship to list why someone would stay or leave.

Lack of financial benefits” came in last among 10 reasons people leave their romantic relationships, while “financial benefits” came in eighth as a reason to stay in a relationship, the 2018 survey found. The research, conducted by professors at the University of Utah and the University of Ontario, was cited in an article this month by Gary W. Lewandowski Jr., Monmouth University psychology professor.

“The best relationships have their issues, while the worst relationships still have their virtues,” Lewandowski wrote in an article for The Conversation. “While you don’t want to get stuck with an awful partner, you also don’t want to be unnecessarily harsh on what could be a great relationship. Maybe knowing what others consider important factors can help you make your own best choice.”