4 million people sign up for Obamacare as deadline nears

— NEW YORK — Millions of people are signing up for Obamacare for next year, despite President-elect Donald Trump’s vow to repeal it as soon as he takes office next month.

Just over 4 million people have selected policies for 2017 through the federal exchange, healthcare.gov, as of Dec. 10, according to data released Wednesday by the Department of Health and Human Services. That’s an increase of more than 250,000 from last year.

More than 1.1 million new people have signed up for 2017, while 2.9 million people are renewing their coverage. Consumers aren’t officially enrolled until they pay their first month’s premium.

The pace is quickening this week. Those who want coverage to start on Jan. 1 must sign up by Thursday. More than 700,000 people signed up on Monday and Tuesday, the two biggest days since open enrollment started on Nov. 1.

States that run their own exchanges are also seeing a boost in interest. More than 153,000 new consumers have signed up on California’s exchange, including 25,000 on Monday and Tuesday. That’s in addition to the 1.2 million current Golden State customers who’ve renewed their plans. The state extended its deadline to Dec. 17 for those who want coverage to begin New Year’s Day.

“This strong demand shows that Californians are using the competitive marketplace that Covered California provides,” said Peter Lee, executive director of the state’s exchange.

The Obama administration is encouraging people to sign up to show Trump and the Republicans how vital Obamacare is to Americans. They’ve created the hashtag #CoverageMatters to let enrollees share how health care reform has benefited them.

The surge in sign-ups comes as Republicans prepare to repeal Obamacare in coming weeks. However, it’s expected that they will delay putting an actual end to the law for two or three years while they come up with a replacement plan.

While insurers are locked into providing coverage next year, the delay may prompt some to rethink their involvement in 2018.

“A repeal and delay is a repeal and recipe for collapse,” Health Secretary Sylvia Burwell told CNN’s MJ Lee Wednesday. “Insurance companies have to make their decisions in the first half of the year — whether or not they’re going to be in the marketplace and what prices they’re going to charge. With that level of uncertainty, we’ve seen studies and more and more analysis is coming out, that what insurance companies will do — many of them — will make the choice to be out of the marketplace or else to raise their prices dramatically.”

Are you better off than eight years ago?

— It’s easier to find a good job. I’m making more money. I’m more optimistic about the future.

That’s how many Americans feel about their personal financial situations since President Obama took office eight years ago.

Voters are certainly hearing a lot about the economy in this presidential election, though it can seem like we are living in two different Americas depending on which candidate is talking.

Regardless of what’s said on the campaign trail, though, many Americans report they are feeling flusher than they did several years ago.

Some 42% of Americans say now is a good time to find a quality job, according to an October Gallup poll. This is a vast improvement from 2011, when it hit a low of 8%. The measure is now just below where it was in the boom times of 2007.

These sentiments are in line with an upward swing in the job market — unemployment fell to 4.9% in October, compared to 7.8% when President Obama took office in January, 2009. A total of 10.9 million jobs have been created during his tenure.

So while the economy still ranks as voters’ top concern, unemployment has fallen to 7th place, with just 6% citing it as the nation’s number one problem, down from a high of 39% in the fall of 2011.

Several Gallup reports point to Americans’ improving attitudes about their finances and the economy. Consumer confidence, investor optimism and small business owner confidence have all improved since Obama took office in 2008, said Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor-in-chief.

“Americans are overwhelmingly better off than they were eight years ago,” Newport said. “There’s no question about it.”

Of course, the nation was in the midst of a major recession when people went to the polls in 2008, and it was still healing during the 2012 election. Most of Gallup’s measures have climbed since then, though they have leveled over the past year or two, Newport said.

The economic recovery has put many Americans in a better place. More than two-thirds say they are making more than they were five years ago and only 20% say they are making less, according to an August poll from Gallup.

In 2013, only 58% said they were earning more, and 28% said they were bringing home less.

Median household income had remained fairly flat until 2015, when it jumped 5.2% to $56,516. It marked the first increase in median income since 2007, the year before the Great Recession started.

Workers are also pretty pleased with their jobs, with few saying they feel underemployed. Some 70% said their job is a good match for their skills and training, while only 23% said their position doesn’t take advantage of their abilities and knowledge.

More Americans are reporting that they are better off now than they were a year ago, compared to those who felt this way in 2013, according to the New York Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Expectations. More also have a positive attitude about the coming year.

The stock market has also soared in recent years, with the S&P 500 Index now above 2100, after plummeting to 735 in February 2009. This has revived many Americans’ fortunes.

Take Ken Dukes, 57. In 2008 and 2009, the freelance computer programmer saw his investments shrink by 50%. But he didn’t panic and sell. Instead, he added to his portfolio, which he says has more than doubled since then.

The strong market recovery allowed the Kissimmee, Florida, resident to retire two years ago. He now devotes himself to teaching Sunday school and hobbies, such as programming video games.

“It’s nice that my investments and retirement savings are doing well enough so I can retire and do the things I want to do,” Dukes said.

The middle class gets a big raise … finally!

— It’s about time.

After years of watching their incomes go nowhere, America’s middle class finally got a big raise last year.

Median household income rose to $56,516 in 2015, up 5.2% from a year earlier, according to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau Tuesday. It marks the first increase in median income since 2007, the year before the Great Recession started.

Also, the poverty rate ticked down to 13.5% in 2015, from 14.8% a year earlier.

The data is sure to become a talking point in the 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump has repeatedly hammered home that income is $4,000 lower than it was in 2000. (That’s true if you are comparing it to 2014 data, which had been the most recent available. But Trump often referenced it as current figures, which makes it false.)

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, will likely use the uptick to show that the economy is recovering.

Median income: The jump in median income was one of the largest annual increases Census has recorded. The growth was also widespread, with geographic regions and races (except for Asians) seeing increases.

Behind the pay hike is the big increase in employment, Census officials said. Some 3.3 million more Americans were working full-time, year-round, pushing up median income. Some 1.4 million more men and 1 million more women had jobs last year.

The annual unemployment rate fell to 5.3% in 2015, compared to 6.2% the prior year.

The jump shows that the economy is improving, said Sheldon Danziger, president of the Russell Sage Foundation, a research group focusing on social issues.

Measures that “encourage increased employment, increased wages and increased health are beginning to pay off and finally matter,” said Danziger, citing minimum wage increases and Medicaid expansion as examples.

The lowest-income Americans saw their incomes rise the most, while the Top 10% has the weakest growth.

Still, the nation hasn’t fully healed.

Income remains 1.6% lower than it was in 2000, when it hit $57,790, and 2.4% below the 1999 peak at $57,909. Median earnings for men working full-time are still lower than they were in the 1970s, Danziger said.

Women have fared better. Their earnings are up 7.8% since 2000, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. Men’s are down 0.1% over the same period.

Income inequality, however, remained at the same level as 2014. It has increased 5.5% since 1993.

Poverty: The poverty rate is the lowest it’s been since 2008, when it was 13.2%. Some 43.1 million Americans were in poverty last year, 3.5 million less than in 2014.

The last time the poverty rate went down more than a percentage point was in the late 1960s, Danziger said. All age groups — children, adults and senior citizens — saw their share drop.

While the poverty rate fell for all races, it remains high among people of color. Some 24.1% of blacks and 21.4% of Hispanics were in poverty last year, while only 9.1% of non-Hispanic whites were.

The poverty threshold for two adults and two children was just over $24,000 last year.

Trump also references the poverty rate to show that Americans have suffered under President Obama. The rate was at 12.5% in 2007, before the Great Recession hit. It jumped to 15.1% in 2010 and has slowly drifted downward since.

The Census Bureau also released an alternate poverty measure that takes into account various government benefits and expenses not captured by the official poverty rate. The so-called Supplemental Poverty Measure showed 14.3% of Americans were in poverty in 2015, compared to 15.3% a year earlier.

The supplemental measure showed that non-cash public assistance, such as food stamps, housing vouchers and refundable tax credits, helped lift many Americans out of poverty. However, it also takes into account work-related costs such as transportation and child care, as well as medical and tax expenses, which all together drove more people into poverty.

Social Security kept 26.6 million people out of poverty in 2015, while food stamps lifted 4.6 million people above the poverty line, the Economic Policy Institute noted.

Health insurance: The uninsured rate fell to 9.1% in 2015, according to the Census Bureau. That’s down from 10.4% the year before, when the Obamacare exchanges and Medicaid expansion began. Some 29 million were without insurance last year, compared to 33 million in 2014.

The uninsured rate has dropped as millions of Americans gained coverage under Obamacare.

More recent government data found that the uninsured rate fell to 8.6% in the first quarter of this year. Some 27.3 million people lacked health coverage, according to the National Health Interview Survey, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Choices dwindling for Obamacare customers

— Many consumers may find they have few choices when shopping on the Obamacare exchanges for 2017.

Industry giants Aetna, UnitedHealthcare and Humana are scaling back their presences on the exchanges. And smaller insurers, including more than a dozen co-ops funded by the federal government to foster competition, have gone out of business or are dropping out of the program.

Nearly 36% of markets may have only one insurer participating on the exchanges, up from 4% this year, according to an analysis by Avalere Health, a consulting company. And nearly 55% may have two or fewer choices, up from 33% in 2016.

Most affected by the upheaval in the Obamacare markets are the residents of Pinal County, Arizona. This rural county outside of Phoenix has the dubious distinction of being the first place without any options since the exchanges opened in 2014. Federal and state regulators must now scramble to deal with this unprecedented situation.

Some of these markets are relatively small and rural. Still, about 17% of eligible consumers will have only one carrier in their exchange when open enrollment begins in November, according to the McKinsey Center for U.S. Health System Reform. That’s up from 2% this year.

A healthy insurance market has at least three carriers, said Dan Mendelson, Avalere’s president.

“You want competitive markets,” he said. “Rates are lowest when there is actual competition in a marketplace.

Competition will be non-existent in five entire states. Only one insurer will serve Alabama, Alaska, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Wyoming, according to a recent tally by the Kaiser Family Foundation. This year, only one state — Wyoming — had a single carrier.

Not all insurers are fleeing Obamacare, however. Some carriers are expanding their presence. Cigna, for instance, is expanding into three new markets, including Chicago. Bright Health, a startup founded by a UnitedHealthcare executive, sees an opportunity in Colorado.

Still, even President Obama is concerned about the lack of competition in the exchanges. Last month, he called for Congress to revisit the “public option” for Obamacare in areas where few insurers offer coverage. A public option would mean a government run health insurance plan.

“Some parts of the country have struggled with limited insurance market competition for many years, which is one reason that, in the original debate over health reform, Congress considered and I supported including a Medicare-like public plan,” Obama wrote in an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “Adding a public plan in such areas would strengthen the marketplace approach, giving consumers more affordable options while also creating savings for the federal government.”

Just over 11 million people are covered by insurance obtained in the Obamacare exchanges in 2016. Some 28.6 million remain uninsured as of 2015, the latest data available. Some 147 million people were insured through work-based policies in 2015.

College grads are getting nearly all the jobs

— Got a college degree? Then it’s much more likely that you could land a job in the economic recovery.

Of the 11.6 million jobs created after the Great Recession, 8.4 million went to those with at least a bachelor’s degree, according to a new report from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.

Another 3 million went to those with associate’s degrees or some college education.

Employers increasingly want workers with at least some college education, be it a degree or even a certificate in a trade, such as nursing assistant or welding, from a technical or community college.

“College level skills determines access to decent jobs now,” said Anthony Carnevale, the center’s director and lead author of the report. “The modern economy continues to leave Americans without a college education behind.”

Some 45% of Americans age 25 to 64 have an associate’s degree or higher, while 23% have at least a bachelor’s degree. Some 42% of young adults age 18 to 24 are enrolled in higher education.

Americans with only high school diplomas represent a shrinking share of the workforce. This year, for the first time, college grads made up a larger slice of the labor market than those without higher education, by 36% to 34%, respectively. Until the early 80s, more than 70% of Americans entered the workforce right out of high school.

College grads are also more likely to get “good jobs,” which Georgetown defines as paying more than $53,000 a year. An earlier study found that 2.8 million of these jobs went to those with bachelor’s degrees between 2010 and 2014, while 152,000 went to those with associate’s degrees or some college courses. Those with only high school diplomas lost 39,000 of these positions.

The Great Recession hit hard those who never went to college, and they have not recovered. Of the 7.2 million jobs lost between December 2007 and January 2010, 5.6 million were for workers with no more than high school diplomas. They’ve only recovered 1% of those losses over the past six years.

Occupations commonly held by those with only high school degrees shed many positions during the recession and have not recovered. Manufacturing is still down 1 million positions, while construction is 1.7 million jobs lower than it was before the economic crisis. And employment in office and administrative support, often held by women without college educations, is also lower by 1.4 million.

Even with college degrees, blacks and Hispanics fall behind

— College-educated blacks and Hispanics have seen their wealth and income shrivel over the past 20 years.

What’s more, these folks have not only fared worse than white and Asian graduates, but also black and Hispanics without four-year college degrees, according to a new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.


(Photo: CNNMoney)

College-educated blacks and Hispanics have seen their wealth and income shrivel over the past 20 years. What’s more, these folks have not only fared worse than white and Asian graduates, but also black and Hispanics without four-year college degrees, according to a new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

The median income of blacks and Hispanics who finished college declined between 1992 and 2013, while for whites and Asians, median income grew by double-digit percentages, respectively.

The income divide among the races stems mainly from lingering discrimination, said William Emmons, a St. Louis Fed economist. Blacks and Hispanics continue to face inequities in hiring.

Separately, many high-paying fields, such as technology, are dominated by whites and Asians.

Also, many white and Asians obtain advanced degrees, which allow them to command even higher salaries.

Surprisingly, blacks and Hispanics without degrees saw their incomes climb 17.3% and 15.6%, respectively, while degree holders suffered.

As to why blacks and Hispanics who lack college degrees are faring better than their more educated peers? Emmons doesn’t know.

When it comes to median wealth, which includes the value of assets like homes and savings, degree-holding blacks and Hispanics also suffered losses, while whites and Asians saw big gains over the past two decades.

What’s behind such discrepancies?

Part of the reason is that college-educated blacks and Hispanics carried much more debt than any other group going into the Great Recession. And their wealth was more tied up in their homes.

So the collapse of the housing market hit them harder, with the average value of homes owned by educated blacks falling 51% and Hispanics dropping 45%, compared to 25% and 6% for whites and Asians, respectively.

Blacks also borrow more to earn their bachelors so they leave school in greater debt than whites and Asians, according to a separate report from Demos, which advocates for low-income Americans. Hispanics take on more student debt to graduate from private, non-profit colleges, the report found.

Meanwhile, blacks who didn’t go to college saw their net worth slip 3.8%, while Hispanics enjoyed a 30.8% increase in wealth.

This is not to say that college degrees have no value for blacks and Hispanics. The median annual family income for blacks and Hispanics with four-year degrees was $52,150 and $68,400, respectively, compared to $26,600 and $30,450 for those who didn’t finish college, according to the St. Louis Fed report.

The median net worth for black degree holders was $32,800, compared to $9,000 for blacks with no degree. For Hispanics, the gap is even wider — $49,600 for grads and $12,150 for non-grads.

Can taxing pimps and prostitutes save Social Security?

— Can taxing pimps, prostitutes and other underground economy dwellers really fix Social Security?

Mike Huckabee thinks so.

Huckabee defended his support of the Fair Tax at the Republican debate on Thursday evening. Pushed by Americans For Fair Taxation, the tax reform proposal calls for replacing income and capital gains taxes, as well as payroll taxes, with a national sales tax.

Taxing people on what they buy, rather than on what they earn, would not only fund the federal government, it would shore up the shaky finances of the nation’s largest entitlement programs, Huckabee asserts.

“The Fair Tax transforms the process by which we fund Social Security and Medicare because the money paid in consumption is paid by everybody, including illegals, prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers, all the people that are freeloading off the system now,” he said at the debate.

The idea is that tax evaders and those involved in the sex trade and other illegal activities who don’t pay taxes on the income they earn. But under a Fair Tax, they’d have to pay taxes on the items they buy, just like everyone else. So that now-hidden income would be subject to tax.

Huckabee, however, is one of the few who thinks the Fair Tax is a viable alternative. The proposal would not only fail to fix Social Security’s problems, it wouldn’t bring in the same amount of revenue as the current income tax system, experts said.

“The rate is just not enough to replace all the revenue they want to eliminate,” said Alan Viard, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

The tax comes with a host of problems. First of all, it’s considered regressive, meaning it hits lower-income Americans harder than wealthy ones (even with a so-called prebate, which would make a certain level of spending tax-free in order to alleviate some of the burden on the poor).

Also, the rate would have to be pretty high. Americans for Fair Taxation say the rate would be 23%, but that means that out of a $1 purchase, 23 cents would be tax and 77 cents would be the cost of the product. That’s more like a 30% rate the way sales taxes are calculated in the U.S., said Joe Rosenberg, senior research associate at Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, a non-partisan research group.

That high a rate would be difficult to enforce, even harder than the current income tax system, he said. Businesses would be tempted to under-report their sales and customers would push to pay in cash to avoid it.

The idea of a national retail sales tax was considered by President George W. Bush’s tax reform panel in 2005, but was dismissed because it was too tough to administer and enforce, Rosenberg said.

Huckabee’s spokespeople did not immediately return a request for comment.


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More than half of middle-class kids fail to earn bachelor’s degrees

— Here’s a little-known, scary stat: More than half of middle class kids who start college fail to earn a bachelor’s degree within six to eight years.

The low graduation rate has big implications for young adults’ ability to remain in the middle class, or to rise a few rungs above their parents on the economic ladder. A college degree, once a ticket to the middle class, is now a must-have to maintain that status.

Why these kids aren’t graduating with bachelor’s degrees isn’t really known. A lot of attention and effort is focused on getting lower-income children into and through college. But few researchers study the path of students from middle class families.

“It’s startling. We get people to college, but they don’t finish,” said Sandy Baum, a research professor at the George Washington University. “The middle class gets lost in the shuffle.”

The U.S. Department of Education tracks college graduation rates in two ways: It follows kids in the years after they graduate high school, and, separately, it tracks all Americans who enter college in a particular year. The department periodically checks back in with them for several years.

Both stats found that fewer than half of middle class students were actually leaving with a bachelor’s degree.

Only 40% of college entrants who were high school seniors in 2004 and whose families earned between $46,000 and $99,000 had secured bachelor’s degrees by 2012, according to the first measure.

This compares to a graduation rate of 63% for those from the top of the income ladder, and 28% and 20% for moderate- and lower-income students, respectively.

Similarly, the second measure, which looks at all dependent students who started college in 2003 from families with incomes between $60,000 and $92,000, found that only 45% had earned a bachelor’s by 2009.

To be sure, some students take longer than eight years to earn their diplomas. But the longer they are in school, the less likely they are to graduate, Baum said.

Full-time students are more likely to graduate with bachelor’s degrees. For instance, some 63% of middle class students who entered college in 2003 and went full-time earned diplomas by 2009. The same is true of those who go to more selective colleges, which have higher graduation rates in general.

But why are middle class students overall having such a hard time finishing school?

These students face similar hurdles to graduation as all Americans, regardless of class, experts said.

About one-third of middle class students who dropped out told the Education Department they left due to financial considerations, about the same rate as those from other income groups, said Nate Johnson, head of Postsecondary Analytics, a higher education research and consulting firm. About as many cited more amorphous “personal reasons.”

Also, many enter college unprepared academically, prompting some to quit because they can’t keep up, experts said. Still, others don’t have the perseverance needed to get through college.

Some leave school with associate degrees or certificates. When you add these in, the graduation rate goes up to 62% for middle class kids, according to the first measure.

Still, a bachelor’s degree is considered the gold standard, said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Workers with a bachelor’s degree will earn $2.3 million over their lifetime, on average. That’s $600,000 more than someone with an associate’s degree and $800,000 more than those who left college with no diploma.

“It’s a lot harder to maintain your middle class status without a degree,” he said.

White-black wealth gap widens to near record levels

— The Great Recession hit all Americans hard, but only whites have seen their wealth rise during the recent recovery.

And that’s widening the already massive wealth gap between whites and other racial and ethnic groups to near record levels.

White households’ median wealth ticked up to $141,900 in 2013, up 2.4% from three years earlier, according to a Pew Research Center report released Friday.

Net worth for black households dropped by a third during that time to $11,000. Hispanic families experienced a 14% decline in wealth to $13,700.

Whites have 13 times the net worth of blacks, the largest wealth gap that’s existed since George H.W. Bush was president in 1989. The ratio of net worth between whites and Hispanics now stands at more than 10, the widest it has been since 2001.

Much of the focus in recent years has been the growth in income inequality, with the Top 1% capturing most of the post-Recession gains. But wealth inequality is also troubling.

There are several reasons for the growing gap, says Pew, citing Federal Reserve Bank data.

Minority households’ median income fell 9% between 2010 and 2013, compared to a drop of only 1% for whites. So minority households may not have been able to sock away as much or may have had to use more of their savings to cover expenses.

Also, the financial markets have rebounded much more than housing in recent years. Since whites are more likely to own stocks, they have seen a bigger wealth boost.

Real estate, on the other hand, makes up a big chunk of blacks’ and Hispanics’ net worth. But homeownership declined faster among minorities than whites between 2010 and 2013.

Only 47.4% of minorities were homeowners in last year. But 73.9% of whites owned homes.

It takes some digging to find these racial and ethnic disparities, which are masked when looking at the nation’s overall median wealth. For all households, median wealth slipped slightly to $82,300 last year, down only 1.1%.

Sign-ups surge ahead of Obamacare deadline

— Eager to get health insurance starting Jan. 1, Americans flocked to state and federal Obamacare exchanges Monday to sign up for policies.

The federal exchange site, healthcare.gov, saw nearly 2 million page views and the call center received more than 250,000 calls, officials said. It was a record traffic day that left some consumers stuck in an electronic line on the website or on hold for long periods on the phone.

Some CNNMoney readers wrote Monday of frustrations signing up, particularly over the phone. But others, particularly those with pre-existing health conditions, said they were thankful to have been able to get insurance for 2014.

Anticipating a traffic surge, the Obama administration extended the deadline to Tuesday to allow those who ran into trouble more time to qualify for coverage starting Jan. 1. Activity remained high Tuesday, though less than the previous day.

On Tuesday afternoon, the administration said it would work with people who try to enroll by the deadline but fail to finish the process. “[W]e still may be able to help you get covered as soon as January 1,” health officials said.

Interest has been brisk in recent weeks, particularly after the administration addressed many of the technical problems that plagued enrollment for the first two months. President Obama said Friday that at least 1 million people had signed up for coverage, up from roughly 365,000 through Nov. 30.

That includes sign-ups on both the federal exchange and those run by individual states. However, it does not factor in whether applicants had made a first payment to their insurer — a crucial last step before coverage begins.

It also does not include a flood of new enrollees for Medicaid. As of Nov. 30, more than 800,000 were found eligible for the insurance program for the poor.

States running their own exchanges also reported increased activity in recent days.

More than 6,700 Connecticut residents and small businesses signed up for coverage on Monday, more than double prior results for a single day, exchange officials said. More than 62,000 people have signed up for coverage, including Medicaid enrollees.

In New York, nearly 20,000 people selected private policies on Monday. That’s on top of the nearly 137,000 who had picked plans since enrollment opened on Oct. 1. New York extended its deadline to 11:55 p.m. Tuesday.

More than 27,000 people signed up for coverage in California on Sunday, with a total of 77,000 picking a plan in recent days.

And in Kentucky, more than 26,000 have selected plans, with nearly 5,100 sign-ups coming in the past week.

Other states have given their residents more time to enroll. Minnesota and Rhode Island residents, for instance, have until Dec. 31 to pick plans.

Americans who have selected policies still have one more step to take before enrollment becomes effective Jan. 1. They must pay their first month’s premium. The insurance industry trade group has said folks who pay by Jan. 10 can have coverage retroactive to the start of the year.