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Inflation Rose in June With C.P.I. Up 5.4 Percent

The Fed targets 2 percent annual price gains on average over time, a goal it defines using a different index. Still, the C.P.I. is closely watched because it comes out more rapidly than the Fed’s preferred gauge and it feeds into the favored number, which has also accelerated.

Republicans have pointed to rapid price gains as a sign of the Biden administration’s economic mismanagement, and an argument against the kind of additional spending that President Biden has called for as part of his $4 trillion economic agenda, including investments to fight climate change, bolster education and improve child care.

“Bidenflation is growing faster than paychecks, wiping out workers’ wage gains, and leaving American families behind,” Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee said in a news release following the data report.

The talking point has proved potent because the recent strength in inflation has outstripped the pickup that many officials had expected. In Mr. Biden’s official budget request, released this spring, officials forecast an inflation rate that stayed near historical averages for 2021 and never rose past 2.3 percent a year over the course of a decade. Administration officials have now begun to acknowledge that higher inflation could stay with the economy for a year or two.

The possibility that inflation will not fade as quickly or as much as expected is becoming a defining economic risk of the era. Signs that strong demand could bolster prices, at least for a time, abound. A New York Fed survey out Monday showed that consumers expect to keep spending robustly in the year ahead.

Some members of the business community see price pressures lasting.

Hugh Johnston, the chief financial officer of PepsiCo, told analysts on Tuesday that the company was anticipating more inflationary pressures via higher costs for raw materials, labor and freight. “Are we going to be pricing to deal with it? We certainly are,” he said.

Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase’s chief executive, told analysts on a conference call on Monday that “it’ll be a little bit worse than the Fed thinks. I don’t think it’s all going to be temporary. But that doesn’t matter if we have very strong growth.”

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June Jobs Report Shows an 850,000 Gain, Better Than Expected

Anxieties over a lag in hiring lifted on Friday as the government reported that employers added 850,000 workers in June, the largest monthly gain since last summer.

Wages jumped for the third month in a row, a sign that employers are trying to attract applicants with higher pay and that workers are gaining bargaining power.

Rising Covid-19 vaccination rates and a growing appetite for travel, dining out, celebrations and entertainment gave a particular boost to leisure and hospitality businesses. The biggest chunk of June’s gains — 343,000 — could be found there.

accelerated rate of early retirements means that some of those workers will never come back.

“Today there are more job openings than before the pandemic and fewer people in the labor force,” said Becky Frankiewicz, president of the staffing company ManpowerGroup North America. “The single defining challenge for employers is enticing American workers back to the work force.”

The report follows several promising economic developments this week. Consumer confidence, which surged in June, is at its highest point since the pandemic’s onset last year. Stocks closed out the first half of the year at record highs. And the Congressional Budget Office said Thursday that the economy was on track to recover all the jobs lost in the pandemic by the middle of next year.

But economists cautioned against trying to divine the complex currents crisscrossing the labor market from a single month’s data, particularly given how much the pandemic has disrupted employment patterns.

may reflect smaller-than-expected layoffs rather than big gains. Over a longer period, employment in both public and private education remains significantly below its prepandemic level.

remarks from the White House.

The June figures are unlikely to allay the concerns of small-business owners and managers who complain about the difficulty finding workers. Nearly half report that they cannot fill openings, according to a recent survey by the National Federation of Independent Business.

The competition for workers has pushed up wages. Average hourly earnings climbed 3.6 percent in the year through June and 0.3 percent over the month. Low-wage workers seem to be the biggest beneficiaries of the bump in pay.

Ms. Frankiewicz of ManpowerGroup said the rise of “superemployers” like Amazon and Walmart was making it even more difficult for small and medium-size businesses to attract workers. In the summer of 2019, the top 25 employers had 10 percent of the open jobs, she said, while “today 10 employers do.”

moved to end distribution of federal pandemic-related jobless benefits even though they are funded until September, arguing that the assistance — including a $300 weekly supplement — was discouraging people from returning to work.

The latest jobs report did not reflect the cutoff’s impact because the government surveys were completed before any states ended benefits.

Staffing firms said they had not seen a pickup in job searches or hiring in states that have since withdrawn from the federal jobless programs.

Indeed surveyed 5,000 people in and out of the labor force and found that child care responsibilities, health concerns, vaccination rates and a financial cushion — from savings or public assistance — had all affected the number looking for work. Many employers are desperate to hire, but only 10 percent of workers surveyed said they were urgently seeking a job.

And even among that group, 20 percent said they didn’t want to take a position immediately.

Aside from ever-present concerns about pay and benefits, workers are particularly interested in jobs that allow them to work remotely at least some of the time. In a survey of more than 1,200 people by the staffing company Randstad, roughly half said they preferred a flexible work arrangement that didn’t require them to be on site full time.

Some employers are getting creative with work arrangements in response, said Karen Fichuk, chief executive of Randstad North America. One employer changed the standard shift to match the bus schedule so employees could get to work more easily. Others adjusted hours to make it easier for parents with child care demands.

Health and safety concerns are also on the minds of workers whose jobs require face-to-face interactions, the survey found.

Black and Hispanic workers, who were disproportionately affected by the coronavirus and by job losses, are having trouble regaining their foothold. “The Black unemployment rate is still exceptionally high,” at 9.2 percent compared with 5.2 percent for white workers, said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York.

One factor in the elevated Black jobless rate is that the ranks of Black workers employed or seeking jobs grew sharply last month. But participation in the labor force remains lower than it was before the pandemic among all major racial and ethnic groups.

Professor Holder said some people were reluctant to rejoin the labor force because of the quality and the pay of the work available.

“We don’t have a shortage of people to work,” she said. “What we don’t have are decent jobs.”

Jeanna Smialek and Ben Casselman contributed reporting.

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China’s Three-Child Policy Sparks Indignation and Concern

After China said it would allow couples to have three children, the state news media trumpeted the move as a major change that would help stimulate growth. But across much of the country, the announcement was met with indignation.

Women worried that the move would only exacerbate discrimination from employers reluctant to pay maternity leave. Young people fumed that they were already hard-pressed to find jobs and take care of themselves, let alone a child (or three). Working-class parents said the financial burden of more children would be unbearable.

“I definitely will not have another child,” said Hu Daifang, a former migrant worker in Sichuan Province. Mr. Hu, 35, said he was already struggling, especially after his mother fell ill and could no longer help care for his two children. “It feels like we are just surviving, not living.”

For many ordinary Chinese, the news about the policy change on Monday was only a reminder of a problem they’d long recognized: the drastic inadequacy of China’s social safety net and legal protections that would enable them to have more children.

Pregnancy discrimination is widespread in China, with women reporting being fired or demoted after telling their bosses they were expecting a child. Some women have even reported being forced to sign contracts promising not to get pregnant within a certain period at new jobs.

“As a woman, you’re inherently at a disadvantage in the workplace,” Ms. Li said.

Ms. Li said she was sympathetic to her boss’s concerns. She did believe that as a manager, her absence would be inconvenient for the company. She acknowledged that she herself, when interviewing candidates, would sometimes wonder whether a new hire would soon leave to give birth.

as some other countries do, and mandate paternity leave, so women would not be singled out for being parents.

had already barred employers from asking women about their marital or childbearing status in 2019, and the problem was weak enforcement. The government has often encouraged women to retreat to more traditional gender roles, in an effort to increase the birthrate.

“Our government is very good at empty talk,” said Lu Pin, a Chinese feminist activist. “It’s meaningless to just look at a few things they said.”

Ms. Lu expected workplace discrimination against women to get worse. Employers might fear that women would want to have a third child — even if, she added, that was unlikely to be the case, given broader trends.

The lack of social support may discourage those who would otherwise want more children, but a more fundamental issue may be a lack of interest among younger, better educated women who have declared a preference for small families. Even if the government did offer more benefits, Ms. Li said, she would not want to have a third child.

“Two is pretty good,” she said. “There’s no point to having too many.”

Joy Dong contributed research.

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The Luckiest Workers in America? Teenagers.

Roller-coaster operators and lemonade slingers at Kennywood amusement park, a Pittsburgh summer staple, won’t have to buy their own uniforms this year. Those with a high school diploma will also earn $13 as a starting wage — up from $9 last year — and new hires are receiving free season passes for themselves and their families.

The big pop in pay and perks for Kennywood’s seasonal work force, where nearly half of employees are under 18, echoes what is happening around the country as employers scramble to hire waiters, receptionists and other service workers to satisfy surging demand as the economy reopens.

For American teenagers looking for work, this may be the best summer in years.

As companies try to go from hardly staffed to fully staffed practically overnight, teens appear to be winning out more than any demographic group. The share of 16- to 19-year-olds who are working hasn’t been this high since 2008, before the unfolding global financial crisis sent employment plummeting. Roughly 256,000 teens in that age group gained employment in April — counting for the vast majority of newly employed people — a significant change after teenagers suffered sharp job losses at the beginning of the pandemic. Whether the trend can hold up will become clearer when jobs data for May is released on Friday.

It could come with a downside. Some educators warn that jobs could distract from school. And while employment can itself offer learning opportunities, the most recent wave of hiring has been led by white teens, raising concerns that young people from minority groups might miss out on a hot summer labor market.

antique roller coaster and snapping people into paddle boats when she thought it paid $9 — so when she found out the park was lifting pay to $13 an hour, she was thrilled.

“I love it,” she said. She doesn’t even mind having to walk backward on the carousel to check that everyone is riding safely, though it can be disorienting. “After you see the little kids and they give you high-fives, it doesn’t matter at all.”

It’s not just Kennywood paying up. Small businesses in a database compiled by the payroll platform Gusto have been raising teen wages in service sector jobs in recent months, said Luke Pardue, an economist at the company. Teens took a hit at the onset of the pandemic but got back to their pre-coronavirus wage levels in March 2021 and have spent the first part of May seeing their wages accelerate above that.

raised the starting pay to $10 an hour and dropped the minimum age for applicants from 16 years old to 15. It seems to have worked: More teenagers applied and the city has started interviewing candidates for the open positions.

“Between 2020 and 2021, it seems like a lot of the retail starting salaries really jumped up, and we just kind of had to follow suit if we wanted to be competitive and get qualified applicants,” said Trace Stevens, the city’s director of parks and recreation.

Apps for Apps” deal in which applicants who were interviewed received a free appetizer voucher. Restaurants and gas stations across the country are offering signing bonuses.

But the perks and better pay may not reach everyone. White teens lost employment heavily at the beginning of the pandemic, and they’ve led the gains in 2021, even as Black teens have added comparatively few and Hispanic teens actually lost jobs. That’s continuing a long-running disparity in which white teens work in much greater numbers, and the gap could worsen if the current trajectory continues.

More limited access to transportation is one factor that may hold minority teens back from work, Ms. Sasser Modestino said. Plus, while places like Cape Cod and suburban neighborhoods begin to boom, some urban centers with public transit remain short on foot traffic, which may be disadvantaging teens who live in cities.

“We haven’t seen the demand yet,” said Joseph McLaughlin, research and evaluation director at the Boston Private Industry Council, which helps to place students into paid internships and helps others to apply to private employers, like grocery stores.

Ms. Sasser Modestino’s research has found that the long-running decline in teen work has partly come from a shift toward college prep and internships, but that many teens still need and want jobs for economic reasons. Yet the types of jobs teens have traditionally held have dwindled — Blockbuster gigs are a thing of the past — and older workers increasingly fill them.

Teenagers who are benefiting now may not be able to count on a favorable labor market for the long haul, said Anthony P. Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

“There may be what will surely be a brief positive effect, as young people can move into a lot of jobs where adults have receded for whatever reason,” he said. “It’s going to be temporary, because we always take care of the adults first.”

Educators have voiced a different concern: That today’s plentiful and prosperous teen jobs might be distracting students from their studies.

When in-class education restarted last August at Torrington High School, which serves 330 students in a small city in Wyoming, principal Chase Christensen found that about 10 of his older students weren’t returning. They had taken full-time jobs, including working night shifts at a nursing home and working at a gravel pit, and were reluctant to give up the money. Five have since dropped out of or failed to complete high school.

“They had gotten used to the pay of a full-time worker,” Mr. Christensen said. “They’re getting jobs that usually high schoolers don’t get.”

If better job prospects in the near term overtake teenagers’ plans for additional education or training, that could also spell trouble. Economic research consistently finds that those who manage to get through additional training have better-paying careers.

Still, Ms. Sasser Modestino pointed out that a lot of the hiring happening now was for summer jobs, which have less chance of interfering with school. And there may be upsides. For people like Ms. Bailley, it means an opportunity to save for textbooks and tuition down the road. She’d like to go to community college to complete prerequisites, and then pursue an engineering degree.

“I’ve always been interested in robots, I love programming and coding,” she said, explaining that learning how roller coasters work lines up with her academic interests.

Shaylah Bentley, 18 and a new season pass taker at Kennywood, said the higher-than-expected wage she’s earning will allow her to decorate her dorm room at Slippery Rock University. She’s a rising sophomore this year, studying exercise science.

“I wanted to save up money for school and expenses,” she said. “And have something to do this summer.”

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States and cities across the U.S. debate the future of online learning.

As the coronavirus pandemic ebbs in the United States and vaccines become available for teenagers, school systems are facing the difficult choice of whether to continue offering a remote learning option in the fall.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City took a stance on Monday, saying that the city will drop remote learning in its public schools, the move may have added to the pressure on other school systems to do the same.

Some families remain fearful of returning their children to classrooms, and others have become accustomed to new child care and work routines built around remote schooling, and are loath to make major changes.

But it is increasingly clear that school closures have exacted an academic and emotional toll on millions of American students, while preventing some parents from working outside the home.

no longer have the option of sending their children to school virtually in the fall. Illinois plans to strictly limit online learning to students who are not eligible for a vaccine and are under quarantine orders.

Connecticut has said it will not require districts to offer virtual learning next fall. Massachusetts has said that parents will be able to opt for remote participation only in limited circumstances.

In California, which lagged behind the rest of the nation in returning to in-person schooling this spring, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he would compel districts to offer traditional school in the fall, while also offering remote learning for families who want it. Some lawmakers there have proposed an alternative approach that would cap the number of students enrolled in virtual options.

It is a major staffing challenge for districts to simultaneously offer both traditional and online classes. Before the pandemic, teachers’ unions were typically harsh critics of virtual learning, which they called inherently inferior. But with some teachers still hesitant to return to full classrooms, even post-vaccination, many unions have said parents should continue to have the choice to opt out of in-person learning.

Some teachers, parent groups and civil rights organizations have also argued that families of color are the least confident that their children will be safe in school buildings, and thus should not be pushed to return before they are ready.

about one-third of American elementary and secondary students attend schools that are not yet offering five days a week of in-person learning. Those school districts are mainly in areas with more liberal state and local governments and powerful teachers’ unions.

Disputes among administrators, teachers and parents’ groups over when and how to reopen schools have led to messy, protracted public battles in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles.

Governors, mayors and school boards around the country almost all now say that traditional in-person teaching schedules will be available in the fall, but there is still limited clarity on what rights parents will have to decline to return their children to classrooms. Many districts and states have yet to announce what their approach will be.

Among urban districts, the superintendent in San Antonio, Pedro Martinez, has said he will greatly restrict access to remote learning next school year, in part because many teenagers from low-income families have taken on work hours that are incompatible with full-time learning, a trend he wants to tamp down. The Philadelphia and Houston schools have said they will continue offering virtual options.

The superintendent of the nation’s fourth-largest district, Miami-Dade, has said he hopes to welcome back “100 percent” of students to in-person learning in the fall, but that students will retain the option to enroll instead in an online academy that predates the pandemic.

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How the Coming Population Bust Will Transform the World

All over the world, countries are confronting population stagnation and a fertility bust, a dizzying reversal unmatched in recorded history that will make first-birthday parties a rarer sight than funerals, and empty homes a common eyesore.

Maternity wards are already shutting down in Italy. Ghost cities are appearing in northeastern China. Universities in South Korea can’t find enough students, and in Germany, hundreds of thousands of properties have been razed, with the land turned into parks.

Like an avalanche, the demographic forces — pushing toward more deaths than births — seem to be expanding and accelerating. Though some countries continue to see their populations grow, especially in Africa, fertility rates are falling nearly everywhere else. Demographers now predict that by the latter half of the century or possibly earlier, the global population will enter a sustained decline for the first time.

A planet with fewer people could ease pressure on resources, slow the destructive impact of climate change and reduce household burdens for women. But the census announcements this month from China and the United States, which showed the slowest rates of population growth in decades for both countries, also point to hard-to-fathom adjustments.

spirals exponentially. With fewer births, fewer girls grow up to have children, and if they have smaller families than their parents did — which is happening in dozens of countries — the drop starts to look like a rock thrown off a cliff.

“It becomes a cyclical mechanism,” said Stuart Gietel Basten, an expert on Asian demographics and a professor of social science and public policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “It’s demographic momentum.”

Some countries, like the United States, Australia and Canada, where birthrates hover between 1.5 and 2, have blunted the impact with immigrants. But in Eastern Europe, migration out of the region has compounded depopulation, and in large parts of Asia, the “demographic time bomb” that first became a subject of debate a few decades ago has finally gone off.

South Korea’s fertility rate dropped to a record low of 0.92 in 2019 — less than one child per woman, the lowest rate in the developed world. Every month for the past 59 months, the total number of babies born in the country has dropped to a record depth.

schools shut and abandoned, their playgrounds overgrown with weeds, because there are not enough children.

even iPhones.

To goose the birthrate, the government has handed out baby bonuses. It increased child allowances and medical subsidies for fertility treatments and pregnancy. Health officials have showered newborns with gifts of beef, baby clothes and toys. The government is also building kindergartens and day care centers by the hundreds. In Seoul, every bus and subway car has pink seats reserved for pregnant women.

But this month, Deputy Prime Minister Hong Nam-ki admitted that the government — which has spent more than $178 billion over the past 15 years encouraging women to have more babies — was not making enough progress. In many families, the shift feels cultural and permanent.

projections by an international team of scientists published last year in The Lancet, 183 countries and territories — out of 195 — will have fertility rates below replacement level by 2100.

municipalities have been consolidated as towns age and shrink. In Sweden, some cities have shifted resources from schools to elder care. And almost everywhere, older people are being asked to keep working. Germany, which previously raised its retirement age to 67, is now considering a bump to 69.

Going further than many other nations, Germany has also worked through a program of urban contraction: Demolitions have removed around 330,000 units from the housing stock since 2002.

recently increased to 1.54, up from 1.3 in 2006. Leipzig, which once was shrinking, is now growing again after reducing its housing stock and making itself more attractive with its smaller scale.

“Growth is a challenge, as is decline,” said Mr. Swiaczny, who is now a senior research fellow at the Federal Institute for Population Research in Germany.

Demographers warn against seeing population decline as simply a cause for alarm. Many women are having fewer children because that’s what they want. Smaller populations could lead to higher wages, more equal societies, lower carbon emissions and a higher quality of life for the smaller numbers of children who are born.

But, said Professor Gietel Basten, quoting Casanova: “There is no such thing as destiny. We ourselves shape our lives.”

The challenges ahead are still a cul-de-sac — no country with a serious slowdown in population growth has managed to increase its fertility rate much beyond the minor uptick that Germany accomplished. There is little sign of wage growth in shrinking countries, and there is no guarantee that a smaller population means less stress on the environment.

Many demographers argue that the current moment may look to future historians like a period of transition or gestation, when humans either did or did not figure out how to make the world more hospitable — enough for people to build the families that they want.

Surveys in many countries show that young people would like to be having more children, but face too many obstacles.

Anna Parolini tells a common story. She left her small hometown in northern Italy to find better job opportunities. Now 37, she lives with her boyfriend in Milan and has put her desire to have children on hold.

She is afraid her salary of less than 2,000 euros a month would not be enough for a family, and her parents still live where she grew up.

“I don’t have anyone here who could help me,” she said. “Thinking of having a child now would make me gasp.”

Elsie Chen, Christopher Schuetze and Benjamin Novak contributed reporting.

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Defying Critics, Biden and Federal Reserve Insist Economic Recovery Remains on Track

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“We should be on track for a fantastic American comeback summer, full steam ahead,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said this month on the chamber floor. “From vaccinations to job growth, the new Biden administration inherited favorable trends in every direction.”

“But in several important ways, the decisions of elected Democrats have contributed to slowing the return to normalcy,” he added.

Critics have also questioned the wisdom of the Fed’s commitment to keeping interest rates low and buying bonds even as prices begin to rise. Senator Patrick J. Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania, said last month that while the Fed “maintains that this bout of inflation will be mild and temporary,” it “may be time for the central bank to consider the alternative.”

Mr. Biden’s aides say they continue to monitor the threat that consumer prices could spiral upward, forcing a rapid policy response that could slam the brakes on economic growth. They say that those risks remain low, and that they see no reason to change course on the president’s agenda, including proposed infrastructure and social programs that the president asserts will bolster the economy for years to come. That agenda could prove a more difficult sell, even among congressional Democrats, if job growth continues to disappoint and inflation soars higher than expected.

Fed officials also remain undaunted. They show no sign of raising interest rates soon and are continuing to buy $120 billion in government-backed bonds each month. Officials have given only the earliest hints that they might begin to tiptoe away from that emergency policy setting. They argue that their job is to manage risks, and the risk of withdrawing help early is bigger than the risk that the economy will overheat.

“I don’t think it would be good for the industries we want to see thriving as the recovery continues for us to close off that recovery prematurely,” Randal K. Quarles, the Fed’s vice chair for supervision, said at a House committee hearing this week as lawmakers pressed him on the threat of inflation. The Fed is independent of the White House, but responsible for keeping prices in check.

Voters give Mr. Biden high marks for his economic stewardship thus far. A solid majority of Americans — including many Republicans — approve of the president’s plans to raise taxes on high earners and corporations to fund new spending on water pipes, electric vehicles, education, child care assistance, paid leave and other programs, according to polling for The New York Times conducted by the online research firm Survey Monkey from May 3 to 9.

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Investors Put Millions Into a Luxury Student Dorm. They Say They Were Ripped Off.

Ms. Martinez, who lives not far from the dorm, said she had invested a little over $100,000 in the deal — money that came from the sale of a rental property. Like many investors in Skyloft, she was looking for a way to defer paying capital gains on the prior sale, and the private placement was marketed by brokers as a “1031 exchange” deal that would keep the Internal Revenue Service at bay.

A 1031 exchange deal, named after a section of the federal tax code, allows an investor to defer paying capital gains on the sale of property as long as the proceeds are invested into another property of equal or greater value to the one sold. These transactions are often criticized as a tax break for the rich, but the deals have also long attracted interest from investors of more moderate means.

The Biden administration is considering eliminating many of these deals as a way to raise additional revenue to pay for increased spending on child care and family leave programs. The Biden plan would allow 1031 exchanges to continue for most investors seeking to defer up to $500,000 in capital gains — many in the Skyloft deal fit that bill.

In recent years, student housing projects like Skyloft have become especially attractive real estate investments — especially as universities have encouraged the building of luxury apartment buildings to cater to students from wealthy families. Before the pandemic, there were, on average, $7 billion in student housing transactions in the United States each year. That was up from $3 billion just a decade ago, according to CBRE, a commercial real estate services firm.

Court filings and interviews with investors set out how the Skyloft project financing worked. To secure the $124 million purchase of Skyloft, Nelson Partners obtained a $66 million mortgage from a group of lenders led by UBS, in addition to the $75 million raised from ordinary investors. It also got $35 million in short-term financing from Axonic Capital, a New York hedge fund that specializes in commercial real estate transactions. The loan from Axonic was used to complete the purchase while Nelson Partners was raising money from investors.

Nelson Partners was to pay Axonic back the bridge loan, plus interest, using money raised from investors like Ms. Martinez. But Mr. Nelson’s firm did not pay back the loan, according to court filings. In February 2020, Axonic put Nelson Partners on notice, and it notified him last May that it was declaring Nelson Partners in default and taking control of the building.

Mr. Nelson opposed Axonic’s move but did not inform investors about his dealings with the hedge fund, according to the lawsuits. Instead, in April 2020, Nelson Partners stopped paying monthly cash dividends to the investors, telling them that it needed to conserve cash during the pandemic in the event students and their parents stopped paying rent. Mr. Nelson’s firm also received a loan of just over $1.2 million from the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program.

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Rural Areas Are Looking for Workers. They Need Broadband to Get Them.

As a manufacturer of asphalt paving equipment, Weiler is exactly the type of company poised to benefit if the federal government increases spending on roads and bridges. But when Patrick Weiler talks about infrastructure, the issue he brings up first has next to nothing to do with his company’s core business.

It’s broadband internet service.

Weiler is based in Marion County, Iowa, a rural area southeast of Des Moines. Internet speeds are fine at the company’s 400,000-square-foot factory, because Weiler paid to have a fiber-optic cable run from the nearby highway. But that doesn’t help the surrounding community, where broadband access can be spotty at best. That is a problem for recruitment — already one of the biggest challenges for Weiler and many other rural employers.

“How do you get young people to want to move back into these rural areas when they feel like they’re moving back into a time frame of 20 years ago?” asked Mr. Weiler, the company’s founder and chief executive.

Rural areas have complained for years that slow, unreliable or simply unavailable internet access is restricting their economic growth. But the pandemic has given new urgency to those concerns, at the same time that President Biden’s infrastructure plan — which includes $100 billion to improve broadband access — has raised hope that the problem might finally be addressed.

address to Congress last month. “This is going to help our kids and our businesses succeed in the 21st-century economy.”

Mr. Biden has received both criticism and praise for pushing to expand the scope of infrastructure to include investments in child care, health care and other priorities beyond the concrete-and-steel projects that the word normally calls to mind. But ensuring internet access is broadly popular. In a recent survey conducted for The New York Times by the online research platform SurveyMonkey, 78 percent of adults said they supported broadband investment, including 62 percent of Republicans.

Businesses, too, have consistently supported broadband investment. Major industry groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers have all released policy recommendations in the last year calling for federal spending to help close the “digital divide.”

Quantifying that divide, and its economic cost, is difficult, in part because there is no agreed-upon definition of broadband. The Federal Communications Commission in 2015 updated its standards to a minimum download speed of 25 megabits per second. The Department of Agriculture sets its standard lower, at 10 m.p.s. A bipartisan group of rural-state senators asked both agencies this year to raise their standards to 100 m.p.s. And speed-based definitions don’t take into account other issues, like reliability and latency, a measure of how long a signal takes to travel between a computer and a remote server.

recent study by Broadband Now, an independent research group whose data is widely cited, found that 42 million Americans live in places where they cannot buy broadband internet service, most of them in rural areas.

According to the F.C.C.’s definition, most of Marion County has high-speed access to the internet. But residents report that service is slow and unreliable. And with only one provider serving much of the county, customers have little leverage to demand better service.

Marion County, with 33,000 people, has economic challenges common to rural areas: an aging work force, anemic population growth and a limited set of employers concentrated in a few industries. But it also has assets, including its proximity to Des Moines and a group of employers willing to train workers.

Local leaders have plans to attract new businesses and a younger generation of workers — but those plans won’t work without better internet service, said Mark Raymie, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors.

“Our ability to diversify our economic base is dependent on modern infrastructure, and that includes broadband,” he said. “We can say, ‘Come and work here.’ But if we don’t have modern amenities, modern infrastructure, that sales pitch falls flat.”

Mr. Weiler’s daughter Megan Green grew up in Marion County, then left to go to college and start her career. When she moved home in 2017 to work for her father’s company, it was like returning to an earlier technological era.

“Our cellular service is more spotty, our wireless is more temperamental, and we definitely only have one choice,” Ms. Green, 35, said. “It’s a bit of a generational thing. We rely on internet access.”

Ms. Green moved home for family reasons. But finding others willing to do the same has been difficult. Broadband isn’t the only factor — shortages of housing and child care also rank high — but it is a major one. Recruiting is Weiler’s “No. 1 challenge,” Ms. Green said, despite wages that start around $20 an hour, before overtime.

The experience of the past year has accentuated the problem. When the pandemic hit last year, Weiler sent home any workers who didn’t have to be on the factory floor. But they quickly encountered a problem.

“I was shocked to know how many of our employees could not work from home because they did not have reliable internet access,” Ms. Green said. “We’re talking ‘seven minutes to download an email’ type internet access.”

Other local companies had a similar experience. In June, the Greater Des Moines Partnership, a regional business group, commissioned a study on how to improve the area’s digital infrastructure. With the state and federal governments considering significant investments, the group hopes its study will give it priority for funding, said Brian Crowe, the group’s head of economic development.

For Marion County and other rural areas, the widespread experiment with working from home during the pandemic could present an economic opportunity if the infrastructure is there to allow it. Many companies have said they will allow employees to continue to work remotely all or part of the time, which could free workers to ditch city life and move to the country — or take jobs at companies like Weiler while their spouses work from home.

“All of a sudden, it’s not going to be the case that in order to work for leading companies, you have to move to the cities where those companies are located,” said Adam Ozimek, chief economist for Upwork, a platform for freelancers. “It’s going to spread opportunity around.”

But broadband experts say there is no way that rural areas will get access to high-speed, reliable internet service without government help. If a place doesn’t have internet access in 2021, there is a reason: generally too few potential customers, too dispersed to serve efficiently.

“The private sector’s just not set up to solve this,” said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied the issue. He likened the challenge to rural electrification almost a century ago, when the federal government had to step in to ensure that even remote areas had access to electrical power.

“This is exactly what we saw play out in terms of economic history in the 1910s, ’20s, ’30s,” he said. “It really is about towns being left behind.”

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