February 14, 2017
Unpaid Water Bills Open Door to Advice
Nearly half of the low-income residents in some sections of Louisville are delinquent on their city water bills. In Newark, water customers’ unpaid balances have been known to reach $4,000.
The shutoff and reactivation fees that some cities charge when they stop a customer’s water service create another problem in places like Houston: they add to the unpaid balances of customers who are already struggling financially. Cities are also becoming more aggressive about collecting on their debts, hiring third-party collection firms.
Researchers and the National League of Cities tried an alternative in the form of an ambitious pilot program involving five city water departments: Houston; Louisville, Kentucky; Newark, New Jersey; Savannah, Georgia; and St. Petersburg, Florida. Driving the program was the recognition that unpaid water bills are an indication of deep financial distress. So the cities, which are loathe to turn off this essential service, embraced a broader vision: providing financial counseling to empower families with delinquent water bills to better manage their situations.
While every city’s pilot program was slightly different, Ohio State researcher Stephanie Moulton said they had two things in common: an agreement to restructure residents’ unpaid water bills to make them affordable, and at least one private session with a financial counselor or coach already working for the city or a local non-profit. Some cities added other services, such as screening for public benefits if a job loss had caused a resident to fall behind on the water bill.
Houston, for example, trained and certified six customer service representatives in its Department of Public Works to act as financial coaches, said Bonnie Ashcroft, a departmental section chief. The counselors who coached clients on their household finances also advised them on how to reduce their water bills.
It’s not possible to do a rigorous analysis of the pilot’s overall effectiveness, because each city’s water department is unique. But individual analyses of each city found three that showed marked improvements in their water payments, Moulton said. These successes were presented in a recent webinar. …
In Houston, customers’ unpaid account balances declined, on average, from $544 to $374. Unpaid account balances in Newark went from $969 to $605. The frequency of payments in these cities also increased, Moulton said. Learn More
February 9, 2017
Retiree Benefits: Tale of 2 Cities (States)
Some of the workers and retirees around the country who count on having a government pension surely get nervous when they see headlines about the most troubled state and local plans – in places like Illinois, New Jersey, Connecticut, Chicago, and Detroit.
A broader perspective on retirement benefits, however, shows that the results are more mixed. A study by the Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog, estimated long-term costs for pensions, retiree health benefits, and general debt service as a share of revenues for the 50 states, 178 counties, and 173 cities.
The findings are summarized below:
- Many states’ combined costs – pensions, other post-employment benefits (OPEBS) such as health insurance, and payments on all government bonds – appear manageable.
- More worrisome are the eight states with the highest combined costs: Illinois, New Jersey, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Delaware. [States with high pension burdens also tend to have high costs for retiree health benefits].
Counties: …Learn More
February 7, 2017
Wrong People Seek Financial Info, Help
Most of the 1,000 people who took the financial well-being quiz posted here last year felt content with their situations. Their well-being score averaged 16.4 out of 20 points possible on the quiz.
This happy response completely conflicts with a statistically more reliable survey showing that three out of four Americans report feeling “financially stressed.” Our quiz makes no claim of representing the adult U.S. population and was taken by a hodgepodge of regular readers, Twitter followers and Facebook friends.
So why are Squared Away loyalists so content with their finances?
The blog is “attracting people who are in the action phase. I’m guessing they’re motivated and ready to move,” said Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist in Hawaii – he is both a certified financial planner and trained psychologist.
But the flip side of this is that those who do not seek out financial information and advice – and don’t take blog quizzes – are often “in total denial, and you’re probably not going to catch them,” he said.
Indeed, Klontz’s research has identified avoiding dealing with difficult money issues as among the unconscious behaviors that ensnare people who are in poor financial health, measured by being overloaded with debt or not saving for retirement.
For the avoiders, the psychology is that they know their behavior hurts them but feel it’s due to a character defect – “lazy, crazy, or stupid” – he said. “Shame keeps you stuck. If I’m such a terrible person, why should I try? I’m not going to ask anyone for help.”
When people with money problems recognize the psychological underpinnings, he said, it can lead to changes that can end the pain.
The question for personal finance bloggers and financial advisers remains: how do we reach the people who can’t be reached? …Learn More
February 2, 2017
Managing Money with Cognitive Decline
Despite the normal cognitive challenges that people in their 70s and 80s inevitably face, most are sharp enough to be in charge of their financial affairs or oversee them.
But the significant minority of seniors who do have trouble is explored in a new summary of the research by Anek Belbase and Geoffrey Sanzenbacher at the Center for Retirement Research, which supports this blog.
One such group is people learning for the first time how to carry out financial tasks. Widows, not surprisingly, are often required to negotiate this financial learning curve, which gets steeper as a senior’s ability to process new information erodes. With guidance from a family member or professional, however, the novices can usually figure things out.
Seniors with mild cognitive impairment might also develop problems. Mild impairment becomes fairly common by the time people reach their 70s, affecting their financial judgment and potentially their ability to manage their affairs in ways that promote their best interests. Among those with mild impairment, 82 percent can independently handle the various financial tasks they face, such as paying bills, managing bank accounts, and maintaining good credit. This compares with 95 percent of unimpaired seniors.
Another danger facing seniors with mild cognitive impairment is their vulnerability to fraud. They are usually aware they’re slipping, yet they may remain confident about their ability to handle their financial affairs. …Learn More
January 31, 2017
Good Health Insurance is What Counts
Having health insurance is no guarantee that medical care is affordable.
Some families, despite being covered by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or employer policies, say that high premiums and deductibles mean they can’t afford to see a doctor. This distinction – between having insurance and receiving care – will be crucial as Congress considers proposals for ACA’s replacement.
One comprehensive 2003 study demonstrates how individual medical decisions change when they receive one longstanding, and what the researchers called “generous,” type of insurance: Medicare. Their study focused on changes in the use of the health care system – more so than improved health – by comparing people who’ve recently gone on Medicare with people a couple years away from turning 65 and becoming eligible. The analysis adjusts for the fact that some, though not all, people under 65 have employer coverage and that many people also retire around this age, sometimes receiving special retiree health benefits.
Once people turn 65 and are on Medicare, the researchers found that:
- The probability of seeing a doctor at least once a year increased, based on data from the National Health Interview Surveys, which track the frequency of routine medical care.
- Medicare eligibility led to a “surprisingly large” 5-10 percent increase in hospitalizations in California and Florida, particularly among white Americans. The increase was driven by elective surgeries such as joint replacements and heart bypass surgeries.
- There were large increases in preventive care for less-educated whites, such as getting flu shots and cholesterol tests, based on analyses of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which tracks preventive care use.
- Minorities, who are at much higher risk of untreated high blood pressure, were more likely to receive this diagnosis after going on Medicare. …
January 24, 2017
The Late-1950s Boomers: Hit by Divorce
It’s old news that the many baby boomers who did not get married and stay married are worse off financially than those who did. Unfortunately, the financial damage to one segment of this generation has broken new ground.
Only 44 percent of “middle boomers” – those born in the late 1950s – have remained married to their original spouses, down from 52 percent of their parents’ generation. Middle boomers are also far more likely to have lived with partners without marrying, remained single all their lives, or even to have divorced twice.
The heart of a study is determining which of middle boomers’ choices were most likely to have led to financial distress when they reached their pre-retirement years.
About 11 percent of middle boomers had negative net worth by the time they were in their early 50s – more than double the share for the generation born during the Great Depression when they reached this age. Negative net worth means that middle boomers’ mortgages and other debts exceed the value of their assets; in this study, assets included everything from retirement plans and taxable bank accounts to primary and vacation homes.
To understand why, the researchers culled marital histories from a survey of older Americans. They found that four lifestyles are most strongly linked to middle boomers’ negative net worth: never marrying, going through one divorce and becoming single again, separating from a second marriage, and divorcing from a second marriage.
In all of these situations, the individuals were about three times more likely to have negative net worth than were the continually married middle boomers. The study controlled for age, gender, race, education, health, household income, and the number of offspring.
Middle boomers are the “least prepared for retirement” out of four groups studied, the researchers concluded, and their choices around marriage have been important contributing factors.Learn More
January 24, 2017
Can Work Enhance Seniors’ Social Lives?
Maintaining a network of family, friends, or even golfing buddies is critical to cognitive and physical health in old age, research has shown.
What wasn’t known is how work affects the social lives of older people. Does work foster social ties or limit the time one has to socialize?
A new study by Eleonora Patacchini at Cornell University and Gary Engelhardt at Syracuse University finds that those who continue to work have larger social networks.
They analyzed responses to the following question by more than 1,300 survey participants in the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project. The participants were ages 57 to 85 in 2005 and answered the following question then and again in 2010:
“Most people discuss things that are important to them with others. For example, these may include good or bad things that happen to you, problems you are having, or important concerns you may have. Looking back over the last 12 months, who are the people with whom you most often discussed things that were important to you?” …Learn More