Explaining Social Security’s Earnings Test

The reduction in benefits for some people who collect Social Security while simultaneously working is frequently called a “tax.”

It is not a tax. Under a Social Security rule known as the Retirement Earnings Test (RET), some benefits are withheld if the worker earns above a certain level – $19,560 in 2022 – and has not yet reached his full retirement age under the program. At that age, the government starts paying the deferred benefits back incrementally.

As older workers plot a path to retirement, they should have a clear understanding of this financial impact. But a new study finds they have a poor grasp of the tradeoff that is the central feature of the RET: a smaller monthly check now, while they’re working, in return for a bigger check later.

Failing to understand this concept has real world consequences. Retirement experts encourage boomers to work as much as possible to improve their finances. But someone who doesn’t understand the RET might decide against working more to prevent a perceived benefit cut.

The researchers experimented with how to improve understanding of the RET by showing some 1,000 older workers numerous graphic representations of the financial impact. The best way to illustrate the study’s main finding – that a bar chart emphasizing the shift in benefits from now to later worked best – is to focus here on two pairs of blue bar graphs.

Some workers saw a simple bar graph (below, left) showing that the individual who fully retired at age 62 would receive a $1,000 monthly benefit for life. A second bar graph (below, right) showed a smaller benefit –  about $750 per month – for someone who started Social Security at 62 while he was still working. At 67, his full retirement age, the benefit jumps to about $1,100 when Social Security starts paying back the withheld amount.A second group of workers also saw the simple bar graph (above, left) of the 62-year-old retirees’ stable $1,000 benefit. But the second bar graph (below) illustrated the shift in benefits for a Social Security recipient who is still working.Learn More

Enhancement to Savers Tax Credit is Minor

The Savers Tax Credit sounds great on paper. Low-income people get a federal tax credit for saving money for retirement.

But this part of the tax code always seems to disappoint.

The House recently overwhelmingly passed a bill, the Secure Act 2.0, that – along with numerous other retirement provisions – makes the savers credit more generous for some low-income workers.

Under current law, taxpayers can get one of three credits – 10 percent, 20 percent, or 50 percent of the amount they save in a 401(k). The Secure Act, which is now headed for the Senate, would somewhat increase the top income levels for the 50 percent credit – from $20,500 currently to $24,000 for single taxpayers and from $41,000 to $48,000 for married couples. The dollar value of the caps on their credits would remain at the current $1,000 and $2,000, respectively.

The House bill would also eliminate the 10 percent and 20 percent credits for higher-income workers and begin phasing out the dollar caps once taxpayers exceed the $24,000 and $48,000 income levels.

The proposed tweak to the tax structure “is not a dramatic change to who gets the credit,” said Samantha Jacoby, the senior tax legal analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The House also failed to fix the fundamental flaw in the savers credit: it is non-refundable. This means workers who don’t owe any taxes don’t qualify. Without refundability, Jacoby and Chuck Marr write in a recent report, the House bill “ignores a critical reason why so few people with low and moderate incomes claim the credit.”

Disappointment with the tweaks to the savers credit is apparent in the context of the entire bill, which gives much more to higher-income people. For example, the House increased the age that taxation of 401(k) withdrawals kicks in from 72 to 75. Some retirees with modest incomes will tap their savings long before that and won’t benefit from the provision.

“Overwhelmingly, the people who will benefit from this bill are the people who are higher income and already have secure retirements,” Jacoby said.

Another barrier to use of the savers credit is a lack of awareness that it exists. The share of tax filers who claim the credit has increased in the past 20 years but still hasn’t reached 10 percent, according to a report by Transamerica Institute. …Learn More

Got a Retirement Plan? Race Plays a Role

The following statistic will sound familiar since I use it regularly: about half of U.S. workers are not saving enough and may see their standard of living drop when they retire.

A major culprit in this poor state of preparedness is that millions of Americans at any given moment don’t have a traditional pension or 401(k) savings plan at work.

A new study takes a close look at who these people are and shows stark differences along racial lines. A large majority of Hispanic workers in the private sector – two out of every three – do not have access to a pension or 401(k)-style plan, and more than half of Black workers do not have access. Although the numbers are lower for Asians (45 percent) and whites (42 percent), they are still substantial.

Other estimates of private sector coverage, also from this study by John Sabelhaus of the Brookings Institution, show big gaps between high- and low-paid workers and workers with and without college degrees, and at large and small employers.

Coverage also varies from state to state: In Pennsylvania, 41 percent lack access to a retirement plan, but in Florida, 59 percent do not have coverage.

Sabelhaus is certainly not the first to document disparities in retirement plan access for different demographic groups. But his methodology advanced the ball, resulting in more reliable estimates. By using three data sources, he could compensate for their shortcomings while taking advantage of the unique information in each one. He combined recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the IRS, and the Federal Reserve Board. …Learn More

Too Much Debt Taxes Baby Boomers’ Health

work related stress

Staying healthy is becoming a preoccupation for baby boomers as each new medical problem arises and the existing ones worsen.

The stress of having too much debt isn’t helping.

The older workers and retirees who carry debt are less healthy than the people who are debt free, and higher levels of debt have worse health effects, according to Urban Institute research. The type of debt matters too. Unsecured credit cards have more of an impact than secured debt – namely a mortgage backed by property.

Debt can erode an individual’s health in various ways. The stress of carrying a lot of debt has been shown to cause hypertension, depression, and overeating. And it can be a challenge for people to take proper care of themselves if they have onerous debt payments and can’t afford to buy health insurance or, if they are insured, pay the physician and drug copayments.

This is an issue, say researchers Stipica Mudrazija and Barbara Butrica, because the share of people over age 55 with debt and the dollar amount of their debts, adjusted for inflation, have been rising for years. In this population, increasing bankruptcies – a high-stress event – have been the fallout.

In an analysis of two decades of data comparing older workers and retirees with and without debt, the researchers found that having debt is tied to the borrowers’ declining self-evaluations of their mental and physical health. Older people who are in debt are also more likely to be obese, to have at least two diagnosed health conditions, or to suffer from dementia or various ailments that limit their ability to work.

The bulk of their debt is in the form of mortgages, which increasingly have strained household budgets in recent decades as home prices have outpaced incomes. Piled on top of the larger mortgage obligations can be payments for credit card debt, medical debt, car loans, and college loans – often for the boomers’ children. …Learn More

Use of Medicare Subsidy Low in Some States

A major government program helps poor and low-income retirees and adults with disabilities defray what can be substantial healthcare expenses that aren’t covered by Medicare. But enrollment is unusually low in some states because of more stringent eligibility standards.

The Medicare Savings Programs, which are administered by the states and funded by the federal government, subsidize Medicare’s Part A and Part B premiums and cost-sharing obligations for more than 10 million Medicare beneficiaries.

But participation varies widely from state to state, according to a new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, due to a combination of differences in need and varying eligibility standards.


No more than 10 percent of the retirees in Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming are enrolled in their state programs. The enrollment rates are double or even triple that – from 20 percent to 26 percent – in Alabama, California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, and Mississippi.

A major reason for the disparities in enrollment is the difference in the dollar value of assets retirees in each state are permitted to have and still qualify. The federal government set the dollar values on the stocks, bonds, and other assets of Medicare beneficiaries at $8,400 for single and widowed retirees and $12,600 for couples in 2022. The house and one car do not count.

But several states have chosen to make it easier to qualify by setting asset limits that exceed these federal minimums. In fact, eight of the nine states and the District of Columbia that have the highest shares of retirees in their programs either set asset limits above the federal standard or don’t have an asset test at all.

These states still restrict participation to disadvantaged people by placing income caps on eligibility, which range from about $13,000 to $26,000 per year in all but one state. But in several states that only match the low federal minimums for assets, disadvantaged retirees aren’t getting the financial assistance they need to access medical care.

Meredith Freed, a senior Medicare policy analyst for Kaiser, said that between a third to half of retirees with incomes below 135 percent of the federal poverty limit nationwide are not enrolled.

Medicare beneficiaries spend an average $6,000 per year out of their own pockets for medical care. “Having help with premium and cost-sharing is incredibly important,” Freed said. …Learn More

Woman in a dark place

Opioids Make it Harder, Not Easier to Work

The twin goals of prescribing opioids to workers with a bad back or arthritis are to alleviate their pain and keep them employed.

But the use and abuse of opioids can cause poor memory, extreme drowsiness, and an inability to engage in normal social interactions – all of which limit workers’ ability to function. Opioids also have serious physical effects outside of the dependence itself.

The resulting detachment from the labor market, revealed in a new research study, calls into question any benefits the medications have.

Between 2012 and 2018, average employment declined by nearly 2 percent for every 10 additional opioid prescriptions per 100 adults in a county-sized area, the researchers found. Wages also dropped by 6 percent, indicating that the opioid users who do remain employed are less productive.

The painkillers had more permanent consequences, too, when workers, unable to cope, left the labor market for good. The rate of applications for federal disability benefits increased sharply in the areas with higher prescribing rates, according to the study funded by the U. S. Social Security Administration, which runs the disability program. …Learn More

retired couple on a boat

Health and Wealth Drive Retirees’ Spending

Previous research has shown that spending drops immediately at the moment the paychecks stop, and a few studies have found that households, once retired, reduce their consumption over time.

But a new study that also takes the long view suggests that the spending decline is not what retirees want to do but what is necessitated by their financial and health constraints.

The analysis, which used data from two national consumption surveys, divided retired households into groups to get a sense of what goes into their spending decisions. The researchers compared the consumption patterns of retirees at three different wealth levels over a 20-year period and then compared consumption for three states of health.

The evidence that financial resources drive behavior is that the wealthier households’ consumption was relatively constant, declining just one-third of 1 percent a year.

While these retirees have the financial wherewithal to largely maintain their spending, retirees in the bottom wealth tier saw bigger drops of 1 percent a year. When accumulated over 20 years, the declines produced much lower spending levels than when they first retired.

Health is a second factor in retirees’ decisions. Again, the extremes tell the story. Spending in the top tier – very good or excellent health – held fairly flat, while the retirees in fair or poor health saw relatively large declines. Even if they can afford to travel or eat out frequently, health problems may be preventing them from enjoying their money. …Learn More