exit door

Disability Overpayments Discourage Work

About one in five people on federal disability has some type of job, but the government limits how much they can earn without jeopardizing their cash benefits.

The Social Security Administration wants disability beneficiaries to hold down a job if they can. But when they earn more than the allowed limit in a given month – $1,310 in 2021 – the government sometimes ends up overpaying them for benefits that should’ve been withheld that month. This usually occurs because workers forget to notify the agency they had started a job or fail to provide their earnings information in a timely way.

When the mistake is discovered, Social Security sends a notice asking that the overpaid benefits be returned in the form of a cash payment or a reduction in future disability checks. But the repayments, which usually span several months, are a lot of money – around $9,000 – for a financially vulnerable population.

The problem, according to a Mathematica study forthcoming in the journal Contemporary Economic Policy, is that some people, soon after receiving a notice, reduce their hours or stop working altogether. One beneficiary described the repayment requests as a “penalty for working.”

In an analysis of an SSA database that tracks overpayments, the researchers examined the impact of the notices on working disability recipients who received them between 2007 and 2014. Six months prior to receiving a notice, 58 percent were employed and earning over the limit.

This employment rate declined gradually each month, presumably due to natural attrition. But the researchers find that the drop in the rate accelerated in the month they received the overpayment notice and in the following month, falling by 8 percent over that two-month period. About half of that decline was a response to the notices.

Leaving a job conflicts with Social Security’s goal of encouraging beneficiaries to maintain at least part-time work and improve their overall well-being – and if they have a milder disability, eventually return to the labor force full-time and end their reliance on benefits. …Learn More

Financial Troubles Hide in Soaring Markets

Texas Securities Commissioner Travis Iles says we’re living in a perfect storm – for financial fraud.

Bitcoin Isolated at home to avoid COVID, people are spending more time online, and he suspects that some have become more susceptible to fraud because they think a big win would take the edge off of the financial uncertainties of the pandemic. And social media only feeds the frenzy, giving scam artists a natural audience for selling their “investments” – and for recruiting others on social media to help them.

“People look for follows and likes and they’re dialed in on a lot of social media platforms that three to four years ago were very foreign,” Iles said in a recent interview. “It’s actually influencing people’s decisions about where” to invest their money.

In March 2020, just as the pandemic took hold, he began tracking how many administrative and enforcement actions his office had taken. Over the next 18 months, his office launched some 450 investigations, resulting in more than 60 actions against suspicious companies selling investments to Texans.

“We’ve never been more prolific in terms of output,” he added.

The craziness of these times can be seen in a recent cease-and-desist order issued by the Texas Securities Division against a company promising wild returns of 30 percent in 60 days or 50 percent in 90 days to investors in a nebulous operation: cryptocurrency cloud mining.

Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin are complicated enough – but mining cryptocurrency? As one law firm explains, it’s a treasure hunt that “involves validating cryptocurrency transactions on a blockchain network and adding them to a distributed ledger.” …Learn More

Thanksgiving art

Celebrate a Closer-to-Normal Thanksgiving

Last Thanksgiving, my husband and I made two Cornish game hens and zoomed dinner with his two sons and extended family.

What a different world we are living in this year.

Vaccinated people will be able to gather for Thanksgiving or go Christmas shopping without fearing for their lives. But I also wonder whether we will be a little too eager to throw caution to the wind. It would be wise to keep following the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance for the holidays – masks in public, outdoor activities, air circulation indoors, and testing before gathering with family from multiple households.

Caution is still in order. But so is celebrating a return to something closer to normal.

Read more blog posts in our ongoing coverage of COVID-19.Learn More

Open enrollment

Need Help Choosing Your Medicare Options?

This blog is for the procrastinators. The last day of Medicare open enrollment for people who want to switch their Medicare Advantage or Part D insurance plans is Dec. 7.

The hoopla around this open enrollment period can be confusing, because Medigap supplemental plans are on a different schedule. The optimal time to buy a Medigap plan is during a six-month window after your 65th birthday, which is the only time insurers are required under federal law to sell you a Medigap policy. Switching to a different Medigap plan during the current open enrollment is trickier, because you can be denied coverage, though several states have made it easier to enroll or switch from Medigap or Advantage to a new Medigap plan.

Retirees with Advantage or Part D plans can freely change plans during open enrollment but are usually reluctant to shop around. But insurance experts warn that the terms of existing policies can change, and this is the time to see if there’s a better deal out there. The Kaiser Family Foundation said retirees have a record number of Advantage plans to choose from for 2022 – double the number available five years ago. But this can be a double-edged sword if choices sew confusion.

If you haven’t plunged into researching your Advantage or Part D options, the resources listed below can help.

Free counselors. Every state has a counseling program to explain the Medicare options. The counselors are free, and this website lists every state with a link to that state’s contact information. Although volunteer counselors may not be as knowledgeable as insurance brokers who sell the policies, many volunteers are former health care professionals or are themselves enrolled in Medicare and know the system. …Learn More

minimum wage text

The Economy, Minimum Wage, and Disability

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour and hasn’t budged since 2009. But many states and some municipalities have raised their minimum wages. Today, more than half of the state minimums exceed the federal minimum.

Now a new trend has emerged: 19 states have enacted or approved automatic yearly increases in their minimum wages to protect their residents from inflation. These adjustments just went into effect this year in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington D.C.

How might higher minimum wages affect applications for disability insurance? On the one hand, the higher pay could prevent some people with mild disabilities from resorting to the fallback option: applying for disability benefits. But if small employers lay people off to cut costs or feel they can’t afford to hire workers at the new higher minimum wage, applications could go up. Facing fewer job opportunities, more low-wage workers might apply for benefits from a program that currently covers some 16 million Americans.

A new study finds that a rising minimum wage does, indeed, increase disability applications to the U.S. Social Security Administration. But the researchers stress that this impact is minimal compared with the increase driven by an economic downturn that throws more people out of work.

In their analysis of nearly 3,000 counties from 2000 through 2015, a one-dollar increase in the minimum wage added some 80,000 more applications to the disability program and its companion, the Supplemental Security Income program for the poor, elderly, and adults with disabilities. That represents a 2 percent increase.

Contrast that to the impact of a rising unemployment rate, which was about three times larger. …Learn More

Lifting SALT Deduction Would Help the Rich

California mansionsManhattan residents who itemize their federal tax returns pay an average $102,000 in state and local taxes – more than anywhere else. The second highest tax tabs, nearly $50,000, are in Marin County, the home of musicians and movie stars across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.

Other enclaves with large bills for property, sales, and income taxes include Falls Church, Virginia, a high-income community outside Washington, D.C., and Teton County, Wyoming, where the super-wealthy buy property on the open range surrounding Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park.

In 2017, Congress put a $10,000 cap on the amount of state and local taxes – or SALT – that all homeowners could deduct on their federal income tax filings. The proposed reconciliation bill being hashed out in Congress might increase or remove that cap.

The Brookings Institution argued that lifting the cap would “massively favor the rich” at a time U.S. inequality is already at historic levels. There is no shortage of evidence to back that up.

High-income Americans on both coasts and in major cities like Chicago and Dallas would save thousands of dollars from lifting the cap on SALT deductions. In Santa Clara County, home to Silicon Valley, for example, the average high-income taxpayer who itemized reported that they paid nearly $47,000 in state and local taxes in 2018, according to the bipartisan Tax Foundation’s analysis of IRS data.

But due to the current cap, the IRS permitted county residents to deduct only about $9,000 for their SALT taxes. (The number is slightly below the $10,000 cap because some itemizers take smaller deductions if, for example, they are renters and don’t pay property taxes.)

One proposal gaining currency in the House would increase the cap on deductions from $10,000 to $80,000, as an alternative to eliminating it entirely. Garrett Watson, author of the Tax Foundation report, said that either raising the cap or another idea – limiting the cap to the nation’s top earners – would still mainly benefit the top 5 percent.

But, he added, preserving some type of cap, even if it’s more generous, “will be less regressive than eliminating it altogether, because the folks at the very top – the multimillionaires and billionaires – would still face that curtailed SALT deduction.”

The Tax Policy Center, an affiliate of the Urban Institute and Brookings, estimates that repealing the cap on SALT deductions would increase after-tax income for households earning more than $100,000 by between 1 percent and 2 percent. Families with lower earnings would be unaffected. …Learn More

Pushing a rock up a hill

Parent PLUS Debt Relief: the Good and Bad

Some 3.6 million parents are paying off more than $100 billion in debt used to fund their children’s college education. For many parents, the federal Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students (PLUS) was the only way they could afford college, but many are now struggling to make the monthly payments.

In a Harris poll in July, nearly one in three said they regret the decision to borrow. If these parents need relief, they have two basic options: enter into the government’s repayment plan for PLUS loans or refinance their federal student loans through a private lender such as a bank. Both options have significant downsides.

Anna HelhoskiAnna Helhoski

Anna Helhoski, a student loan expert with the financial website, NerdWallet, explained the good and bad in the federal government’s income-contingent repayment program for parents overburdened by college debt.

Before we get into the details of this option, how big a problem is this?

We do know that parent PLUS borrowers are one of the fastest growing groups of people with student loans. With any student loan, you borrow to afford the degree so you can earn the money to repay the loan. But the conflict with parent PLUS loans is that you get the debt, but you don’t reap the higher earnings that come with a new degree. PLUS loans were originally meant to provide liquid funds for families with higher assets. But when it was opened up to more borrowers in 1992, it became a lot easier to take on more debt, and college costs were going up, so it became more of a necessity to access it.

Parents can easily rack up six-figure debt. The only requirement is that they don’t have adverse credit histories. PLUS loans are really easy to get and difficult to pay back.  Repayment for parents – it’s probably the No. 1 question I get from anyone around repaying student loans.

Wouldn’t this be a particular concern for parents close to retirement age? 

We know that is happening. Parents are putting off retirement because they can’t simply afford to retire because they have this debt looming.

Parents can get help from the federal government in the form of an income-contingent repayment plan (ICR). Generally, how does it work?

The standard repayment plan for new student loans is 10 years. But if parents are struggling to pay that debt, they have only one option: income-contingent payments over 25 years. The payments are set at 20 percent of their adjusted gross income on their tax filings, also known as discretionary income. And they can only get that if they first consolidate and then apply for the ICR program.

It’s not means-tested, so any parent PLUS borrower can qualify for ICR, but they are required to combine all of their PLUS loans first into a federal consolidation loan. If you don’t want to consolidate, you can’t access ICR.

What are the downsides of consolidation?

Your payments may be lower when you consolidate but you’re going to be paying the loans off over a longer period of time, which means you’ll pay more in interest over time. If you consolidate but don’t go into the ICR program, your term will be between 10 and 30 years – the larger the loan balance, the longer the term. The other downside of consolidation is that any outstanding interest on your existing loan balance will be added to the principal of your consolidation loan. You’ll be paying interest on your interest. If you consolidate and then enter the ICR repayment plan — the only option if you want to pin your payments to how much you can afford based on your income — your new term length will always be 25 years.

Given the downsides of ICR plans, what is the profile of the parents who could benefit? Learn More