Elderly couple at a window

Retirement Researchers to Meet Aug. 5-6

The pandemic will be on the marquee at this year’s annual meeting of retirement and disability researchers.

COVID-19 has encroached on every aspect of older Americans’ lives, from their day-to-day work and home life to their retirement planning. Researchers will present studies on three impacts of the pandemic in presentations funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration.

The event will be held over two days, Thursday and Friday, Aug. 5 and 6, from noon to 4 p.m. The event will be virtual again this year and anyone can sign up to attend for free.

The first study on the agenda will explore the pandemic’s impact on older workers’ ability or willingness to work and on their retirement decisions. And for the adults who lost their jobs during COVID-19’s economic downturn, a second study will explain whether the slump will affect their future Social Security benefits. In the final study relating to the pandemic, researchers will assess whether the relief bills passed by Congress helped older people.

Other prominent topics of discussion include retirement planning and retirees’ financial security. These will include new findings on workers’ decisions about saving, retirees’ decisions about spending, and the financial adjustments couples make after their children leave home.

The final major topic is federal benefits for people with disabilities. The presentations here include the relationship between the benefits and two government programs: food stamps and workers compensation insurance.

Summaries of the working papers will be posted online for the meetings. …Learn More

State Auto-IRAs are Building Momentum

About half of the nation’s private-sector employees do not have a retirement savings plan at work, and that hasn’t changed in at least 40 years.

Some states are trying to fix this coverage gap in the absence of substantial progress by the federal government in solving the problem.  And the state reforms are gaining momentum.

Auto-IRA mapIn the past year alone, Maine, Virginia, and Colorado have passed bills requiring private employers without a retirement plan to automatically enroll their workers in IRAs, with workers allowed to opt out. New York City, which is more populous than most states, approved its program in May. And other states are either starting to implement programs or looking at their options.

Auto-IRAs are already up and running in California, Illinois, and Oregon, where a total of nearly 360,000 workers have saved more than $270 million so far. The programs are run by a private sector administrator and investment manager.

These mandatory programs are the only practical way to close the coverage gap, because voluntary retirement saving initiatives have never done the trick. Numerous voluntary plans created by the federal government – such as the Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) – have failed to measurably increase coverage.

Large corporations usually offer a 401(k) plan and match some of their workers’ savings. But millions of restaurants, shops, and other small businesses either can’t afford to set up their own 401(k)s or don’t see it as a priority. Without additional saving, half of U.S. workers are at risk of a drop in their standard of living when they retire.

State auto-IRA programs eliminate the administrative burden and expense to employers of a private plan and provide an easy way for workers to save. The money is taken out of their paychecks before they can spend it and is deposited in an account that grows over time. The state programs also permit workers  to withdraw their contributions without a tax penalty for emergencies, like a medical problem or broken-down car, if they need the money they’ve saved. …Learn More

Top of a house

Retirees’ Home Equity: Useful but Unused

Many older Americans could benefit from using home equity for some much-needed income in retirement. But they have found many reasons not to.

Some want to preserve that housing wealth for their kids. Others don’t like the idea of cashing in on the equity if it means relocating to a smaller house or apartment or a less expensive neighborhood. They also have plenty of concerns about federally insured reverse mortgages, which are a way to extract equity but are complicated to understand.

These doubts, expressed in readers’ comments on recent articles, are persistent. But economists see things differently: home equity has great potential to ease retirees’ financial problems – after all, roughly $8 trillion of wealth is locked up in older people’s houses.

K. Friesen is a rare reader who agrees. She said a couple women in her family are proof of the benefits of deploying home equity. Thanks to a reverse mortgage, her aunt had “a roof over her head until she died at age 97,” Friesen wrote in a comment posted to “Tapping Home Equity – Retirees’ Relief Valve.” The article described a study demonstrating that using home equity is effective in reducing financial hardship.

Now Friesen’s mother has a reverse mortgage. “If she can squeeze every dime out of the little she has to have a better quality of life, I’m all for it.”

The advantage of reverse mortgages is that they don’t have to be paid back before the homeowner dies – the catch is that the borrower must continue to live in the house. A potential downside, as a reader noted, is that if a retiree has to sell the house and pay the loan back, the balance and accrued interest will have depleted equity.

But in fact, selling in retirement is an unlikely scenario. Nearly three out of four older workers either don’t move out of their current home or, when they retire, they sell their house, buy a new one, and stay put, according to research featured in “Most Older Americans Age in their Homes.”

Granted, these homeowners tend to be healthier than the older people who move around more. But Paul Brustowicz said even retirees who have health issues want the same thing as everyone else: to age in their own homes. …Learn More

Think of Saver’s Tax Credit as Free Money

Life’s unpleasant surprises – a new set of tires or a big vet bill – can get in the way of saving money for retirement. This is especially true for low-income workers.

But if they are able to save a little here and there, the federal government provides a very big assist through its Saver’s Credit. Unfortunately, low-income workers are also the least likely to be aware the tax credit exists.

Savers credit tableHere’s how the Saver’s Credit works. The IRS returns half of the amount saved over the year – up to certain limits – by a head of household earning less than $29,626 or a couple earning less than $39,501.

So, the head of household with earnings under the income limit who saves $2,000 in a tax-exempt retirement plan like an IRA or an employer 401(k) would get back the IRS’ maximum credit of $1,000. And the couple that saves $4,000 would get back the $2,000 maximum.

Piggy bankGranted, these are very large sums for low-income workers. But if they can manage to save a little bit every week, the Saver’s Credit is effectively free money from the federal government.

Smaller tax credits are available to people with slightly higher incomes. Individuals and couples do not qualify if they earn more than $49,500 and $66,000, respectively.

Unfortunately, only about a third of households earning under $50,000 are aware of the credit, according to a Transamerica Institute survey.

Now that you know, start saving. You’ll get a big chunk of it back. …Learn More

ACA Proves Itself but Race Disparity Persists

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to reject another challenge to the Affordable Care Act was widely seen as the final word: the law is here to stay.

But it was COVID-19 that underscored how important it is.

Racial disparities in uninsured populations

The federal government said nearly 10 million people signed up for Medicaid health coverage during the pandemic year that ended in January 2021. A decade after passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which expanded Medicaid to include more low-income Americans by increasing the income limit for eligibility, the new sign-ups pushed total Medicaid enrollment to a record high of 80 million.

The recent increase was largely due to the spike in sign-ups among the unemployed or workers who saw their hours reduced and lost some of their wages. The relief packages passed by Congress in March 2020 and this year encouraged Medicaid enrollment by giving states additional funding to pay medical costs and sign up more people.

Beyond Medicaid, sales of regular health insurance policies sold on the state insurance exchanges also rose last year, as COVID-19 raced through the population. A 5 percent increase in enrollment in the policies, which are often subsidized, pushed total enrollment to 12 million.

Earlier this year, the American Rescue Plan continued to shore up health coverage by reducing insurance premiums for people who buy the policies. Unfortunately, these and earlier federal supports were temporary measures put in place for the pandemic, and some progress will be reversed when the supports expire at the end of this year or next year.

Despite the recent coverage gains, it has been a bumpy ride. Prior to COVID-19, sales of ACA policies had been slowing after years of marked progress in reducing the U.S. uninsured rate. And in the states that have not expanded Medicaid to reach more residents, the uninsured rates are nearly double the rates in the expansion states – 15.5 percent vs 8.3 percent. …Learn More

Hard for People on SSDI to Resume Work

Man sanding woodThe federal government runs numerous small-scale experiments across the country to explore ways to help people on Social Security disability ease back into work to reduce the benefits being paid.

In a recent webinar, researchers discussed the extreme challenges of designing programs that are effective, given the inherent disadvantages – from the disabling condition itself and discrimination to having less education – that people with disabilities face in the job market.

After close examination of several programs, the researchers found that the primary goals of most demonstration programs are very difficult to achieve: reducing disability benefits or increasing the earnings of people on disability who have sporadic or part-time work. But they also suggested that the programs would be deemed more successful if policymakers would broaden the goals to include the improved well-being of people with disabilities.

To increase their employment, Kilolo Kijakazi, deputy commissioner of retirement and disability policy at the U.S. Social Security Administration, said it’s critical to first address inequities in the job market.

Research shows that many people on disability express an interest in working but face multiple barriers. Employers aren’t always willing to make the workplace accommodations needed to hire them. People on disability also tend to be older than most workers and may face age discrimination. Others have been discouraged by past work experiences, and finding transportation to and from a job is often a challenge.

Although a minority of all Americans with disabilities are working, the 2020 unemployment rate among people with a disability who are either working or looking for a job was 12.6 percent. However, unemployment among Black Americans with disabilities was 16.3 percent. The rates were also very high for Asian-Americans and Latinos with disabilities –  15.7% and 16.8 percent, respectively.

“We need to develop policies and programs that address these inequities,” Kijakazi said.

Robert Moffitt at Johns Hopkins University analyzed several back-to-work programs, including the use of counselors and financial incentives. He found that the programs are extremely difficult to implement well and that participation is fairly low.

Although they do help some individuals, he concluded, “Most of the efforts to increase employment, earnings and labor force engagement of [disability] beneficiaries have been disappointing.” …Learn More

Helping hands

An Appreciation of Professional Caregivers

My 85-year-old mother had been up a few times during a night in early June and still wasn’t feeling well in the morning. I called her doctor, who sent a prescription to her pharmacy, and went about my day’s work. But when I checked in that afternoon, mom was in a full-blown medical crisis that she and her 92-year-old male companion did not think was bad enough to tell me about.

I asked her companion to call the EMTs, who immediately dispatched mom to an emergency room a few miles from her Orlando retirement community. These events marked the start of my maiden voyage as my mother’s caregiver from 1,300 miles away in Boston. It was a high-stress affair that challenged all my organizational skills and stamina – an experience I am, no doubt, destined to repeat.

I’ve heard about the stresses of caring for an elderly parent but had only a vague sense of what that would be like. Nearly a week was consumed with keeping tabs on mom’s medical care at the hospital and what she needed, tracking down busy nurses and doctors – in a pandemic! – for updates on her condition (pneumonia) and treatment. Finally, upon mom’s hospital release on a Sunday, I wanted to make sure nothing else would go wrong at home.

The clouds started to lift when I hired three professional caregivers – Rachel, Nadine, and Rosa – to keep an eye on my mother for the first 24 hours at home. I developed a great appreciation for their kindness and efficiency and the unique talents each one brought to the job.

The hiring process wasn’t seamless, however, due to the COVID. My mother and her partner are fully vaccinated. But Florida has a much lower vaccination rate – 62 percent of adults have at least one dose, compared with 81 percent in Massachusetts – and I quickly learned that 35-year-old Rachel, the first caregiver assigned to mom, was among the unvaccinated.

I was about to cancel the contract with the company employing the caregivers when they offered to give Rachel a rapid COVID test. That worked for me. Having made my intentions crystal clear, the company texted me Nadine’s and Rosa’s vaccine cards for the later shifts. …Learn More