July 2020

Lost and Found art

Pension, 401k Registry Bill Resurfaces

When COVID-19 throws people out of work, their chances of retiring comfortably can deteriorate rapidly. What better time to find a new way to help?

A perennial proposal just reintroduced in Congress would do some good: establish an online database of employer retirement plans so workers and retirees can locate old pensions and 401(k) accounts.

Workers are increasingly responsible for making sure they have enough money to retire. But moving from job to job is now the norm – the one-employer career is a distant memory – and pensions get left behind and 401(k)s fall by the wayside. People who try to find old plans often can’t locate employers that have changed names, merged, relocated, or terminated a plan.

The primary way to find retirement plans now is through the lost property records kept by each state. But Anna-Marie Tabor, director of the Pension Action Center in Boston, which recovers lost pensions and 401(k)s for the center’s clients, said billions more in unclaimed funds can’t be located in the state records, because employers are not required to turn over plan information to the states. Also, 401(k)s are hard to find since many employers transfer small accounts to third-party IRAs without the account owner’s awareness.

Tabor argues in the Journal of Aging and Social Policy that the COVID-19 recession brings new urgency to passing the proposed Retirement Savings Lost and Found Act of 2020, especially for low-income workers hit hardest by layoffs and older workers who are running out of time to repair their finances prior to retiring.

“Connecting people with money they’ve already earned is an easy and inexpensive way to support the economic recovery,” she said. …Learn More

Retirement Research Presented Virtually

A video call

Like much in life under a pandemic, the research presentations for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium’s annual meeting are going virtual.

This year’s online meeting will also be scaled down from the traditional two days to one: Thursday, Aug. 6.

The purpose of the meeting, which is usually held in Washington, D.C., is for academics from universities and think tanks to describe their latest research to colleagues, policy experts, financial professionals, and the press. Topics this year will include taxes in retirement, federal disability insurance, housing, health, and labor markets. The U.S. Social Security Administration has funded the research and is sponsoring the meeting.

The agenda and information about registration are available online, and participants can register anytime. Questions for the researchers can be submitted during the presentations via a moderator.

One fresh idea being explored this year is taxes in retirement. Taxes are central to whether retirees have enough money to cover their essential expenses, but households that are approaching retirement age may not factor the need to pay federal and state taxes into their planning. Despite the importance of this issue, only a handful of existing studies have tried to estimate the tax burden. This paper fills the gap.

One session will feature a pair of papers looking at whether cognitive decline has a detrimental effect on older Americans’ finances. One will explore whether dementia leads to financial problems overall, and the other will focus exclusively on debt.

Researchers will also try to resolve a conundrum in the disability field: why are applications for federal benefits declining at the same time that Americans’ health is deteriorating? One hypothesis is that jobs are becoming less physically demanding. A second disability study will produce a publicly available database for researchers who want to examine the local factors affecting applications.

The agenda lists all of the papers that will be presented. Learn More

Some with Severe Mental Disability Work

Artwork of stairs

People with intellectual disabilities, autism, or schizophrenia have high rates of unemployment. But a new study finds that some can find part-time or even full-time jobs with the help of coaches funded by the government.

Having a coach doesn’t guarantee that a person with a disability will get a job. But in a 2019 study, the people who received this support “were significantly more likely to become employed” than those who did not get the help, according to researchers for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

To get and keep these jobs requires a lot of personal attention. The federal-state Vocational Rehabilitation program provides coaches – often at non-profits – who find the right jobs for their clients and then act as a liaison to smooth out the bumps and guide the employer-employee relationship.

Because the cognitive disabilities of the individuals in the study varied so much, the researchers broke them out into nine groups, based on their specific disabilities, education levels, and likelihood of benefitting from the program. In all but one of the nine groups, the people who received support had significantly higher employment rates than those who did not receive the help.

Between a third and half of the people with coaching support had a job, the researchers found. Among the people who did not receive any support, employment rates were as low as one in four. …Learn More

Pandemic Puts More Retirements at Risk

Worsening Retirement Outlook figureAmericans’ retirement outlook has gone from bleak to bleaker.

The unemployment caused by COVID-19 has pushed up the share of working-age households not able to afford their current standard of living in retirement from 50 percent to 55 percent, according to a new analysis by the Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog.

The analysis updates a previous estimate, based on 2016 data, to include the harmful effects of surging unemployment. The researchers estimate that perhaps 30 percent of workers – far more than is reflected in the monthly jobless rate – could be affected by layoffs now and in the future. They did not factor in the recession’s impact on the housing and financial markets, which could make things worse.

Unemployment hurts retirement in a variety of ways. Laid-off workers’ paychecks vanish immediately, but they may also earn less in the next job. The depressed earnings, over months or years, reduce the money flowing into their 401(k)s, and the amount they’ll receive in pensions and future Social Security benefits. It may also force some to spend down savings that, had they not lost their jobs, would’ve been preserved for retirement.

Interestingly, the impact on low-income workers is mixed. In one way, they’re protected by Social Security’s progressive benefit formula, which will replace a higher percentage of their earnings as their lifetime earnings decline. But low-income workers have had more layoffs, which widens the gap in their retirement savings – between what they can save and what they should be saving – more than for higher-income people.

The 2020 recession will impact retirement “in a very different way” than the Great Recession, the researchers said. This time, “the destruction is occurring more through widespread unemployment and less through a collapse in the value of financial assets and housing.” However, the lessons of the previous recession can’t be dismissed either. …Learn More

Map of South Central

Examining the Black-White Wealth Gap

The Black Lives Matter protesters have brought renewed attention to the enduring economic inequality that separates Black and white America.

Homeownership is at the heart of this disparity.

For many Americans, their largest source of wealth is the value they have built up in their homes over time. The house is also traditionally the primary way for moderate- and middle-income parents to pass wealth on to their children.

But less than half of African-Americans own homes, and the ones who do have a fraction of the equity whites have due in large part to the nation’s long history of segregated housing, economists say.

Further, the tidal wave of foreclosures a decade ago reduced the already low homeownership in minority communities, which felt the brunt of the housing market collapse. The Black homeownership rate is just 42 percent – 5 percentage points lower than it was in 2000. White homeownership remained stable throughout the crisis and is now around 72 percent, the Urban Institute said.

Home equity is a big part of wealth graphThe upshot of this combination of fewer Black owners and less equity for those who own a house is that the typical African-American worker has $4,400 in home equity, compared with $67,800 for whites. The home equity gap accounts for about half of the Black-white disparity in total wealth.

A web of systemic reasons explain the home equity gap. Black homebuyers have more debt, in part because they are twice as likely to receive a mortgage with a high interest rate as white buyers with comparable incomes. …Learn More

Student loan debt written on a chalk board

College Debt Boosts Disability Requests

During the steel and coal busts of the 1980s, applications for federal disability benefits rose in areas where these industries had laid off workers. Now there’s a 21st century reason to apply: student loans.

College debt is extremely difficult to discharge in the bankruptcy courts. But the U.S. Department of Education in 2013 opened a new avenue for potentially eliminating federal student loan debt. Former college students whose disabilities are severe enough to qualify them for disability benefits can then apply to the Department of Education for loan forgiveness.

Since 2015, the typical person approved for the program has eliminated $17,500 in college loans.

The prospect of discharging the onerous debt created a powerful financial incentive. After the program began, the probability that an individual with student loans would apply for disability with the U.S. Social Security Administration was much higher than for individuals with no loans, a new study found. The increase in applications was largely from people who had not earned any money the previous year and may have had few options for paying their debt.

The older workers who took out student loans – sometimes on behalf of their children – may be “aching to retire” anyway, the researchers said, and receiving disability and loan forgiveness would accomplish that. But the younger people who applied may simply have been motivated by a desire to discharge their college debts.

However, seeking disability benefits as a strategy for eliminating the debt didn’t work very well. …Learn More

A Downwardly Mobile Boomer Survives

The unemployment rate has rocketed to double digits. But older workers’ struggles in the job market are not new.

An Urban Institute study, reported here, estimated that about half of workers over age 50 left a job involuntarily at some point between 1992 and 2016 – a period that included strong economic growth and two recessions. After the workers found new employment, their households were earning just over half of what they earned in their previous jobs, researcher Richard Johnson told PBS’ NewsHour.

The baby boomers being laid off now might relate to Jaye Crist, who was featured in this NewsHour video last February when unemployment was still at record lows. He had been a manager at a national printing company for three decades – until his 2016 layoff. Through sheer determination, he found a full-time job packing and delivering printed materials to customers for a print shop in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. But his income dropped sharply.

“It’s frustrating that, in my mind, somebody who has done the things you were told as a kid you need to do – stay at a job, work, learn, be helpful, get promotions – and then you find yourself, at this point, that your career doesn’t mean [anything],” Crist said in the pre-pandemic video.

“You just do whatever you have to do to keep everything else afloat,” he said.

With the country now in a recession, I checked in with Crist to see how he’s doing. His financial situation deteriorated further after Pennsylvania shut down the economy to contain the virus. He briefly lost his three jobs – at the printing company and two part-time jobs, at a local brewery and a workout gym.

He was relieved when the printer brought him back in April from a three-week furlough after the company received a stimulus loan under the federal Paycheck Protection Program. But business is slow, and Crist worries he might lose the job again. “Knowing that you’re almost 60 years old,” he asked, “now what do you do?”

The gym is also reopening, but it’s unclear how much he can work since he used to be on the night shift and the gym will no longer be open 24 hours a day. He also returned to the brewery to handle takeout orders but it, like many eating establishments, is struggling to make it at a time of social distancing.

Prior to the pandemic, Crist had already gone through many of the financial struggles boomers are facing today. With his wife unable to work, he said he depleted his 401(k) after his 2016 layoff.  He was having difficulty keeping up his mortgage payments and paying part of his daughter’s college loans, and now it’s even harder.

He said he can’t imagine being able to retire. “I’ll be working and paying for stuff until I can’t.”Learn More