August 2020

Low income housing

Housing Subsidies May Fuel SSI Growth

Federal spending on the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program has grown substantially in recent decades, making it the single largest source of cash assistance for older or disabled Americans with little or no income.

For people with disabilities to qualify for SSI’s benefits – the federal maximum is currently $783 per month, with most states adding in smaller amounts – the disability must severely restrict their ability to work. The average monthly payments under Social Security’s separate disability insurance (DI) program are larger, but people who lack the necessary work history required to apply for DI can seek disability status through SSI.

To better understand SSI’s rapid growth, researchers asked whether the preference for housing assistance that some cities give to people with disabilities might create an incentive – albeit an indirect one – to seek approval for SSI. The possibility of moving higher on a city’s long waiting list for housing is highly prized, because the demand for low-cost housing vastly exceeds the supply.

The housing assistance comes in two forms: apartments in public housing developments or federal rental vouchers that pay landlords the difference between their market-rate rents and what the low-income household can afford. Both types of assistance cap rental payments at 30 percent of the household’s income.

First, the researchers found that people with disabilities are, indeed, more likely to get the scarce housing assistance, and their advantage has increased over the past 20 years. Single mothers and people with no more than a high school education in particular benefit from these housing preferences.

The researchers also confirmed their hunch that the prospect of obtaining low-cost housing is a factor in the growth in SSI’s enrollment. And the more expensive the rents in an area, the stronger the incentive to seek SSI: a $1,000 increase in the value of the assistance increases enrollment in SSI by almost a third, according to the study. …Learn More

Despair Grips Lower-Paid White Workers

Book Cover of Deaths of DespairLong before COVID-19 upended our world, the lives of lower-paid, less-educated workers had already been coming apart.

“It’s the other epidemic, but it’s an epidemic that’s been occurring under the radar for a long time,” Anne Case said in her keynote address for the annual meeting of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium, which was held online early this month.

Case, a Princeton University economist, was referring to the findings from her seminal work on the deterioration in financial well-being and rising death rates among white, non-Hispanics without a bachelor’s degree. Case, along with her husband, Angus Deaton, also at Princeton, have just published a book on their research, “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism.”

The deaths of despair they refer to are due to drug addiction, liver disease from alcoholism, and suicide. In writing this book, they are shining a spotlight on a phenomenon affecting people who no longer have a voice, in part because labor unions, once powerful advocates, have declined.

In 2018, some 158,000 white adults of all ages without a college degree died from addiction, alcoholism and suicide, according to Case and Deaton’s research – more than double the number in 1992 and on par with COVID-19 deaths to date.

But the death rate is just the tip of an iceberg of woe that includes an increase in physical pain, declining mental health, and a loss of a sense of self, Case said.

One disturbing trend is the relatively recent phenomenon of rising suicides among white women without a bachelor’s degree. Although suicides among their male counterparts are still much higher, women’s suicides in recent years have been increasing at roughly the same pace.

What is at the root of this despair? Case provides economic explanations, including a long-term decline in men’s wages and in the percentage who are employed. However, economics is inadequate to explain the despair. …Learn More

Grocery Store worker

Disabilities and the Toll of Irregular Hours

Irregular hours, last-minute schedule changes, and rotating shifts are now a fixture of the work world.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Gig economy workers often tout the appeal of having the freedom to set a schedule that suits their lifestyle. In reality, many workers with unpredictable schedules, notably in retail and in lower-paid and part-time jobs, do not determine when they work. Their schedules are set by their employers.

These jobs can be hard for anyone to juggle. Arranging childcare on an irregular schedule is a good example. But workers with disabilities face unique challenges, because they often need special arrangements, such as a caretaker to help them get ready for work or an accessible van to transport them.

This would suggest that it’s important to work for employers who give them predictable schedules. In fact, a new study of workers in their 20s and early 30s with disabilities found they more often have irregular schedules than the young adults who do not have disabilities.

Here are some of their specific findings. A larger share of the workers with disabilities told the U.S. Census their work hours varied, and their hours swung more widely from week to week than people without disabilities. Consistent with this, young adult workers with disabilities reported in a second survey – the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth – that they are less likely to have regular schedules.

They are also more likely to have jobs with rotating shifts – an employer might assign the 5 a.m.-1 p.m. shift one day and the 1 p.m.-9 p.m. shift the next. Further, rotating shifts have become more common in recent decades, the researchers found. …Learn More

Recession’s Hit to Cities Varies Widely

The COVID-19 recession is unlike anything this country has seen.

If the second-quarter contraction were to continue at the same pace for a full year, the economy would shrink by a third! This is the deepest downturn since the Great Depression, and low-income Americans are feeling the brunt of it.

Chart about two California citiesWhat makes this recession unique, however, is that the low-income people living in the most affluent metropolitan areas are worse off than low-income residents of less affluent cities, Harvard economist Raj Chetty explained during a recent interview on Boston’s public radio station, WBUR.

“What’s going on is that affluent folks have the capacity to self-isolate, to work remotely, to not go on vacation,” he said. “So in affluent areas, you see enormous drops in consumer spending and business revenue.”  In these areas, more than half of the lowest-income workers have lost their jobs, and many of them worked in small businesses, he said.

In less affluent cities, people have to go to work and “are out and about more, and business revenue hasn’t fallen nearly as much,” he told his radio host. “In previous recessions, we haven’t seen those sort of patterns.”

Chetty’s point is demonstrated by comparing what happened to consumer spending this year in San Francisco and Fresno, California, on the tracktherecovery.org website he and other economists have created. (Visitors can sort the spending data by state, industry, and consumer income levels, as well as by city.) …Learn More

A sign that says what's your plan for retirement

Workers Lacking 401ks Need a Solution

Although COVID-19 has exposed alarming gaps in a health insurance system that revolves around the employer, the Affordable Care Act is one potential solution for workers who lack the employer coverage.

There is nothing equivalent on the retirement side, however.

Many workers between ages 50 and 64 are in jobs that provide neither health insurance nor a retirement savings plan. But, in contrast to the health insurance options available to them, “no retirement sav­ing vehicle appears effective in helping older workers in nontraditional jobs set aside money for retirement,” concluded a new analysis of workers in these nontraditional jobs.

Nontraditional workers who want to save for retirement are left with two options: their spouse’s 401(k) savings plan or an IRA operated by a bank, broker or financial firm.

A spouse’s 401(k) hasn’t been an effective fallback for a couple of reasons. First, a substantial number of the workers who lack their own 401(k)s are not married. And second, if they are married to someone with a 401(k), they’re not any better off. The researcher found that married people currently contributing to 401(k)s do not save more to compensate for the spouse without a 401(k), reinforcing other research showing these couples don’t save enough for two.

The other option – an IRA – is open to everyone. But only a small fraction of Americans currently are saving money in IRAs, and most of them already have a 401(k). So IRAs, in practice, aren’t doing much for the people who need the help: workers who lack employer benefits. … Learn More

Drawing of Arthritis

Same Arthritis. But Some Feel More Pain

The X-rays look very similar for two 60-year-old women with arthritic knees.

But the less-educated woman has more severe pain than the person who graduated college.

A new study of men and women finds that the degree of knee-joint deterioration visible in an X-ray isn’t the primary reason one person experiences more knee pain than someone else. Instead, the overwhelming reason is knee strain caused by obesity and the toll taken by physically demanding jobs – both of which are more common among less-educated workers.

The researchers focused on knee arthritis, because musculoskeletal pain is one of the leading causes of Social Security benefit payments to people who develop a disability and can no longer work.

Understanding what’s behind the pain differences is important, because the need for workers in certain jobs requiring physical strength – home health aides, janitors, and construction workers are examples – is expected to increase in the future.

Given this growing demand and predictions of a continued rise in obesity, the researchers conclude that “pain is expected to contribute to an increase” over time in the percentage of the population who will be impaired by their pain.

The people in the study fell into three educational groups: a high school degree or less; some college; or a four-year college degree. The researchers also had information about their occupations, as well as several data sources that gauge the severity of their knee pain, including the ability to do things like walking a quarter of a mile.

Knee arthritis worsens with age. However, a surge in reports of severe knee pain came about a decade earlier for people with no more than a high school degree than the surge for college graduates. …Learn More

Street worker working at night

Public-Sector Disability is Fairly Generous

About one in four state and local government employees – some 6.5 million people – do not participate in the Social Security system. They get their disability insurance, as well as their pensions, from their employers.

Whether the coverage is more or less generous than Social Security disability depends on the individual worker’s circumstance and how the state or local employer calculates benefits. But a new study concludes that public-sector workers who have a disability generally receive benefits that are at least as generous as the federal benefits.

To compare them, researchers at the Center for Retirement Research had to construct a database with each state’s and locality’s eligibility requirements and benefit payments. The sample consisted of 67 different disability programs, which cover a majority of the U.S. workers who don’t pay into Social Security.

The main thing Social Security and the public-sector have in common is eligibility – a 35-year-old must have five years of employment to receive federal disability and four to six years under most public-sector programs. One way they differ is that most state and local governments have a more liberal definition of what qualifies as a disability. Social Security pays benefits to a worker who can no longer do any job. Public-sector benefits go to a worker who can’t continue doing his current job.

The disability benefits are also calculated differently. Social Security’s progressive formula is the most generous to low-wage workers, because it replaces a higher percentage of their past earnings. But each state and local government uses the same formula for all of its workers, regardless of their earnings, and the formula gives more credit to employees who have been with their employer the longest.

What does all this add up to? The older public-sector workers, who are most at risk of developing a disability, receive relatively generous protection under the state and local programs, because the eligibility requirements are less strict than Social Security’s and because the benefits for most long-tenured employees replace a higher percentage of their earnings.

Older people who moved into the public sector late in their careers are in a different situation. …Learn More