September 2021

Retirees Can’t Afford Hearing, Dental Care

Hearing loss can amplify cognitive decline by isolating retirees and forcing them to divert precious brain power to participate in a conversation. People who lose teeth have trouble eating, sacrificing their health. And poor vision, uncorrected by cataract surgery or the proper magnification in eyeglasses, is dangerous when driving at night.

These problems are facts of aging. But Medicare doesn’t cover their often-expensive solutions such as hearing aids, dental implants, or eyeglasses. A report by the Kaiser Family Foundation identified a gap between need and access is wide.

Among the 16 percent of Americans over 65 who said in a survey that they couldn’t get hearing, dental or vision services, nearly three out of four couldn’t afford them.

Three charts, based on Kaiser’s analysis of the survey data, show the average out-of-pocket spending for hearing and dental care was around $900 for the Medicare beneficiaries who used the services in 2018. The cost of vision care was significantly less, averaging $230.

Retirees usually don’t need all three services in a single year. For example, dental implants cost thousands of dollars, and an individual might get one or two in a lifetime. But when retirees do get the expensive dental care, a new Kaiser report shows the bill can really pack a wallop – and become an obstacle to getting the necessary care. …Learn More

balancing balls

Social Security: Time for an Update?

The option to start Social Security benefits at any age from 62 to 70 – with an actuarial adjustment – is a key feature of the program. However, the adjustments – reductions in the monthly benefit for claiming early and increases for waiting – are decades old and do not reflect improvements in longevity or other important developments over time.

The option to claim early was introduced just over 60 years ago, when Congress set 62 as the program’s earliest eligibility age. The option to claim between 65 and 70 on an actuarially fair basis stems from the 1983 Social Security amendments, which gradually increased the annual “delayed retirement credit” from 3 percent to 8 percent. Also in 1983, reductions for early claiming were changed in tandem with the gradual increase in the full retirement age from 65 to 67.

The goal of actuarial adjustments to the monthly benefits has always been to ensure that retirees with average life expectancy could expect to get the same total lifetime benefits, regardless of when they started. But calculating lifetime benefits requires assumptions about how long people will live and assumptions about interest rates. The current calculations are based on life expectancy and interest rates in the early 1960s or 1980s.

Much has changed since those dates: life expectancy has increased dramatically and interest rates have declined. Longer life expectancy and, to a lesser extent, lower interest rates would each call for a smaller penalty for early claiming and a smaller reward for delaying claiming.

Consider what this means for baby boomers whose full retirement age is 67. Under the current system, if they claim at 62, they receive 70 percent of their age-67 benefit. However, to reflect decades of increasing life spans and falling interest rates, the researchers calculated that the accurate monthly benefit would be 77.5 percent of the age-67 benefit. That is, early claimers are penalized too much.

For workers who delay claiming, a discrepancy also exists between the current and accurate delayed retirement credits, though the difference is smaller since the credit was initially too small. Specifically, workers who wait until 70 to start Social Security today receive 124 percent of the benefit they would’ve gotten at 67, whereas 120 percent of the age-67 benefit would be more accurate. …Learn More

Video: Wisdom from Decades of Living

A Jewish child rides the Kindertransport out of Nazi-controlled Austria to safety in England, eventually coming to the United States. A Japanese-American mother is confined to an internment camp. A child of Mexican farm workers in California goes to bed hungry. A young African-American organizes sit-ins for Civil Rights.

Taken together, the early life stories shared by the individuals in a new PBS feature, “Lives Well Lived,” are a compendium of U.S. history. The trailer that appears above can’t do justice to the full video, which can be viewed free of charge on the PBS website until Sept. 29.

Despite their trials, these individuals have embraced life with a zeal and perseverance that are surely part of the secret to how they have made it into their 80s or 90s. And there is a growing body of scientific evidence that the healthy lifestyle and even the positive attitude these seniors display improve longevity.

“When I wake up in the morning, I expect something good to happen,” one woman said. “Sometimes it’s postponed to the next day or the day after, but inevitably something wonderful happens.” …Learn More

caregiving

Retirees’ Need for Caregivers Varies Widely

Nothing causes dread in a retiree quite like the prospect of having to go into a nursing home someday or becoming dependent on someone who comes into the house to help with routine daily needs.

But media reports or studies with alarming predictions of infirmity in old age are not very useful to retirees or their family members. A new study provides a more nuanced picture of the various scenarios that can play out.

home care tableResearchers at the Center for Retirement Research estimated that roughly one in five 65-year-olds will die without using any care, and another one in five will need only minimal care.

But one in four will have such severe needs that they will require high intensity support for three years or more. The largest group of people – 38 percent – will fall somewhere in the middle: they are likely to need a moderate amount of care for one to three years. A strong indicator of how much assistance someone will require is whether they are healthy in their late 60s.

To determine future need, the researchers combined two dimensions of care: intensity and duration. The intensity of care varies widely. Many retirees can remain largely independent if they hire someone for a couple days a month to clean house or manage their finances, while others will need round-the-clock support.

The duration of care also varies. The researchers divided duration into three categories: less than a year, one to three years, and more than three years. Many retirees need assistance for only a few days or weeks after being released from the hospital. But others, including people who develop severe disabling conditions such as dementia, may need years of care.

The researchers used 20 years of biennial surveys of older Americans and data on caregivers to predict the share of 65-year-olds who will have minimal, moderate, or severe lifetime needs.Learn More

Wanted: Workers without College Degrees

The PBS NewsHour has some terrific reporting on an important topic: the job market for the two-thirds of working-age adults who don’t have a college degree.

The problem facing many of them is that, despite their hard work, they will earn much less over their lifetimes than college graduates. In stories for the NewsHour, Paul Solman highlights the opportunities available to workers without degrees at a time that many employers are scrambling to find smart, energetic people to fill good-paying jobs with benefits in light manufacturing and the skilled trades.

Women of color are catching on and entering fields like carpentry and plumbing – in fact, they are over-represented in the trades. But Solman talked to employers early this year who cannot find enough young adults willing to consider working in the trades.

This new NewsHour video (above) features IBM, which has to compete for employees with flashy firms like Apple and Google. IBM created an internship program to train people like Reinaldo Rodriguez for “new-collar jobs” that don’t require a bachelor’s degree. The former supervisor for a drug store chain that cut his pay after he was promoted now works in an IBM electronics lab.

Opportunities like these pay enough for people to support their families. And they are a great alternative to borrowing a lot of money for a bachelor’s degree that won’t necessarily guarantee a job. …Learn More

401k Plans Evolve to Boost Workers’ Savings

Many employees in the private sector, when left to their own devices, either save very little in the company retirement savings plan or don’t even sign up for it.

But a growing number of companies have revamped their 401(k)-style plans over the past two decades to strengthen the incentives for employees to save. While progress has been gradual and uneven, the companies are moving in the right direction.

In a new study, researchers have compiled a unique nationally representative data set that tracks the changes employers have made to their 401(k)s and 403(b)s. The findings describe three important areas in which they are making progress:

  • About 41 percent of the largest 4,200 U.S. employers in this study automatically enrolled workers in a savings plan in 2017 – up sharply from 2 percent in 2003. Workers can still opt out but the vast majority remain in the plans.
  • Similar improvements were also evident in the study’s broader sample of employers of all sizes. In 2017, about a third of all companies had auto-enrollment, compared to virtually none in 2003.
  •  Among companies with auto-enrollment, about 44 percent of the large employers and half of the overall sample are automatically increasing their workers’ contributions.
  • Contributions to the plans are generally rising too.

The researchers credited some of the improvements to the Pension Protection Act. The 2006 law explicitly allowed companies to automatically enroll employees in savings plans and also established a minimum standard for the level of employer contributions made by companies that adopt auto-enrollment. …Learn More

700,000 Retirees are Behind on Mortgages

Boy and grandma playing soccerIn the second half of 2020, the number of retired homeowners who fell behind on their mortgage payments doubled to about 1 million per month.

By July of this year, it had dropped to 680,000 retirees. The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which issued the report on homeowners over age 65, said about 12 percent of this population is vulnerable to imminent foreclosure and possibly homelessness. Some of the people who are having the hardest time paying their loans either have disabilities or are over 75.

But most the retirees in the CFPB report are largely reliant on Social Security, so their income is stable. To understand why they’re having problems paying the mortgage requires reading the tea leaves in the CFPB report. More than half of the retirees with past due mortgages live with at least two other people, including children and teenagers.

Lower-income people in multigenerational households typically share the burden of paying their living expenses. If a retired homeowner’s adult family member lost a job because of the pandemic, the homeowner might not be getting the money she needs to pay the mortgage. The CFPB survey confirms this is occurring: more than a third of older homeowners who are behind on their mortgages said a family member was unemployed.

Many of the people who are struggling had less than $25,000 in retirement income or were people of color. Their family members in the multigenerational households – presumably people of color – also may have worked in lower-paid jobs and bore the brunt of last year’s layoffs and reduced hours at work. …Learn More