April 2022

retired couple on a boat

Health and Wealth Drive Retirees’ Spending

Previous research has shown that spending drops immediately at the moment the paychecks stop, and a few studies have found that households, once retired, reduce their consumption over time.

But a new study that also takes the long view suggests that the spending decline is not what retirees want to do but what is necessitated by their financial and health constraints.

The analysis, which used data from two national consumption surveys, divided retired households into groups to get a sense of what goes into their spending decisions. The researchers compared the consumption patterns of retirees at three different wealth levels over a 20-year period and then compared consumption for three states of health.

The evidence that financial resources drive behavior is that the wealthier households’ consumption was relatively constant, declining just one-third of 1 percent a year.

While these retirees have the financial wherewithal to largely maintain their spending, retirees in the bottom wealth tier saw bigger drops of 1 percent a year. When accumulated over 20 years, the declines produced much lower spending levels than when they first retired.

Health is a second factor in retirees’ decisions. Again, the extremes tell the story. Spending in the top tier – very good or excellent health – held fairly flat, while the retirees in fair or poor health saw relatively large declines. Even if they can afford to travel or eat out frequently, health problems may be preventing them from enjoying their money. …Learn More

Workers Stress about Inflation Spike

Emotional toll figureRegular working folks can always find something about their finances to be stressed about. But today’s stress is coming from a new place: a level of inflation this country hasn’t seen in four decades.

A large majority of workers – 76 percent – identified rising prices as having a negative impact on their finances. And among households earning under $55,000, 84 percent are feeling stretched, according to the financial services website Salaryfinance.com.

Nearly half of the 3,000 workers the firm surveyed in February specifically said that inflation is stressing them out, causing anxiety, depression, or both. They said the inflation makes it tough to afford basic necessities or save money.

Gas signThe stress is understandable. The consumer price index has risen 8.5 percent over the past year, and the increase isn’t just at the grocery store or the gas pump. A narrower measure of inflation that excludes food and energy is also up sharply – 6.5 percent for the year. Housing, another necessity, is driving up living costs too.

Workers got some protection from price hikes in 2021, because their wages were outpacing prices, according to the Wharton School. But those gains could disappear this year if inflation continues to accelerate.

Consumers are getting some relief from falling gas prices, which have declined for the fourth straight week, according to Gas Buddy. …Learn More

Mental Health Crisis is an Inequality Problem

The connection between Americans’ socioeconomic status (SES) and their health was established long ago and the evidence keeps piling up.

"Healing: Our Path from Mental Illness to Mental Health" book coverLess-educated, lower-income workers suffer more medical conditions ranging from arthritis to obesity and diabetes. And the increase in life expectancy for less-educated 50-year-olds was, in most cases, roughly 40 percent of the gains for people with higher socioeconomic status between 2006 and 2018.

More recently researchers have connected SES and mental health. The foundations are laid in childhood. In one study, the children and teenagers of parents with more financial stresses – job losses, large debts, divorce, or serious illness – have worse mental health. And COVID has only aggravated the nation’s mental health crisis.

In a new book, Dr. Thomas Insel, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, is concerned about the impact of inequality.

Mental health in disadvantaged communities “is worse because of the world outside of health care. It’s our housing crisis, our poverty crisis, our racial crisis, our increasing social disparities that weigh heaviest on those in need,” he writes in “Healing: Our Path from Mental Illness to Mental Health.” …Learn More

UI Benefits Can Get Caregivers Back to Work

Elderly coupleWhen older workers are laid off, the timing of the career disruption could not be worse – when they should keep working and saving for retirement. Their situation is even more precarious if a parent or spouse is in need of care.

A new study shows that people who become unemployed mid-to-late career are more vulnerable to being pulled into the demands of caregiving, which can derail their efforts to find another job.

Intensive caregiving spells usually kick in about four months after a job loss and can continue for up to 12 months – and possibly longer – according to the research, which was based on U.S. Census surveys of the unemployed prior to the pandemic.

“Family caregiving needs have the potential to turn short-term employment shocks into longer-run decreases in labor force participation, impacting the economic security” of future retirees, concluded Yulya Truskinovsky at Wayne State University.

But she also uncovered another factor in workers’ calculations: the generosity of unemployment benefits, which vary dramatically from state to state. The federal and state governments share the cost of the benefits, but states set the minimum and maximum benefit levels. During the pandemic, for example, the weekly maximum in Massachusetts was 3 1/2 times more than Mississippi’s, far exceeding the difference in the two states’ cost of living.

More generous unemployment benefits could cut one of two ways. They might give the worker enough income to support being a caregiver rather than returning to the labor force right away. The downside of taking so much time off is that it could be harder to eventually find a new job.

But the researcher finds that the opposite occurs: more generous benefits sharply reduce the likelihood that someone takes on caregiving duties after losing a job. Benefits that replace more of a worker’s earnings may make it easier to hire a professional caregiver or continue paying an existing one so the worker can focus on a job search. …Learn More

Her Home Purchase Builds Children’s Wealth

Robin Valentine with son, Alexander, and daughter Alanna.Robin Valentine with son, Alexander, and daughter Alanna.

There is joy in owning one’s first home. But homeownership has a deeper meaning for Robin Valentine.

Unlike her late mother, who was unable to leave any money to her children, Valentine will one day pass on the house that she purchased last September to her three children.

“I told my children, ‘If anything happens to me, and you don’t want to stay here, that’s fine. Take the money [from selling the house] and put it towards your home,’ ” she said. “It’s more than just me buying this house and living in it. It’s for me to leave a legacy.”

Valentine, who is 52, is accomplishing something that historically has proved difficult for African-Americans like herself: building intergenerational wealth.

For most workers, a house is their largest source of wealth. But the homeownership rate in the Black community is dramatically lower than for whites for reasons ranging from mortgage discrimination to insufficient income. When Black people do own houses, their properties hold significantly less wealth. The typical Black homeowner had $4,400 in home equity in 2020, compared with $67,800 for white homeowners.

With sheer determination, Valentine, an administrative assistant in academic services at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, overcame numerous obstacles to buying a house.

She attended college but had to drop out because she couldn’t afford it. It took about eight years to pay off $20,000 in student loans and credit card bills after a divorce from an abusive marriage. For seven years after that, she saved for a down payment by resisting any purchase that wasn’t essential. Once a year, she would ask the bank for a mortgage preapproval to see if she could afford a house yet.

“I just kept saving every little penny I could save,” she said.

Last July, Valentine paid $275,480 for a three-story townhouse in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. Her mortgage payment is $1,635 – not much more than she paid to rent a subsidized apartment under the federal Section 8 program.

She got big assists from two government programs and a non-profit. One program is overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Under HUD’s Family Self-Sufficiency Program (FSS), the non-profit Compass Working Capital partners with local housing authorities to help tenants like Valentine get a foothold in the housing market. …Learn More

How Scammers Use Emotions to Persuade

It’s an implausible ruse. Yet we are all human, and many people are taken in by it.

In the Social Security imposter scam, someone claiming to be from the agency tells the intended victim that he has been accused of a crime and that his bank account will be frozen. To prevent arrest and preserve the money, the individual is instructed to withdraw the funds and buy gift cards or exchange the cash for virtual currency such as Bitcoin. A government official, the caller claims, will return the funds tomorrow.

More than 300,000 people lost millions of dollars in this scam between 2018 and 2021. At a broader level, imposters purporting to be from various government agencies were the most common fraud reported in 2019 to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which tracks and investigates cases of consumer fraud.

A new study found that young adults in their 30s, and also minorities, were more likely than other groups to report being victimized by the Social Security imposter scam. But the victims who are over 70 lost significantly more money, on average. The typical loss among victims of all kinds was $1,500.

More interesting is what the researchers uncovered about how someone becomes ensnared in such an outlandish scheme. The insights came from victims’ first-hand accounts in 600 FTC complaints, as well as an involved process of coding the narratives in some 200,000 complaints to find the emotional words the victims used that would identify larger themes about the Social Security imposters’ methods of persuasion.

High emotional arousal “is an extremely effective tool” that overwhelms victims’ ability to process information rationally, the researchers concluded.

The victims’ accounts reveal a trove of psychological manipulation by the Social Security imposters to elicit anxiety and other negative emotions. Some imposters threatened to harm the victims or their families. In half of the complaints the researchers scrutinized, victims were threatened with arrest. …Learn More

The Pandemic Was a Gift to this Grandpa

Marc Joseph reads to Grace and JacksonMarc Joseph reads to Grace and Jackson

In the early days of the pandemic, four of Marc Joseph’s grandchildren, along with their parents, came from Austin and Orlando to live with him and his wife, Cathy, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Two other grandchildren living nearby were frequent visitors to the house for meals and sleepovers with their cousins.

Many families coalesced to ride out the pandemic together and counteract the stillness that fell over the world. Joseph’s six joyful weeks with his grandkids, ranging in age from 1 to 8, changed how he looks at his personal relationships and the responsibilities of being a grandparent.

“As you grow older, you grow wiser,” he said. “I wish I was there more often for my kids – every concert they were in, every ballgame they played. I was traveling around the world. I wasn’t always home,” said the former entrepreneur. “If I can spend more time with my grandkids, then maybe it’s making up for what I didn’t give my kids.”

The time with his grandchildren is so precious that Gramps, as the children call him, found a way to keep the connection alive when the children went back home. Every evening, he and Cathy made up stories about dinosaurs roaming their house in order to share them with the grandkids on Facetime. One night, the dinosaurs camped out at the refrigerator eating blueberries. Another night they were playing the piano.

“We became part of the routine,” Joseph said. “The kids took baths and read books and then they’d say, ‘What are the dinosaurs doing tonight?’ That gave us a chance to keep in communication with them.”

Joseph’s focus on family isn’t at all unusual. One research study found that women don’t make major changes in their more developed personal lives after retiring. But men do. After years of focusing on their careers, older men become more dependent on family and greatly expand their social networks.

All that love from grandchildren – without having to worry about managing their day-to-day activities – takes the edge off of getting older. This may be especially true during COVID, which has isolated retirees from the social interaction crucial to maintaining their mental and physical health. …Learn More