February 2023

Disability Job Programs Get Mixed Reviews

Nearly half of the people receiving federal disability benefits have a psychiatric impairment that interferes with working. And they tend to be younger and more willing to work than other disability beneficiaries.

This makes them good candidates for employment support programs that encourage working at least part-time and might even prevent them from applying for benefits at all.

According to a Mathematica review of research on three government jobs programs, the programs had some success in boosting participants’ employment and earnings. However, they didn’t prove effective over the long term in reducing their reliance on federal disability benefits.

One federal program in Texas was geared to people with disabilities who had not applied for benefits when they entered the program. The program offered services like help with job searches, case management, and access to medical care. A year after finishing the Texas program, the number of participants receiving benefits fell 27 percent in a comparison with people who hadn’t participated. But by the sixth year, that positive impact had largely waned.

While disability recipients with mental health impairments often want to work, about half of the people in a second study said they had felt discouraged by past jobs. They cited barriers to remaining employed – on top of their mental health challenges – such as perceptions by others that they weren’t capable, a lack of transportation, and a fear of losing their benefits if they get a job. Social Security suspends disability benefits when workers earn over a maximum amount, which is $1,470 per month in 2023.

But the researchers see the feelings of discouragement as “a window of opportunity” to prevent failed work attempts through job interventions or by educating beneficiaries about Social Security’s benefit rules. …Learn More

Broadband in High Disability Areas is Subpar

The Internet has become a necessity in our modern society. Yet 42 million Americans live in areas of the country where the connections to technology are subpar or, in extreme cases, nonexistent.

At the same time, federal and state governments are increasingly relying on people to interact with them online. This mismatch between a growing reliance on the Internet and a lack of easy access is a problem for one especially vulnerable population: people with disabilities.

Without access to a fast reliable Internet connection, it can be very difficult to apply online to Social Security for disability benefits or to file the periodic reports the agency requires of people who are receiving them.

In a recent report, the Urban Institute found that counties with high rates of residents getting Social Security Disability Insurance are less likely to have access to computers, the Internet, or high-speed broadband to get the government services they need. For example, millions of people living in 1,887 mostly rural counties do not have a Social Security field office where they can meet with agency staff and, at the same time, may lack a reliable broadband connection to go online.

Poor connectivity became an even bigger problem during COVID when Social Security closed its offices, forcing customers to use phone apps and computerized transactions in place of in-person contact. (Most of the offices have now reopened.) …Learn More

Burden of High Rents Surged during COVID

As the bad first two years of the pandemic recede in the rear-view mirror, a new report reminds us how tough things got for renters.

In 2021, a record 21.6 million U.S. families were paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent, which is the real estate industry’s benchmark for people whose housing costs have become a financial burden. That amounts to just under half of all renter households who were struggling during COVID – very close to the high reached during the Great Recession.

And the vast majority of the 1.2 million increase from 2020’s level was in the group that struggles the most: families who pay more than 50 percent of their income to rent a house or apartment.

Two things were going on that have increased the burden on renters, according to a rent report by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. First, rents rose unabated throughout the pandemic and are 25 percent higher than they were at the end of 2019.

But the housing center points to a second factor that added to the burden: renters, who tend to have lower earnings, lost income during the pandemic. The downward shift in their earnings illustrates that. The number of renter households earning less than $30,000 increased by 223,000 in 2021, while the number earning more than $75,000 dropped by 280,000.

The change in the renter population marked “a shift towards households that are much more likely to experience cost burdens,” the report said. …Learn More

The Case for Signing a Power of Attorney

The best reason to set up a power of attorney for yourself or an elderly family member is to avoid a far more contentious and expensive alternative later: guardianship.

Jonathan Williams Jonathan Williams

A power of attorney becomes urgent if an elderly family member is showing early signs of dementia. “You want to run, not walk, to get that done because capacity tends not to get better,” said Jonathan Williams, an attorney with the Clarity Legal Group in the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area.

“Having good legal documents in place, if the person has the ability to execute them, can be helpful later on,” he said.

In a power of attorney, the person signing the document agrees to name an agent, usually a trusted family member or caregiver, who can take care of legal and financial matters in the event she can no longer do so herself. A power of attorney does not put any constraints on what the signer is currently able to do. She can continue to write checks, enter into real estate transactions, and make investment decisions.

During a recent webinar sponsored by the Duke Dementia Family Support Program, Williams explained some of the legal “gray areas” that can crop up around powers of attorney.

Even if someone is showing cognitive decline, a power of attorney may still be possible if an attorney “can be convinced in a conversation that the person we’re working with has an adequate understanding of the consequences of their signing it, even if that understanding is later lost or forgotten,” he said.

“Just because someone has been diagnosed with a cognitive impairment doesn’t mean they lack the legal capacity to act for themselves.” In this case, the attorney might have to consult with the person’s medical provider or review medical records before deciding what to do about a power of attorney.

But convincing an attorney in these situations isn’t a sure bet, and time is of the essence. Once someone becomes fully incapacitated, the only option may be guardianship, which Williams called a “blunt force tool with a lot of collateral effects.” …Learn More

Mental Health Care is Crucial Disability Need

During the pandemic, calls to mental health hotlines soared. People in emotional distress learned that psychologists were booked months in advance or were completely unavailable.

While COVID dramatized the need for mental health treatment generally, new research reveals how important being treated is to people with disabilities.

Isaac Swensen and Carly Urban at Montana State University found that ready access to outpatient care slightly increases applications for disability benefits by working-age people under Social Security’s insurance program and by poor and marginally employed workers under the companion program, Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Mental illness in its severest forms can interfere with the ability to work, making some individuals eligible for federal disability assistance.  But to qualify, the Social Security Administration requires that applicants submit a diagnosis from a medical professional. Applicants with mental illness living in areas with more treatment options, the researchers explained, are potentially able to obtain a proper diagnosis.

Getting people the help they need can increase their reliance on social safety nets. But access to successful treatment – whether the individual has a cognitive or physical disability – might also arguably prevent some severe conditions that make people eligible for disability benefits in the first place. …
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Health Insurance Increases Latinx Wealth

About one out of every five Latinx workers in this country lacks health insurance. The uninsured ratio rises to one in four in the states that have chosen not to expand their Medicaid programs to more low-income workers under the Affordable Care Act.

The motivation for Josefina Flores Morales’ new research is that there’s more to health insurance than just medical care. It is also critical to individuals’ financial health, she argues, and broader insurance coverage in the Latinx community is an underappreciated way that the vast wealth gap between them and non-Latinx White workers could be reduced.

Having insurance keeps people healthy so they can continue to work and is important for other financial reasons. Insurance reduces the size of medical bills through caps on out-of-pocket costs and limits on how much doctors and hospitals can charge for their services.

In cases of severe illness, insurance can prevent a cascade of financial problems resulting in bankruptcy, a car repossession, or home foreclosure.

Flores Morales, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, attempts to put a dollar value on the health insurance disparity by measuring the gap between Latinx and non-Latinx White household wealth – and then estimating whether broadening coverage under the 2014 Medicaid expansion reduced that gap. Her analysis takes advantage of the key difference – each group’s uninsured rates in each state – after Congress expanded the joint federal-state Medicaid program as part of the Affordable Care Act.

In the states that agreed to expand their programs, the Affordable Care Act began covering millions more low-income workers by increasing the income limit for people who qualify.

Based on the known impact that broader insurance coverage and the Medicaid expansion have had so far on the wealth gap between Latinx and White households, the researcher found that if both groups had the same, lower uninsured rate, the gap would shrink by about 8 percent. Flores Morales limited her analysis to the households that have positive net worth, meaning their assets exceeded their debts. …Learn More

Boomerang Kids Don’t Derail Their Parents

A popularized image of parents who struggle when adult children move back home is not shaping up as an accurate picture of the arrangements.

Unemployment, divorce, college graduation – adult children in their 20s and 30s move back into a parent’s home for many reasons. And the parents can have all sorts of reactions, good and bad, to their boomeranging kids.

Some parents get stressed out by young adults who return home because they need financial support. Others welcome having the kids back to pad the empty nest, help with household chores, or help pay the bills.

The return home isn’t necessarily a one-time thing either. “As they attempt to gain financial independence, adult children may alternate between living on their own and living with parents,” according to a new study of parents in their 50s and 60s. …Learn More