Author Archives: Kim Blanton

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

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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

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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

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One-Stop Shopping for Retiree Financial Aid

Fewer than half of low-income retirees who are eligible for SNAP food stamps or don’t automatically receive a medication subsidy as part of their Medicaid coverage are taking advantage of the programs.

These are two prominent examples of the head-spinning number of assistance programs for people over 60, from state property tax breaks and veterans benefits to transportation and healthcare assistance.

“Most older adults are not receiving all the benefits they’re eligible for, and it’s most likely that they’re not aware of what benefits are available to them,” said Erin Kee McGovern, director of the Center for Benefits Access at the non-profit National Council on Aging (NCOA).

And when retirees have heard about a specific program, they often assume – mistakenly – that they won’t qualify, she said. Other barriers are the daunting array of different state programs and lengthy application forms, which can be 15 or 20 pages.

To simplify the search, the NCOA created the Benefits Check Up, an online tool that does the initial screening to figure out which federal and state programs are available to individuals based on whether they fit the eligibility criteria.

The Benefits Check Up has been around since 2001, and more than 1 million individuals and social service agencies use it every year. To get the word out about this tool, NCOA provides grants to food banks, senior centers, and 100 local senior services agencies. It’s important to reach as many retirees as possible who need help.

Retirees enter their zip code and just a few other details and click on the categories that interest them, such as veterans’ benefits, health care subsidies, or tax cuts. The website spits out the programs that people might qualify for based on their income and where they live.

If a program looks interesting, the retiree fills out NCOA’s lengthier screening application for that specific program. Eventually, an application will still have to be filed with the relevant government agency.

But the online screening tool streamlines the process and is a great place to start. So check it out.Learn More

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Using Home Equity Improves Retiree Health

Retirees spend $1,500 more per year, on average, for medical care after a diagnosis of a serious condition like lung disease or diabetes.

Often, the solution for individuals who can’t afford such big bills is to scrimp on care or avoid the doctor altogether. But older homeowners can get access to extra cash if they withdraw some of the home equity they’ve built up over the years.

While the money clearly provides financial relief for retirees, a new study out of Ohio State University finds that it is also good for their health. Every $10,000 that Medicare beneficiaries extracted from their homes greatly improved their success in controlling a chronic or serious disease.

Among the retirees who had hypertension or heart disease, for example, one standard used to determine whether the condition was under control was whether blood pressure levels stayed below 140/90, which the medical profession deems an acceptable level. The people who tapped their home equity were more likely to stay below these levels than those who did not.

This is one of several studies in recent years to tie financial security to home equity, a resource many retirees are reluctant to tap. A study in 2020 found that older homeowners were less likely to skip medications due to cost after they had extracted equity through a refinancing, home equity loan, or reverse mortgage.

But this new research is the first attempt to connect the strategy to retirees’ actual health. The analysis followed the health of more than 4,000 homeowners for up to 15 years after they were diagnosed with one of four conditions – lung disease, diabetes, heart conditions, or cancer. …Learn More

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Boomers Lament Disappearance of Pensions

More than one of this blog’s readers said a recent article about 401(k)s was hardly revelatory. But it sure generated a lot of comments.

Ed McGrath wrote this about “Retirees with Pensions Slower to Spend 401(k):” “Well thank you for this Caption Obvious.”

Perhaps the article struck a nerve because baby boomers are the generation who mostly lost out on pensions. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. workers born in the 1920s through the 1940s – many of them parents of boomers – had pensions. But a measly 6 percent of boomers from the tail end of the wave have them.

Millennials and members of Generation Z usually wouldn’t even consider pensions in their retirement plans. But boomers at one time might’ve hoped or even expected to enjoy a retirement similar to their pensioned parents.

“I am a single woman, a former nurse, and not one job offered me a pension,” said Jennifer Lee, who is 67. “I am relying on my savings and Social Security as well as the equity in my home.” Lee expressed chagrin that a 60-year-old cousin – a rare boomer with a pension – has already “mailed in his retirement papers.”

Gumball MachineSeveral readers pointed out problems with a U.S. retirement system that increasingly relies on savings – leaving retirees to figure out how much to withdraw every year – as monthly pension checks have disappeared. Ken Pidock, quoting a financial journalist, said 401(k)s lack the reliability of pensions: “Forcing people of modest means to depend on the stock market for income to pay bills after they stop working is madness.”

Paul Brustowicz, a former insurance company employee in his late 70s, feels lucky to have the security that comes with a pension, along with his Social Security and some IRA funds he converted to an annuity. “The steady monthly income lets my wife rest easy at night,” he said.

But another reader, Brian Jarvis, has a different perspective on the generational pension divide. “Yes, my father had a traditional pension that I don’t have,” he said. But Jarvis and his wife built up an ample nest egg “that my parents couldn’t have dreamed of,” he said. “We’ll be in good shape for quite a while – the rest of our lives – even without our parents’ type of pensions.”

Unfortunately, not everyone is as prepared as Jarvis. About half of U.S. households aren’t saving enough to retire at the traditional age of 65, which puts them at risk of suffering a drop in their standard of living when they quit working and the paychecks stop. …Learn More

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Disability Applicants’ Opioid Use in Decline

A big drop in opioid use among people applying for federal disability benefits seems like encouraging news, even if they do still use the drugs at considerably higher rates than the general population.

A Big Drop in Use in Just 5 YearsNew research finds that opioid use fell from one in three disability applicants in 2013 to one in four 2018 applicants. And the improvements were across the board: opioid use declined regardless of age, education level, sex, or region, according to the study funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration, which administers the program.

The researchers wanted to get as accurate a picture as possible of use and abuse in the disability community, a source of one in four hospitalizations for opioid overdoses. To tease out opioid use in Social Security’s records, they combed through applicants’ own free text descriptions of their medications for every conceivable name they might’ve used, including generic and brand names. The researchers even included misspellings – for example, oxycotin for oxycontin – and excluded cough suppressants with an opioid as an ingredient. …Learn More

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