Photo of a leaky pipe

401ks are a Source of Cash in Pandemic

The U.S. retirement savings system has always been a little leaky. But the leaks seem to be getting bigger.

Some Americans are eyeing withdrawals from their 401(k) plans as the best of a few bad options for paying their rent or solving other cash-flow problems.

As of May 8, 1.5 percent of retirement plan participants had taken some money out of their 401(k) plans under new federal legislation permitting penalty-free withdrawals, The Wall Street Journal reported. An April survey by the non-profit Transamerica Institute put the number of savers responding to the pandemic much higher – about one in five.

Chart of adults most likely to use 401ks as cashBut the data included people who took out loans from their 401(k)s, in addition to withdrawals from 401(k)s and IRAs. Further, Transamerica reported not only on what people have already done but what they say they plan to do. Younger workers and men were the most likely to resort to this desperation move.

Prior to the pandemic, many workers were already behind on their retirement savings and still had not fully recovered from the recession a decade ago.

The current economic downturn will only set them back further as the layoffs, reduced hours and sales commissions derail or curtail their efforts to save. Employers having to lay off workers are also conserving cash by suspending their matching contributions to their employees’ 401(k)s.

“The negative economic effects of the pandemic are further threatening retirement savings and security,” said Catherine Collinson, chief executive of the Transamerica Institute, a partner of the Center for Retirement Research, which funds this blog.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed in March made it easier to withdraw money by waiving the standard 20 percent income tax withholding and 10 percent penalty, which usually applies to people under age 59½. But one estimate made prior to the pandemic shows this is a costly strategy: prematurely taking money out of 401(k)s and IRAs reduces the average amount of money available for retirement by about one-fourth.

People who still have jobs are also saving less. One in five workers have reduced their 401(k) contributions, a Magnify Money survey shows. The informal poll isn’t representative of the population but is certainly an indication of the financial strain the pandemic is putting on workers.

Employers are pulling back too. At last count, some four dozen companies reeling from a drop in revenue – including big names like AutoNation, Best Buy, Hilton Grand Vacations, and Tripadvisor – are temporarily halting their matching contributions, according to a list compiled by the Center for Retirement Research. …Learn More

Puzzle of heads

Disability Applications Spike in Recession

During the Great Recession, the record numbers of Americans who applied for disability included many people who lost their jobs – and it might happen again as the COVID-19 recession plays out.

A 2018 study estimated that 1 million people applied who would not have done so if there hadn’t been a recession. By October 2009, as the jobless rate was peaking, the additional applicants increased the total applications to the U.S. Social Security Administration by 16.5 percent.

The average age of these applicants was 53, and they tended to have impairments that were musculoskeletal or cognitive in nature. Because these impairments are less severe, they were more likely to be denied benefits, often resulting in an appeal.

In contrast, the people who would’ve sought disability benefits even in a strong economy tended to have serious medical conditions such as Crohn’s or chronic kidney disease that usually qualify them automatically under the disability program’s vetting system.

Ultimately, among the applicants who applied in response to the recession, 42 percent were awarded benefits, according to the study funded by the Social Security Administration and based on an analysis of the agency’s disability records.

When they did receive benefits, they were more often awarded on the basis of having a functional limitation and no transferable skills. As a result, many people who used to work were nevertheless approved for benefits, because their options for transferring their skills from their old job to a new job were limited.

Adding so many people to the disability system carried a steep price in terms of an increase in administrative and benefit costs. But the formerly productive workers also paid a price.

“Once people qualify” for disability benefits, the researchers said, “they rarely re-enter the labor force.” …Learn More

Photo of preschoolers playing

Moms of Kids with Disabilities Get Help

Finding child care is difficult for any working parent. It is an even bigger challenge when the child has a disabling condition.

About 1.2 million children under the age of six in the United States are disabled. A new study suggests that federal child care programs may be helping to keep their mothers employed either by meeting their need for care through programs like Head Start or by subsidizing their child care expenses. These supports are particularly important to low-income, single mothers in precarious financial situations.

Preschool children with disabilities were actually more likely to have regular care – at least 10 hours per week – than children without disabilities. And although disabled children’s care arrangements were more likely to be part-time – as was their mother’s employment – they had higher rates of enrollment in child care centers, rather than being in a relative’s care. In the best situations, the centers provide the specialized care these children need.

Their child care costs were also significantly lower, perhaps due to the federal subsidies. For example, families of four-year-olds with disabilities spend less, on average, than the families of children without disabilities, according to research for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

Mothers who stay home to care for infants usually start migrating back to work when the children become toddlers or are approaching kindergarten age.

The researchers gauged the effectiveness of the federal child care programs for disabled preschoolers by comparing their mothers’ employment patterns with other working mothers. The analysis, based on data from U.S. Department of Education interviews with parents, found that both groups had similar changes in their work behavior during these challenging early years.

Federal child care policies, the researchers concluded, “may be adequately supporting employment for parents of children with disabilities.” …Learn More

Photo of pills

Opioid Abuse Tied to Where People Live

In 2019, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in northern Oklahoma detained one doctor charged with operating a pill mill that prescribed opioids to addicts for the simple reason that he presented “a danger to our community.”

While mental illness and unemployment are familiar culprits in the opioid crisis sweeping the country, the environment that people live in – including the prevalence of unscrupulous doctors – is actually important as well.

That’s one conclusion in a new study that found that people are more likely to become addicts if they move from an area with a relatively low level of prescription opioid abuse to a high-abuse area.

The research looked at more than 3 million people on federal disability insurance (DI) – a group that uses opioids at much higher rates than the general population. More than half of DI recipients are prescribed opioids in a given year. And since they are covered by Medicare, the researchers had access to the prescription records for Oxycontin, Vicodin, and morphine.

To gauge the impact of moving to a new location, the researchers created an index that estimated the extent of prescription opioid abuse in each U.S. county. The index took into account several factors, including the amount of opioids prescribed to patients and their use of multiple prescribers.

When DI recipients moved from a county at the low end of this index – the 25th percentile – to the high end – the 75th percentile – their rate of prescription opioid use increased nearly 5 percent, according to the study conducted for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

People with a prior history of prescription opioid use were at particularly high risk of prescription opioid abuse if they moved to a high-use area. …Learn More

Self-Employment More Prevalent Over 65

Workers of all ages are being affected by the damage COVID-19 is doing to the economy, but people who are loosely attached to the labor force may be more vulnerable.

That’s the situation for a small but growing segment of the U.S. labor market: self-employed people who are 65 and older.

When workers are in their prime, most of them are directly on an employer’s payroll. But a new study finds that self-employment begins to dominate as people work past traditional retirement ages and work as independent contractors, consultants, freelancers, or gig workers.

Self-employment graphyThe detailed Gallup survey designed by the researchers shows that self-employment is more pervasive at older ages than previous data had indicated. Nearly half of all workers in their late 60s are self-employed, and that rises to more than two-thirds of workers in their late 70s. In contrast, only one-fourth of people in their late 50s are self-employed.

The Gallup survey was designed to capture self-employment more fully than the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does. That’s because the researchers asked detailed questions designed to get a more complete count of the independent contractors who may mistakenly have failed to report themselves as self-employed to the BLS.

In the study, independent contractor is the most common form of self-employment at older ages. This is mainly the province of an elite group who are able and willing to continue working several years after most people have retired. They are often professionals or former managers who said their primary motivations for being self-employed are remaining active or pursuing an interest.

But even at the oldest ages, a significant minority of independent contractors are working mainly for the money. …Learn More

Fewer Choosing Annuities in TIAA Plan

Woman being carried by a dollarIn a 401(k) world, purchasing an annuity is one way to turn retirement savings into a reliable source of income. But annuities have never been popular.

Now, a new study finds they are losing appeal even among some employees who historically purchased annuities at much higher rates than the general public: members of the TIAA retirement savings plan – one of the nation’s largest. Until 1989, TIAA required that retirees convert their savings into annuities.

Even in 2000, one out of two participants putting money in TIAA would eventually take their first withdrawal in the form of one of the annuity options the plan offers to retirees.

But by 2017, this number had dropped to about one in five, according to an NBER study for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium that followed some 260,000 employees with careers at universities, hospitals, and school systems.

The researchers identified two distinct groups in terms of their annuity activity.

The first group tended to have smaller account balances and started tapping annuities in their retirement plans prior to the age when retirees are subject to the IRS’s required minimum distribution (RMD), which was, at the time of the study, 70½. Over the period studied, annuity selections by the first group fell from 57 percent to 47 percent.

The second group – people who had larger balances and didn’t touch their retirement accounts until after the RMD kicked in – saw their annuitization rate plummet from 37 percent to just 6 percent of the participants. …Learn More

Social Security sign

Social Security Tapped More in Downturn

It happened after the 2001 and 2008-2009 recessions, and it will happen again. Some older workers who lose their jobs will turn, in desperation, to a ready source of cash: Social Security.

In the wake of a stock market crash like the one we just experienced, baby boomers’ first inclination will be to remain employed a few more years to make up some of the investment losses in their 401(k)s. But as the economy slows and layoffs mount, that may not be an option for many of the unemployed boomers, who will need to get income wherever they can find it.

Age 62 is the earliest that Social Security allows workers to start their retirement benefits. In 2009, one year after the stock market plummeted, 42.4 percent of 62-year-olds signed up for their benefits, up sharply from 37.6 percent in 2008, according to the Center for Retirement Research (CRR).

Social Security is a critical source of income even in good times. One out of two retirees receives half of their income from the program, and they can also count on it when times get tough.

But the financial cost of starting Social Security prematurely is steep, because it locks in a smaller monthly benefit for the rest of the retiree’s life. For those who can wait, the size of the monthly check increases an average 7 percent to 8 percent per year for each year claiming is delayed up until age 70.

Unfortunately, the people who claimed Social Security early in the wake of the 2001 recession had fewer financial resources to begin with – namely, their earnings were lower, they had less wealth, and they were less likely to have a spouse to fall back on – according to the CRR study.

“These simple characteristics suggest that those hardest hit by recessions are most likely to use Social Security as an income-insurance policy,” the researchers concluded. …Learn More