More Gen-Zers are Living with Parents

When Millennials’ unemployment rate spiked during the Great Recession, millions of them alleviated their financial problems by moving in with their parents.

Now the coronavirus is chasing Generation Z back home.

Gen z chartSome 2.6 million adults, ages 18 to 29, who had been living on their own moved back home between February and July, the Pew Research Center reports. This pushed up the share of young adults living with one or both parents to 52 percent, which exceeds the rate reached during the Great Depression.

Pew’s analysis included some Millennials. But members of the younger Generation Z account for the vast majority – more than 2 million – of the young adults who’ve returned to the financial security of their parents’ homes this year. [This count does not include college students who came home and attended classes remotely after their schools shut down last spring.]

As was the case for Millennials, what sent Gen-Z back home was a sharp rise in their unemployment rate, Pew said. For example, the rate for people in their early 20s has more than doubled this year to 14.1 percent.

No age group escapes the impact of a recession. The current downturn is the second in a decade for baby boomers, who have faced these major setbacks just as they are trying to square away their finances for retirement.

Losing a job and financial independence as a young adult also has long-term consequences. … Learn More

Isolated birds

Isolation May Worsen Impact of Disability

A danger for working-age people with disabilities is that they become socially isolated, which can cause a further deterioration in their health and ability to function.

A good example of this vicious cycle is people with severe arthritis. If joint pain makes walking more difficult, it can limit one’s ability to do things with friends or be out in public, which means more social isolation and less exercise to ease the pain’s disabling effects.

A new Mathematica study connects this phenomenon to the sharp rise in the share of Social Security disability awards going to people with arthritis, back pain, and other musculoskeletal conditions.

Between 1997 and 2017, there was a slight increase, to 13.4 percent, in the share of Americans with musculoskeletal conditions who reported being socially isolated, according to the study, which was conducted for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

Discomfort in social settings is also present in the general population – but at about half the rate, or 6 percent of adults.

Another contributor to social isolation is cognitive impairment, which includes confusion and poor memory. Cognitive impairments are also on the rise among people with arthritis and related conditions. The increase can’t solely be attributed to the aging of the U.S. population either, because the analysis controlled for age in order to eliminate its effects.

To understand the role of social isolation in disability, the researchers point to the vicious cycle between the two.

“Whether social isolation is exacerbating disability or disability is exacerbating social isolation,” they said, “the contributing limitations are risk factors” that will worsen a disability that already exists. …Learn More

Rewriting Retirement

A Laid-off Boomer’s Retirement Plan 2.0

Jennifer Lee quoteJennifer Lee wanted to work until 70 to max out her monthly Social Security checks – at least that was the plan before she was laid off three years ago from a Washington D.C. church.

The church’s newly hired pastor “decided he wanted a whole new staff,” she said. “I felt to a degree he was entitled to do that,” she said – except that “he was only eliminating people on the staff who were over 60.”

She wasn’t having any luck finding a new job and felt that her only choice was to sign up for Social Security at 63½ to pay her bills. Eventually, Lee, a one-time nurse and medical administrator, landed a nice part-time job as a Jack-of-all-trades in an oral surgeon’s office. Post-pandemic, her duties have expanded to include overseeing the COVID-19 safety protocols.

The recession is putting many baby boomers in a predicament similar to Lee’s: a layoff has derailed their plans to work full-time to build up their retirement savings. Since March, the unemployment rate for Americans who are at least 55 years old has more than tripled, to 9.7 percent in June.

“Most older people, when they’re laid off, will take Social Security right away,” but “that’s not their best short-term solution,” said Wendy Weiss, a Cambridge, Mass., financial adviser. She urges them to find other ways to generate income or reduce expenses, because delaying Social Security increases the monthly check by 7 percent to 8 percent for each additional year the benefits are postponed.

But, Weiss acknowledges, the recession is putting growing numbers of unemployed boomers in situations that aren’t easily solved. “It’s not going to be pretty,” she said about the next few years.

Lee, who is 65, was fully aware she should have postponed her Social Security. But it took her more than six months to find her current job, and she didn’t have any unemployment benefits to tide her over, because church employers don’t usually pay into state unemployment insurance funds. She wasn’t old enough for Medicare at the time of her 2017 layoff either.

“I waited five months to apply for Social Security. I waited as long as I could,” she said.

She sees a problem not in the difficult decisions she’s had to make but in a shortage of policies for older workers like herself, who may be more vulnerable to layoffs and also can have a tougher time finding a new job even in an expanding economy. …Learn More

Low income housing

Housing Subsidies May Fuel SSI Growth

Federal spending on the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program has grown substantially in recent decades, making it the single largest source of cash assistance for older or disabled Americans with little or no income.

For people with disabilities to qualify for SSI’s benefits – the federal maximum is currently $783 per month, with most states adding in smaller amounts – the disability must severely restrict their ability to work. The average monthly payments under Social Security’s separate disability insurance (DI) program are larger, but people who lack the necessary work history required to apply for DI can seek disability status through SSI.

To better understand SSI’s rapid growth, researchers asked whether the preference for housing assistance that some cities give to people with disabilities might create an incentive – albeit an indirect one – to seek approval for SSI. The possibility of moving higher on a city’s long waiting list for housing is highly prized, because the demand for low-cost housing vastly exceeds the supply.

The housing assistance comes in two forms: apartments in public housing developments or federal rental vouchers that pay landlords the difference between their market-rate rents and what the low-income household can afford. Both types of assistance cap rental payments at 30 percent of the household’s income.

First, the researchers found that people with disabilities are, indeed, more likely to get the scarce housing assistance, and their advantage has increased over the past 20 years. Single mothers and people with no more than a high school education in particular benefit from these housing preferences.

The researchers also confirmed their hunch that the prospect of obtaining low-cost housing is a factor in the growth in SSI’s enrollment. And the more expensive the rents in an area, the stronger the incentive to seek SSI: a $1,000 increase in the value of the assistance increases enrollment in SSI by almost a third, according to the study. …Learn More

Student loan debt written on a chalk board

College Debt Boosts Disability Requests

During the steel and coal busts of the 1980s, applications for federal disability benefits rose in areas where these industries had laid off workers. Now there’s a 21st century reason to apply: student loans.

College debt is extremely difficult to discharge in the bankruptcy courts. But the U.S. Department of Education in 2013 opened a new avenue for potentially eliminating federal student loan debt. Former college students whose disabilities are severe enough to qualify them for disability benefits can then apply to the Department of Education for loan forgiveness.

Since 2015, the typical person approved for the program has eliminated $17,500 in college loans.

The prospect of discharging the onerous debt created a powerful financial incentive. After the program began, the probability that an individual with student loans would apply for disability with the U.S. Social Security Administration was much higher than for individuals with no loans, a new study found. The increase in applications was largely from people who had not earned any money the previous year and may have had few options for paying their debt.

The older workers who took out student loans – sometimes on behalf of their children – may be “aching to retire” anyway, the researchers said, and receiving disability and loan forgiveness would accomplish that. But the younger people who applied may simply have been motivated by a desire to discharge their college debts.

However, seeking disability benefits as a strategy for eliminating the debt didn’t work very well. …Learn More

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