Retirement blocks

Change to Social Security Impacts Decisions

In 1983, Congress introduced gradual increases in the eligibility age for full Social Security benefits from 65 to 67. The increases, starting in 2000 and continuing today, have meant larger reductions in the monthly checks for people who sign up for their benefits early.

This was a major cut to Social Security benefits, and it has had an impact. Retirement rates have declined among workers in their early 60s as they delayed retirement to make up for the larger penalties for claiming their benefits early, a new study found.

Estimating the effect of this change on retirements is challenging, so the researchers compared actual retirement rates after the reform with their estimates of what the rates would’ve been if Congress had not increased the full retirement age. They also calculated the retirement rates a few different ways. Their main estimate, based on three decades of U.S. Census data, was notable, because it showed a substantial decline in retirements at age 62, which is the first time workers can collect Social Security – and the age that exacts the biggest penalty in the form of a smaller monthly check.

At ages 63 to 65, the penalties for claiming early shrink – and the effect of the reform was less noticeable.

But the main estimate of retirement rates – the incidence rate – showed that the 1983 increase in retirement penalties had a significant impact on 62-year-olds. The incidence rate is the number of people in a given year who retire at 62 as a percentage of everyone in their birth cohort.

The results showed that 10 percent of the men – all workers born after 1937 – left the labor force when they were 62. That’s about 5 percentage points less than the rate would’ve been without the reform.

For women, the incidence rate at 62 was 8.4 percent, which is about 2 points less than if there had been no reform. Their response may have been more muted because women retire for different reasons than men. …Learn More

Federal Aid May Help Kids Later in Life

Handicapped student in the library President Biden has said he wants to increase the benefits in a federal program for low-income children and adults with disabilities. But a long-running debate about the program is whether the direct cash assistance helps children when they grow up.

The Supplemental Security Income program, or SSI, clearly has immediate benefits. SSI provides nearly $800 in monthly cash payments and Medicaid health insurance to help parents care for their children and teenagers and manage their physical, cognitive, or behavioral disabilities. However, policy experts disagree on the program’s long-term effects.

Critics say it creates a negative dynamic if it causes poor parents, consciously or unconsciously, to lower their expectations for a child in order to preserve the payments. If the child has a relatively mild disability, the stigma might discourage educational achievements that would ultimately boost his earnings potential as an adult.

However, one analysis in a new study found no evidence that the future earning power of children receiving SSI was affected. This analysis compared kids whose benefits started before and after a 2001 administrative change that led to more benefit terminations.

A second analysis supported the argument made by SSI’s proponents that the program has broader long-term benefits for children. The additional financial resources enable parents to provide more of the educational experiences, nutritious meals, or stable home life that can improve their children’s future prospects.

To assess the merits of this long-term benefits story, the researcher used a different, more indirect approach. This approach was based on a medical exam for 18-year-old SSI recipients that was introduced in 1996 to determine whether their benefits would continue. The researcher compared the future earnings of the younger siblings in poor families in which the 18-year-olds did and did not lose their benefits.

When the 18-year-olds retained their SSI benefits, their younger siblings earned more as adults than the younger siblings in families that had lost benefits. This pattern held true both for the younger siblings who received SSI themselves and for the siblings who did not receive SSI. …Learn More

Not Everyone Can Delay their Retirement

Retirement experts encourage baby boomers to hang on to their jobs as long as possible to boost their monthly Social Security checks and add to their retirement savings. If they can delay retirement to age 70, they have good odds of maintaining their standard of living.

That isn’t always possible, however, for the baby boomers confronting disabling physical impairments or health problems. Add to that the generally declining health of the older population over the past 20 years.

Working to 67But a new study has revealed a deep socioeconomic divide. More-educated older workers are actually able to work longer than they did 15 years ago, while less-educated older workers – and Black men in particular – are mostly losing ground.

To estimate the changes in working life expectancy for various groups of older workers, Laura Quinby and Gal Wettstein at the Center for Retirement Research considered three factors: life expectancy overall, how long the workers can expect to remain free of a disability, and the rates of institutionalization in prisons and long-term care facilities. The incarceration rate is relevant, because the young adult men who received the longer prison sentences that started being imposed a couple of decades ago are now in their 50s and 60s.

Between 2006 and 2018, working life expectancy increased by about one year for older Black and white workers in the top half of the educational ranking. This makes sense because more educated people tend to be healthier and have seen stronger gains in their longevity.

But working life expectancy declined in the bottom half of the educational ranking for Black men and for white men and women. The exception is less-educated Black women – they have seen a small increase in working life expectancy, along with a more substantial increase in longevity.

The researchers also estimated the share of each group who, at age 62, could feasibly work until age 67, which would lock in their full retirement age benefit every month from Social Security, and until 70, which would provide them with their maximum monthly benefit.

A comparison of two extremes – more-educated white men and less-educated Black men – dramatizes the divide. …Learn More

Older Americans Felt Lonely in Pandemic

Last year, millions of older Americans went into hiding to protect themselves from the ravages of COVID-19.

Did the isolation take a psychological toll? How did they respond to infrequent contact with friends and family? Researchers in a recent webinar tried to understand the unique phenomenon of loneliness in a modern pandemic.

Over 50 and lonelyWhat we know from the National Poll on Healthy Aging in the early months of the pandemic is that more than half of older workers and retirees between 50 and 80 said they “felt isolated from others” – twice the levels seen in 2018.

In a different survey conducted every two months for most of last year, loneliness was “common and it was incredibly persistent during the first six months of the pandemic,” said Lindsay Kobayashi, a University of Michigan epidemiologist involved in the COVID-19 Coping Study, a survey of adults over age 55.

Two groups in particular suffered rates of loneliness that were twice as high as their peers: older people who live alone and residents of senior communities and nursing homes, where staff often separated the residents or confined them to their rooms in an attempt to protect their health.

A larger share of Black Americans also expressed feelings of loneliness than whites and Hispanics, and women were generally more lonely than men. “I’m very afraid that we are going to get so used to being alone, on our own, by ourselves that we won’t reconnect the way we need to,” a 76-year-old woman told the Coping Study researchers last fall.

But the news isn’t all bad. Feelings of loneliness, especially among the oldest retirees, had subsided a bit as early as November as news reports emerged that the vaccines were effective. Older people also found ways to cope with their isolation, and some even felt the pandemic gave them a renewed sense of purpose, according to a pair of studies in The Gerontologist. …Learn More

Be prepared

Onus of Retirement Planning is on Us

Many workers are poorly prepared for retirement. Inadequate savings is a primary culprit.

But the question of why workers don’t save enough was debated by our readers in comments posted to a recent article. The article pertained to a new study showing that life gets in the way of saving, which is derailed by major disruptions such as unemployment or a large, unexpected medical bill.

“This confirms my thinking that the major reason for not saving is spotty employment and a lack of money,” Chuck Miller wrote in his comment posted to “Here’s Why People Don’t Save.” Debi Street agreed: “It is also the quotidian reality of too many people in low-wage, precarious jobs with no surplus to save.”

The research study also tested an alternative explanation for insufficient savings: procrastination. The procrastination theory was not supported by the analysis.

Readers, however, would not let people off the hook so easily. “What’s that old saying? ‘Failing to plan is planning to fail,’ ” said Brian Jarvis. “That planning is certainly impacted by procrastination, which then leads to being … unprepared for life’s disruptions.”

A reader who calls herself Retirement Coffee Shop knows “more than a few people who just disregard the notion of saving for the future. They have lived their lives like there is no tomorrow and spend money on any and everything they want.”

On another matter central to retirement planning – Social Security – readers didn’t criticize. They just offered practical advice.

The article, “Workers Overestimate their Social Security,” described research showing that workers of all ages have a poor grasp of how much they’ll receive in their monthly Social Security checks when they retire.

Specifically, the workers’ estimates were higher than the more precise benefit projections made by the researchers, based on each individual’s earnings history. Not surprisingly, young adults, who have more pressing matters on their minds than retirement, were farthest off the mark.

Several readers made the same suggestion: get the facts. “Go online and look at your SSA statement,” said Lynn. “It lists your FRA [monthly benefit] amount” – at the full retirement age – “as well as estimated amounts at 62 and 70.” …Learn More

drug treatment artwork

Aging Minorities Struggle in Drug Treatment

For baby boomers who have abused drugs or alcohol for years or decades, the negative health consequences of addiction are particularly damaging.

But information about older Americans’ success in substance abuse programs is sparse, even though people between 55 and 75 now make up 22 percent of all U.S. overdose deaths, up from 9 percent in the late 1990s. And virtually no racial breakdown of treatment outcomes is available for this age group.

A new study by Jevay Grooms at Howard University and Alberto Ortega at Indiana University fills this gap. The researchers find that the number of older Black, white and Hispanic Americans admitted to treatment facilities and programs is steadily increasing.

The biggest growth in Black admissions was in cocaine and heroin treatment, while the rise for whites was concentrated in prescription opioids and alcohol treatment. The largest increase for Hispanics was for heroin addiction.

Amid rising admissions, however, the share of people 50 and older who completed treatment has generally trended down for each group during the period of this analysis, 2006 through 2017, though the rates bounce around quite a bit from year to year.

To gauge how each group fared over the period, the analysis controlled for various factors that determine success or failure, including education levels, employment status, and past attempts at treatment.

Older Blacks – and, to a lesser extent, Hispanics – are not as likely as older whites to successfully finish a substance abuse program. One reason is that minorities are more likely to be terminated by a treatment facility or program. Just as worrisome, however, are the widening disparities in the rates of treatment completion between each older minority group and their white counterparts – even as the disparities were closing for Blacks and Hispanics under 50.

The researchers did not dissect the reasons for treatments being terminated but noted that “lack of insurance, social stigma, distrust, lack of diversity and cultural incompetence among providers” are likely contributing factors in the racial differences. …Learn More

Medicare

Enrollment Trends in Medicare Options

Most retirees manage to get by on less than they earned as workers. Yet they devote a much larger percentage of their income to medical care than working people.

To limit their annual spending on care, retirees usually buy some type of insurance policy to help pay the bills Medicare does not cover. But a big shift is under way: the Medigap and employer plans that once dominated are now in decline. Only about a third of retirees have one of these two supplementary arrangements, down from two-thirds in 2002.

Retirees are instead swarming into Medicare Advantage plans  – HMOs run by insurance companies – which doubled enrollment in the past decade to become the most popular form of coverage. A small minority of retirees go without any policy at all, so the only premium they pay is for Medicare Part B’s physician coverage. (The Part A hospital coverage has no premium.) At the same time, the vast majority of retirees today enjoy prescription drug coverage, either through a stand-alone Part D plan or as part of an employer or Advantage plan.

Helen Levy at the University of Michigan digs into what the market changes mean for retirees’ bottom line in recent research funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration.

With fewer employers offering retiree health insurance, new Medicare beneficiaries focus on the tradeoffs between Medigap and Advantage policies. A big reason the Advantage plans have taken off is lower premiums, which are, on average, substantially below the premiums on Medigap plans. Advantage plans’ other appeal is that they frequently cover extra services like dentists and eyeglasses.

Both Advantage and Medigap plans can still leave beneficiaries with high out-of-pocket spending. The federal limit on Advantage plans’ deductibles and copays increased this year to $7,550 per year, though insurers are permitted to reduce this cap. Many Medigap plans do not have out-of-pocket maximums at all. However, these plans tend to give more protection from large medical bills overall.

Just as important to retirees as paying the bills is the risk of being socked with inordinately high spending on hospital and physician care in a bad year. Levy defines this unpredictability as retirees having to shell out more than 10 percent of income out of their pockets, excluding all premiums.

Under this standard, about 23 percent of the retirees in the study with Advantage plans spent more than 10 percent of their income for care – versus 17 percent of Medigap buyers.  About 28 percent of those without any coverage outside of Medicare exceeded the 10-percent threshold. …Learn More