Low-income Spend Tax Credit on Food, Rent

The fate of the recent expansion of the federal child tax credit is uncertain in the ongoing budget negotiations in Congress. What is clear is that poor and low-income families are putting the increased assistance to good use.

Low-income families figureNine out of 10 families earning less than $35,000 are spending the money on one or more essential living expenses, which include food, utilities, housing, clothing or education needs like books and after-school programs, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The American Rescue Plan passed in March temporarily increased the credit from $2,000 to $3,600 per year per child for kids under age 6 and to $3,000 for older kids and teenagers. In another temporary provision in the legislation, the IRS sends the credit to families every month in the form of a monthly payment.

The child tax credit is also now fully refundable, which means that low-income people are eligible for the full credit even if they pay little or no income taxes. If the budget negotiations make this a permanent feature of the credit, the IRS would extend the federal assistance to 27 million more children in low-income families.

Unfortunately, the center estimates, there are some 4 million children in families with very low incomes that aren’t receiving the monthly payments, either because they didn’t file taxes in 2019 and 2020 or didn’t receive an economic relief check from the federal government. The IRS has created an online tool for parents to sign up and start receiving the credit.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities asked the people it surveyed about their specific uses for the monthly cash payments. Six out of 10 families earning under $35,000 said they are spending the money on food. About half are paying their utilities or housing expenses. Even the non-essential expenses seem like good uses for the extra funds, including car payments, childcare, and paying down debt.

Higher-income families also buy necessities with the extra cash. But low-income families struggle more to pay for their basic living expenses, and the center said they are using more of the money from the tax credit to pay for them. …Learn More

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Attorneys Secure Disability Benefits Faster

Hiring an attorney or other representative seems to be helping workers who apply for federal disability insurance.

Legal representation dramatically increases the chances that individuals with disabilities will be awarded benefits at the initial level of review of their applications filed with the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA), new research finds.

Hiring an attorney has been common when applicants appeal an initial denial to an administrative law judge. What’s new is that they are increasingly getting help earlier – when they first file the application – from an attorney or, in some cases, another representative who has passed an SSA test on the agency’s administrative procedures.

But disability experts have debated the value of representatives amid concerns about unscrupulous practices, such as beefing up their fees by dragging out the application process. SSA pays representatives 25 percent of a client’s back benefits that accrue while he or she awaits a decision – up to a $6,000 maximum fee.

This study – the first to examine attorney effectiveness – finds justification for paying the fees. Attorneys increase the share of applicants who are awarded benefits at the initial level of review from a third to more than half, according to the analysis of SSA data for applicants who received an initial decision between 2010 and 2014.

Hiring a representative “leads to earlier disability awards to individuals who would otherwise be awarded benefits only on appeal,” the researchers said. …Learn More

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Headlines Sway Perception of Social Security

Each new reminder in the annual Trustees’ Report that Social Security’s trust fund will be depleted sometime in the 2030s causes a new round of angst. Some 40 percent of the workers in one poll expect to receive nothing from Social Security when they retire.

The media often play into this sense of unease with sensational headlines like “Social Security and Medicare Funds Face Insolvency” (The New York Times) or “Trust Fund to Run Dry in 2035” (Fox Business).

While these headlines do their job of attracting readers’ attention, they don’t reflect the fact that the payroll taxes paid by employers and employees will keep rolling in. If policymakers take no steps to prevent the depletion, the tax revenues will still cover about three-fourths of future retirees’ benefits, according to the 2021 Trustee’s Report released in August.

But a new study by the Center for Retirement Research shows that headlines focused on the trust fund’s potential depletion can fuel misperceptions about Social Security’s viability. In reaction to news stories with alarming headlines, some workers in an online experiment said they would alter their retirement plans.

The experiment was conducted during the June lull in the pandemic when COVID was less of a distraction. Everyone in the experiment saw the same article – except for the headline and the first sentence, which essentially repeated the headline.

The workers who read articles with headlines emphasizing the trust fund’s depletion predicted they would start their benefits about a year earlier – presumably hoping to protect them somehow by locking them in early – than those who saw the staid headline – “Social Security Faces a Long-Term Financing Shortfall.”

Two headlines in the experiment sent a more blunt message: “Social Security Fund Headed Toward Insolvency in 2034, Trustees Find” and “The Social Security Trust Fund Will Deplete its Reserves in 2034.” The people who saw a final headline, which alluded to the trust fund’s depletion – “Revenues Projected to Cover Only 75 Percent of Scheduled Social Security Benefits after 2034” – said that they, too, were more likely to start their benefits earlier.

Headlines also influenced how much workers in the experiment expect to get from Social Security when they retire. …Learn More

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ACA Insurance in the Time of COVID-19

The urgency of the pandemic ushered in important changes to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), including a steep reduction in premiums for health insurance policies purchased on the state and federal exchanges through the end of 2022. Now Congress is debating reforms such as making the larger premium subsidies permanent and broadening the reach of the federal-state Medicaid program beyond the expansion introduced in the 2010 ACA.

We spoke with Tyson Lester, an independent insurance agent in southern California, about what the changes so far have meant for consumers. Tyson is licensed to sell policies in California, Florida, and Texas.

Tyson LesterTyson Lester

Has the Affordable Care Act promoted disease prevention and care during the pandemic?

Some of the best feedback we got from our clients was about using the telehealth and remote options in their policies. It’s been an option for quite some time, but it was utilized more frequently during COVID-19. People were able to access primary care physicians, receive consultation and be diagnosed with COVID over the phone. It was amazing. It helped them because: 1) they were able to just make a phone call; 2) they were able to receive good consultation; and 3) if testing was necessary, they were able to go to a testing facility.

In response to COVID, did you see a rush into ACA policies last year?

ACA enrollment increased last year, but consumers’ response to the pandemic was mixed. In 2020, 12 states and Washington D.C. temporarily reopened their health insurance exchanges but people didn’t have the additional premium assistance to make it more affordable. In the remaining states, working people who lacked employer health insurance didn’t have the ACA as another option for coverage when the pandemic hit.

As for the workers who did have employer health insurance last year but then lost their jobs, they had to make a tough decision between whether they wanted to elect their employer’s COBRA, which is expensive, go uninsured, or go on the insurance exchange. But many people weren’t fully aware of the ACA’s longstanding option: when someone loses group health insurance from their employer, they can buy what’s known as a special enrollment ACA plan. In Texas, for example, part of the reason for last year’s increase in the uninsured population, in the midst of COVID-19, was that people who lost their jobs – and their employer coverage – weren’t even aware the ACA exchanges were available to them. We actually put a flyer together for this specific topic last year, because it was so important.

In March, the American Rescue Plan significantly increased the ACA premium subsidies through December 2022. What has been the effect?

For anybody who was previously enrolled, the American Rescue Plan significantly reduced premiums in California, Texas, and Florida and potentially their total out-of-pocket costs. As a result of the larger subsidies, I saw an influx of new customers throughout this year on California’s exchange, which – unlike most other states – opened a special enrollment for all of 2021. Earlier this year, the federal exchange opened, which caused an influx of customers too. This is where Texas, Florida and many other states sell their ACA policies. All states on the federal exchange shut down again in August but will reopen for 2022 in November. …
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Retirees Can’t Afford Hearing, Dental Care

Hearing loss can amplify cognitive decline by isolating retirees and forcing them to divert precious brain power to participate in a conversation. People who lose teeth have trouble eating, sacrificing their health. And poor vision, uncorrected by cataract surgery or the proper magnification in eyeglasses, is dangerous when driving at night.

These problems are facts of aging. But Medicare doesn’t cover their often-expensive solutions such as hearing aids, dental implants, or eyeglasses. A report by the Kaiser Family Foundation identified a gap between need and access is wide.

Among the 16 percent of Americans over 65 who said in a survey that they couldn’t get hearing, dental or vision services, nearly three out of four couldn’t afford them.

Three charts, based on Kaiser’s analysis of the survey data, show the average out-of-pocket spending for hearing and dental care was around $900 for the Medicare beneficiaries who used the services in 2018. The cost of vision care was significantly less, averaging $230.

Retirees usually don’t need all three services in a single year. For example, dental implants cost thousands of dollars, and an individual might get one or two in a lifetime. But when retirees do get the expensive dental care, a new Kaiser report shows the bill can really pack a wallop – and become an obstacle to getting the necessary care. …Learn More

Video: Wisdom from Decades of Living

A Jewish child rides the Kindertransport out of Nazi-controlled Austria to safety in England, eventually coming to the United States. A Japanese-American mother is confined to an internment camp. A child of Mexican farm workers in California goes to bed hungry. A young African-American organizes sit-ins for Civil Rights.

Taken together, the early life stories shared by the individuals in a new PBS feature, “Lives Well Lived,” are a compendium of U.S. history. The trailer that appears above can’t do justice to the full video, which can be viewed free of charge on the PBS website until Sept. 29.

Despite their trials, these individuals have embraced life with a zeal and perseverance that are surely part of the secret to how they have made it into their 80s or 90s. And there is a growing body of scientific evidence that the healthy lifestyle and even the positive attitude these seniors display improve longevity.

“When I wake up in the morning, I expect something good to happen,” one woman said. “Sometimes it’s postponed to the next day or the day after, but inevitably something wonderful happens.” …Learn More

401k Plans Evolve to Boost Workers’ Savings

Many employees in the private sector, when left to their own devices, either save very little in the company retirement savings plan or don’t even sign up for it.

But a growing number of companies have revamped their 401(k)-style plans over the past two decades to strengthen the incentives for employees to save. While progress has been gradual and uneven, the companies are moving in the right direction.

In a new study, researchers have compiled a unique nationally representative data set that tracks the changes employers have made to their 401(k)s and 403(b)s. The findings describe three important areas in which they are making progress:

  • About 41 percent of the largest 4,200 U.S. employers in this study automatically enrolled workers in a savings plan in 2017 – up sharply from 2 percent in 2003. Workers can still opt out but the vast majority remain in the plans.
  • Similar improvements were also evident in the study’s broader sample of employers of all sizes. In 2017, about a third of all companies had auto-enrollment, compared to virtually none in 2003.
  •  Among companies with auto-enrollment, about 44 percent of the large employers and half of the overall sample are automatically increasing their workers’ contributions.
  • Contributions to the plans are generally rising too.

The researchers credited some of the improvements to the Pension Protection Act. The 2006 law explicitly allowed companies to automatically enroll employees in savings plans and also established a minimum standard for the level of employer contributions made by companies that adopt auto-enrollment. …Learn More