Enhancement to Savers Tax Credit is Minor

The Savers Tax Credit sounds great on paper. Low-income people get a federal tax credit for saving money for retirement.

But this part of the tax code always seems to disappoint.

The House recently overwhelmingly passed a bill, the Secure Act 2.0, that – along with numerous other retirement provisions – makes the savers credit more generous for some low-income workers.

Under current law, taxpayers can get one of three credits – 10 percent, 20 percent, or 50 percent of the amount they save in a 401(k). The Secure Act, which is now headed for the Senate, would somewhat increase the top income levels for the 50 percent credit – from $20,500 currently to $24,000 for single taxpayers and from $41,000 to $48,000 for married couples. The dollar value of the caps on their credits would remain at the current $1,000 and $2,000, respectively.

The House bill would also eliminate the 10 percent and 20 percent credits for higher-income workers and begin phasing out the dollar caps once taxpayers exceed the $24,000 and $48,000 income levels.

The proposed tweak to the tax structure “is not a dramatic change to who gets the credit,” said Samantha Jacoby, the senior tax legal analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The House also failed to fix the fundamental flaw in the savers credit: it is non-refundable. This means workers who don’t owe any taxes don’t qualify. Without refundability, Jacoby and Chuck Marr write in a recent report, the House bill “ignores a critical reason why so few people with low and moderate incomes claim the credit.”

Disappointment with the tweaks to the savers credit is apparent in the context of the entire bill, which gives much more to higher-income people. For example, the House increased the age that taxation of 401(k) withdrawals kicks in from 72 to 75. Some retirees with modest incomes will tap their savings long before that and won’t benefit from the provision.

“Overwhelmingly, the people who will benefit from this bill are the people who are higher income and already have secure retirements,” Jacoby said.

Another barrier to use of the savers credit is a lack of awareness that it exists. The share of tax filers who claim the credit has increased in the past 20 years but still hasn’t reached 10 percent, according to a report by Transamerica Institute. …Learn More

Got a Retirement Plan? Race Plays a Role

The following statistic will sound familiar since I use it regularly: about half of U.S. workers are not saving enough and may see their standard of living drop when they retire.

A major culprit in this poor state of preparedness is that millions of Americans at any given moment don’t have a traditional pension or 401(k) savings plan at work.

A new study takes a close look at who these people are and shows stark differences along racial lines. A large majority of Hispanic workers in the private sector – two out of every three – do not have access to a pension or 401(k)-style plan, and more than half of Black workers do not have access. Although the numbers are lower for Asians (45 percent) and whites (42 percent), they are still substantial.

Other estimates of private sector coverage, also from this study by John Sabelhaus of the Brookings Institution, show big gaps between high- and low-paid workers and workers with and without college degrees, and at large and small employers.

Coverage also varies from state to state: In Pennsylvania, 41 percent lack access to a retirement plan, but in Florida, 59 percent do not have coverage.

Sabelhaus is certainly not the first to document disparities in retirement plan access for different demographic groups. But his methodology advanced the ball, resulting in more reliable estimates. By using three data sources, he could compensate for their shortcomings while taking advantage of the unique information in each one. He combined recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the IRS, and the Federal Reserve Board. …Learn More

Use of Medicare Subsidy Low in Some States

A major government program helps poor and low-income retirees and adults with disabilities defray what can be substantial healthcare expenses that aren’t covered by Medicare. But enrollment is unusually low in some states because of more stringent eligibility standards.

The Medicare Savings Programs, which are administered by the states and funded by the federal government, subsidize Medicare’s Part A and Part B premiums and cost-sharing obligations for more than 10 million Medicare beneficiaries.

But participation varies widely from state to state, according to a new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, due to a combination of differences in need and varying eligibility standards.


No more than 10 percent of the retirees in Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming are enrolled in their state programs. The enrollment rates are double or even triple that – from 20 percent to 26 percent – in Alabama, California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, and Mississippi.

A major reason for the disparities in enrollment is the difference in the dollar value of assets retirees in each state are permitted to have and still qualify. The federal government set the dollar values on the stocks, bonds, and other assets of Medicare beneficiaries at $8,400 for single and widowed retirees and $12,600 for couples in 2022. The house and one car do not count.

But several states have chosen to make it easier to qualify by setting asset limits that exceed these federal minimums. In fact, eight of the nine states and the District of Columbia that have the highest shares of retirees in their programs either set asset limits above the federal standard or don’t have an asset test at all.

These states still restrict participation to disadvantaged people by placing income caps on eligibility, which range from about $13,000 to $26,000 per year in all but one state. But in several states that only match the low federal minimums for assets, disadvantaged retirees aren’t getting the financial assistance they need to access medical care.

Meredith Freed, a senior Medicare policy analyst for Kaiser, said that between a third to half of retirees with incomes below 135 percent of the federal poverty limit nationwide are not enrolled.

Medicare beneficiaries spend an average $6,000 per year out of their own pockets for medical care. “Having help with premium and cost-sharing is incredibly important,” Freed said. …Learn More

Workers Stress about Inflation Spike

Emotional toll figureRegular working folks can always find something about their finances to be stressed about. But today’s stress is coming from a new place: a level of inflation this country hasn’t seen in four decades.

A large majority of workers – 76 percent – identified rising prices as having a negative impact on their finances. And among households earning under $55,000, 84 percent are feeling stretched, according to the financial services website Salaryfinance.com.

Nearly half of the 3,000 workers the firm surveyed in February specifically said that inflation is stressing them out, causing anxiety, depression, or both. They said the inflation makes it tough to afford basic necessities or save money.

Gas signThe stress is understandable. The consumer price index has risen 8.5 percent over the past year, and the increase isn’t just at the grocery store or the gas pump. A narrower measure of inflation that excludes food and energy is also up sharply – 6.5 percent for the year. Housing, another necessity, is driving up living costs too.

Workers got some protection from price hikes in 2021, because their wages were outpacing prices, according to the Wharton School. But those gains could disappear this year if inflation continues to accelerate.

Consumers are getting some relief from falling gas prices, which have declined for the fourth straight week, according to Gas Buddy. …Learn More

Minority Retirees: More Healthcare Access

The pandemic has dramatized the grim consequences of Black and Latino Americans having less access to healthcare than whites: disproportionately high death rates from COVID-19.

Medicare Advantage figureBut there has been some progress toward racial equity in an unlikely place: Medicare Advantage plans sold by insurance companies. Enrollment in the plans has increased unabated for years, and minority enrollment more than doubled between 2013 and 2019.

During that time, Advantage plans increased from about a third of the various Medicare options purchased by Black, Latino, Asian and other minority retirees to nearly half, according to the non-profit Better Medicare Alliance.

Dr. Elena Rios, president of the National Hispanic Medical Association, and Martin Hamlette, executive director of the National Medical Association representing Black physicians, said Advantage plans provide retirees with access to preventive services like mammograms and cholesterol checks that keep them healthy.

Advantage plans are “a needed tool in the work of building a more just health care system,” they wrote in a recent Health Affairs article.

The appeal is upfront affordability. The monthly premiums are significantly lower than Medigap premiums, and many Advantage plans charge no premium. They frequently include prescription drug coverage, eliminating the need to pay for a separate Part D drug plan.

The reason Advantage plans are especially popular with minorities is that they tend to have lower incomes than whites and less room in their monthly budgets for medical care. Three out of four minority retirees in Advantage plans have incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, compared with half of the whites in the plans.

Like all insurance, however, Advantage policies are a mixed bag. Medicare beneficiaries in poor health may face higher costs down the road if they experience a major medical crisis. In one study, the sickest retirees with Advantage plans had more risk of inordinately large annual out-of-pocket expenses for copayments and deductibles than retirees with Medigap plans. …Learn More

Rental Market Roars Back and Workers Pay

For a whole host of pandemic-related reasons, rents dipped in 2020 as millions of Americans lost jobs, stayed home from college, left the cities, or arranged for aging parents to live with them.

But the economy has bounced back, and an additional 900,000 households entered the rental market in the first nine months last year. This unusually large surge in demand drove up rents and raised new concerns about housing affordability for the low- and middle-income workers who were already struggling to pay the rent.

The market for professionally managed apartments saw an unprecedented rent spike of 11 percent in the third quarter of 2021 compared with a year earlier. Prior to the pandemic, annual rent increases had averaged 2 percent to 5 percent. The biggest hikes are in pricier apartments and are being fueled by a strong job market and young adults in their 30s marrying or moving in with partners or friends.

“These higher-income renters aren’t just living in units that are higher end. They’re also competing for units that would be affordable to middle- and lower-income households,” said Alexander Hermann, senior research analyst with the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.

“The affordability challenges they’re facing are real, and there’s plenty of reason to be concerned about what’s happening,” he said.

One positive development in a difficult rental market is that multifamily construction is at its highest level since the 1980s. However, it will take years for the new inventory to ease the pressures on apartment supplies and rents.

The low inventory of single-family houses for sale currently, combined with high house prices, are also driving up apartment demand by well-paid professionals. To satisfy the demand, hedge funds and other businesses are snapping up single- and multifamily homes and renovating them as rental properties. The high-end market is so hot that rents in this segment rose 14 percent last year, according to the Harvard housing center’s new report.

At the bottom of the income ladder, however, 23 percent of households with less than $25,000 in income are behind on rent, as are 15 percent of households earning between $25,000 and $50,000. These renters are disproportionately people of color, who felt the brunt of the massive job losses when businesses shut down early in the pandemic. …Learn More

How Long Can Low Wages Outrun Inflation?

Waitress serving family after the COVID reopeningFederal labor officials are giving Amazon employees in Alabama a second shot at forming a union, and their coworkers in Staten Island are seeking clearance to hold a vote. Americans, more confident of their employment prospects, are leaving their jobs in record numbers, with much of the activity in low-wage industries like hospitality.

Employers, having taken note, are combatting high quit rates and staff shortages by raising pay at the bottom of the wage scale. Also fueling the hikes has been a series of increases in state minimum wages, including automatic annual cost-of-living increases in a growing number of states.

Various economists, using different data sources, have reached a similar conclusion about these recent developments: pay for low-income workers – the same people who suffered the highest unemployment rates during the pandemic – is currently outpacing inflation.

It’s unclear whether that trend will continue in 2022, if, as some economists now predict, inflation becomes more persistent. The government will report December’s inflation rate tomorrow.

But between the third quarters of 2020 and 2021, Arindrajit Dube, at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, estimated that wage increases for workers in the bottom 30 percent of the pay scale outpaced inflation. Another economist, Geoffrey Sanzenbacher at Boston College, reached a similar finding: inflation-adjusted pay for people with earnings in the bottom 25 percent of all earnings rose last year while workers in the top 10 percent saw a decline.

When inflation first started picking up, economists said it would be a temporary blip that would ease when the goods piled up at West Coast ports started moving onto store shelves. But some economists are changing their tune and worry that high inflation will last longer than they’d predicted.

This would especially be a problem for low-wage workers, who spend most of their income on necessities. Rental housing is a good example. In a recent Federal Reserve survey, consumers estimated their rents would rise by 10 percent over the next year. An increase of this size would mark a new high for low-wage workers’ largest single expense – rent consumes more than half of their monthly income. …Learn More