The Problem with Low-Income Tax Credits

The federal tax code offers a nifty tax credit to low-income workers who save for retirement. If only it reached more people.

The Saver’s Credit offers what appears on its face to be a strong incentive: the IRS will return up to 50 percent of the amount low-income workers and married couples put into a retirement plan.

But Barbara Wollan, an 18-year volunteer in Iowa with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, or VITA, which provides free tax preparation to low-income workers, said her clients often don’t qualify. The reason: the tax credit is not what the IRS calls “fully refundable.”

For example, a single person earning $19,750 or less is eligible for a tax credit equal to 50 percent of the amount saved – the maximum retirement plan contribution eligible for the credit is $2,000. The credits are either 10 percent or 20 percent for single workers earning between $19,751 and $33,000. (The income limits are higher for households.)

The catch is that the credit is subtracted from the taxes owed, and low-income people usually pay little or no taxes to the IRS after they take the standard deduction given to all taxpayers. If they don’t owe taxes, they don’t get the credit.

“To dream big about helping low-income people save for retirement, we would make it a refundable credit,” said Wollan, an educator with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, which distributes research information in her state on topics like finance and agriculture.

Congress is considering providing a refundable credit of up to $500 to single and married savers even if they don’t owe anything at tax time. But lawmakers often get into a political disagreement about whether people who don’t pay taxes should get money back from the IRS.

Wollan feels her low-income clients should be rewarded for making what is, for them, a Herculean effort to save. “When I see that they have contributed to a 401(k) or other retirement account, I just want to jump up and down and cheer and pat them on the back,” she said. But “because their income is so low, they don’t get to take advantage of these credits, and that is so sad.” …Learn More

700,000 Retirees are Behind on Mortgages

Boy and grandma playing soccerIn the second half of 2020, the number of retired homeowners who fell behind on their mortgage payments doubled to about 1 million per month.

By July of this year, it had dropped to 680,000 retirees. The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which issued the report on homeowners over age 65, said about 12 percent of this population is vulnerable to imminent foreclosure and possibly homelessness. Some of the people who are having the hardest time paying their loans either have disabilities or are over 75.

But most the retirees in the CFPB report are largely reliant on Social Security, so their income is stable. To understand why they’re having problems paying the mortgage requires reading the tea leaves in the CFPB report. More than half of the retirees with past due mortgages live with at least two other people, including children and teenagers.

Lower-income people in multigenerational households typically share the burden of paying their living expenses. If a retired homeowner’s adult family member lost a job because of the pandemic, the homeowner might not be getting the money she needs to pay the mortgage. The CFPB survey confirms this is occurring: more than a third of older homeowners who are behind on their mortgages said a family member was unemployed.

Many of the people who are struggling had less than $25,000 in retirement income or were people of color. Their family members in the multigenerational households – presumably people of color – also may have worked in lower-paid jobs and bore the brunt of last year’s layoffs and reduced hours at work. …Learn More

Part D: More Retirees Face High Drug Costs

Pharmacist selling prescriptions Several million retirees have spent so much on their prescriptions in recent years that they crossed over into the “catastrophic” phase of their Medicare drug plans.

Once catastrophic coverage kicks in, Part D drug plans require retirees to pay only 5 percent of their medication costs out of their own pockets. But there’s a catch: there is no cap on total annual spending, which can quickly rise to thousands of dollars if they need chemotherapy or a brand-name designer drug for a rare medical condition.

Juliette Cubanski, deputy director of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Medicare policy program, said that could change, because proposals to place a cap on total out-of-pocket spending in Part D plans have a bipartisan tailwind behind them. Democrats in the House recently reintroduced a bill that would limit spending to $2,000. Last year, the Republican-controlled Senate Finance Committee approved a $3,100 cap, which is currently part of a Republican prescription drug bill.

Now, President Biden says he wants to limit retirees’ spending in their Part D plans. However, the bills circulating on Capitol Hill could also become tangled up in a more complex debate about a related issue: the best way to control drug prices.

A flat dollar cap – if it passes – would be simpler than the current system for determining out-of-pocket drug costs, though it would mainly help people with extraordinarily high spending. Cubanski said most people on Medicare spend less than $2,000 out-of-pocket annually.

But in a given year, she said, “that could be anybody.” And as baby boomers stampede into retirement, more people will be pushed into catastrophic coverage at a time of continually rising drug prices. …Learn More

Marriage Plays a Part in Income Inequality

In the madcap 1960 movie, “Where the Boys Are,” a college student named Tuggle (played by Paula Prentiss) is forthright about why she’s going to Ft. Lauderdale for spring break: to find a husband.

Women have come a long way, and two out of three married women today choose to work, rather than go Tuggle’s presumed route and become a full-time housewife. Yet there’s a 21st century corollary to Tuggle’s experience. College is important in determining who people marry.

We tend to marry others who are like us, and education has become central to this. College graduates gravitate to other college graduates. People who complete their formal education at high school graduation tend to marry other high school grads. Further, this trend of marrying someone with a similar education is growing over time.

“People are increasingly marrying other individuals with the same level of education,” says Boston College economist Geoffrey Sanzenbacher. Sanzenbacher and other economists say the growing trend of college graduates pairing off with other graduates has increased income inequality.

The importance of college goes much deeper. Among graduates, the specific college one attends is more important in determining who one marries than one’s field of interest or personal attributes like SAT scores or a parent’s income.

For example, graduates of a specific college are very likely to marry someone who went to that same institution – even if they are in different fields, according to a new research study that connected the data in Norway’s centralized college admissions system with marriage data. Or consider two graduates of the same law school. They have a good chance of getting married – not because they are both lawyers but because they attended the same school. …Learn More

Healthcare Deductibles: the Burden Grows

At $140 billion, the nation’s unpaid medical bills are the single largest form of past due debt. One thing driving this is no doubt rising deductibles for health insurance.

Health Insurance CartoonA third of insured Americans said in a survey that it is difficult to pay the deductibles in their employer health insurance plans and in the policies sold on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplaces.

Among employer-sponsored insurance plans, policies with high deductibles are becoming more pervasive, even in large corporations. Employers are choosing high-deductible plans in part to keep their workers’ monthly premiums at a reasonable level – a tradeoff that is inherent in health insurance.

But the sky-high cost of medical care can quickly run-up out-of-pocket spending in years when someone in the family becomes very ill or needs surgery. Average deductibles exceed $3,000 for a single worker’s policy in half of the U.S. companies with less than 200 workers. The family plan deductibles exceed $6,000 in more than 40 percent of small companies.

ACA plan deductibles are rising in almost every state and have surpassed $4,000 per year, on average, in 11 states from Arizona and Michigan to Oregon. A variety of plans are available on the exchanges, including plans with lower deductibles for people willing to pay higher premiums. But ACA premiums have also been rising, though the federal government has temporarily increased the premium subsidies as part of COVID-19 relief.

New research appearing in the July issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) estimates that medical bills made up more than half of all the consumer debt in collections last year. And the data are through June 2020 and don’t even reflect the full cost of caring for COVID patients. …Learn More

2.2 million Workers Left Out of Medicaid

The Affordable Care Act gives a carrot to states that expand Medicaid from a health insurance program mainly for poor people to one that also includes low-income workers.

Under the 2010 law, the federal government initially paid the full cost of adding more people to the Medicaid rolls, and a large majority of states have signed up. The federal funding for new expansions dropped a bit in 2020 to 90 percent and will remain there.

Yet 11 states are holdouts and haven’t expanded their programs, leaving nearly 2.2 million workers and family caregivers in what the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities calls the Medicaid coverage gap.

Medicaid Map

The workers falling in the gap, who would qualify for coverage if their states expanded Medicaid, do not have health insurance at their places of employment and can’t afford to buy subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

The bulk of the uncovered workers are in the South, with half in Texas and Florida. Missouri had been a holdout. But last week, the Missouri Supreme Court ordered the legislature to comply with a voter ballot initiative and fund expansion of the state’s Medicaid. Expansion was also controversial in Oklahoma, but it went into effect on July 1 after voters there approved the measure.

An analysis by the Center sketched a picture of who is in the gap, based on 2019 Medicaid data, the most recent available. People of color comprised about 40 percent of the working-age population but made up 60 percent of the people in the gap in the non-expansion states, the Center estimates.

Nationwide, one in four who lack access to Medicaid are lower-paid essential workers on the front lines during the pandemic. …Learn More

ACA Proves Itself but Race Disparity Persists

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to reject another challenge to the Affordable Care Act was widely seen as the final word: the law is here to stay.

But it was COVID-19 that underscored how important it is.

Racial disparities in uninsured populations

The federal government said nearly 10 million people signed up for Medicaid health coverage during the pandemic year that ended in January 2021. A decade after passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which expanded Medicaid to include more low-income Americans by increasing the income limit for eligibility, the new sign-ups pushed total Medicaid enrollment to a record high of 80 million.

The recent increase was largely due to the spike in sign-ups among the unemployed or workers who saw their hours reduced and lost some of their wages. The relief packages passed by Congress in March 2020 and this year encouraged Medicaid enrollment by giving states additional funding to pay medical costs and sign up more people.

Beyond Medicaid, sales of regular health insurance policies sold on the state insurance exchanges also rose last year, as COVID-19 raced through the population. A 5 percent increase in enrollment in the policies, which are often subsidized, pushed total enrollment to 12 million.

Earlier this year, the American Rescue Plan continued to shore up health coverage by reducing insurance premiums for people who buy the policies. Unfortunately, these and earlier federal supports were temporary measures put in place for the pandemic, and some progress will be reversed when the supports expire at the end of this year or next year.

Despite the recent coverage gains, it has been a bumpy ride. Prior to COVID-19, sales of ACA policies had been slowing after years of marked progress in reducing the U.S. uninsured rate. And in the states that have not expanded Medicaid to reach more residents, the uninsured rates are nearly double the rates in the expansion states – 15.5 percent vs 8.3 percent. …Learn More