Family under an umbrella

5 Million Families Caught in an ACA Glitch

The states’ health insurance marketplaces will sell subsidized family policies to workers who have employer coverage on one condition: their employer premiums are deemed unaffordable.

But this condition has a quirk. Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), a worker is eligible to buy a subsidized family plan only if he can’t afford his employer’s premiums for an individual policy, defined in the law as exceeding 9.83 percent of his income. Policymakers argue this is the wrong standard, because the ineligible worker needs a family policy, and employers’ family policies usually have much higher premiums than their individual policies.

The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates some 5.1 million workers are in this predicament, which is known as the “family glitch.”

The majority of workers who are not eligible for the ACA’s family coverage are buying the policies at work, and they spend an average of 16 percent of their income on premiums, Kaiser said. The people who can’t afford the employer insurance are forced to go without.

Tina Marie Mueller’s family is caught in the family glitch. She recently wrote in Health Affairs that her husband pays $1,500 per month for employer health insurance for the family, including their two children. “So, after paying for our family insurance, my husband brings home $400/wk,” Mueller said. “We are beyond frustrated that this part of the ACA hasn’t been fixed.”

The COVID relief package passed in March did temporarily expand access to the exchanges for more middle-class Americans by dramatically increasing the premium subsidies. But “people in the family glitch will still not be helped,” said Krutika Amin, a health care expert at the Kaiser Foundation. …Learn More

Minimum Wage and Disability Applications

Maid in hotel corridor

Do applications for federal disability benefits rise, fall, or remain unchanged when the minimum wage increases?

Understanding whether the minimum wage affects disability applications is an important issue as Congress debates an increase in the federal minimum and the states have been very active: 14 states began last year with a higher minimum wage after passing new legislation or ballot initiatives. Another seven states had previously enacted automatic yearly increases in their minimums.

One possibility considered in a new study is that applications to the U.S. Social Security Administration for disability benefits could decline if wages increase enough to make a steady paycheck that much more appealing than a modest monthly disability check. But Syracuse University economist Gary Engelhardt finds that hiking the minimum wage did not reduce applications from 2002 through 2017.

Since applications didn’t go down, could a higher minimum wage increase applications instead? Some economists argue that employers, when faced with a higher mandatory wage, may lay off some of their less-skilled hourly employees or cut back their hours. This might – indirectly – be a motivation to apply for disability.

Engelhardt tested this idea in a second analysis, recognizing that it takes time for employers to make staffing changes in response to a higher wage. Once again, he found no impact on disability applications.

“Changes in the minimum wage are not moving individuals on and off” of disability, the researcher concluded. 

To read this study, authored by Gary Engelhardt, see “The Impact of the Minimum Wage on DI Participation.” Learn More

UK Pension Reforms Show Some Promise

woman in the UK on her phone

Unlike the United States, the United Kingdom has implemented bold reforms to its retirement system over the past decade.

Two of the biggest changes were gradual increases in the minimum age for collecting a pension under the national social security program and requiring private employers to automatically enroll their workers in an employee savings plan.

The goals of the reforms were to keep government spending in check and encourage individuals – who are living longer – to work longer, while helping them build up more private savings through employer-based plans. On balance, the notion is that workers will end up better prepared financially when they retire. Time will tell how successful these reforms will ultimately be.

But, so far, the results have been somewhat promising, concludes an Institute of Fiscal Studies report on workers’ changing expectations and attitudes about their retirement prospects.

In a major reform to private-sector plans, lawmakers started expanding coverage in 2012 by requiring that employers – the largest ones were first –  automatically enroll workers earning more than £10,000 (about $14,000) in a retirement savings plan. The total contributions to the plans must now be at least 8 percent of each worker’s earnings, with employers providing at least 3 percent.

This reform seems to have enhanced workers’ sense of financial security. In 2017, 78 percent said in a survey that they expect to get some retirement income from an employer savings plan – up from 63 percent in 2013. And while workers are permitted to opt out of the plans, they are doing so at consistently low rates.

On the retirement front, the minimum age to collect benefits under the U.K. social security system, the National Insurance Scheme, has risen dramatically for women. A decade ago, they could collect a pension at 60, but that had increased to 66 by last year. They are now in line with men, whose minimum age was 65 for many years and also rose to 66 last year. In the future, the increases are expected to continue: a 50-year-old worker would not be able to collect his pension until he is 68. …Learn More

Will More Aid to Parents Be Permanent?

Happy children standing together

To lift families out of poverty during the pandemic, Congress is on the verge of passing a substantial increase this year in the standard child tax credit as part of President Biden’s broader relief package.

But despite the sharp divide over the $1.9 trillion package, some senators – both Democrats and Republicans – want to permanently increase federal assistance to families. Their goals range from reducing racial inequality and rural poverty to providing more financial stability for middle- and working-class parents.

The prospect of a bipartisan plan for increasing assistance to parents beyond this year is welcomed by advocates for the poor and lower-income workers. The proposals represent a belief “that all of society benefits when children are doing well,” said Myra Jones-Taylor, chief policy officer for Zero to Three, which promotes policies to help infants and toddlers.

Prior to COVID-19, she said 40 percent of infants and toddlers were in families below 200 percent of the poverty limit. Parents “didn’t have the financial resources to meet their [children’s] basic needs,” she said.

The current proposal in Congress for immediate pandemic relief would increase the per-child tax credit in 2021 from the current level of $2,000 to $3,600 for children under age 6 and $3,000 for older children and teenagers. This same increase is included in a bill by Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Sherrod Brown of Ohio to make the larger tax credits permanent.

Republican Sen. Mitt Romney’s plan is even more generous. The Utah senator proposed $4,200 in annual cash payments for children under 6 and $3,000 for older children, and some Republicans may be willing to go along. Romney’s plan, if passed, “would arguably be the biggest anti-poverty measure since the Social Security Act of 1935,” Samuel Hammond, director of poverty and welfare policy at the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank, said in an interview.

But Hammond said members of both parties are making serious efforts to alleviate poverty by targeting assistance to children. The United States has the highest poverty rate of any developed country, “because we spend so little on child benefits, and the benefits we do have cut out the poorest families,” he said. The current tax credit is not available at all to the unemployed and low-income families earning under $2,500.

Hammond and Jones-Taylor were among the panelists in a webinar last month at the Urban Institute to explore the pros and cons of each approach – a tax credit versus monthly cash assistance. …Learn More

Federal Minimum Wage is 40% Below 1968

minimum wage figureLargely missing from the debate about raising the federal minimum wage is how much its value has eroded over the past 50 years.

The current federal minimum is $7.25 an hour. If the 1968 wage were converted to today’s dollars, it would be worth about $12 an hour.

At $7.25 an hour, a full-time worker earns just over $15,000 a year before taxes, which is less than the federal poverty standard for a family of two. The Biden administration has proposed more than doubling the federal minimum to $15 by 2025, and one proposal in Congress would begin indexing the minimum wage to general wages so it keeps up with inflation.

A $15 an hour minimum isn’t enough, said one sympathetic Florida contractor who voted in November to gradually increase the state’s mandatory minimum wage to $15. “I’d like to see some of the American people go out there and try to make a living and put a roof over their head and raise a family,” he told a reporter. “It’s literally impossible.”

Customer receiving from McDonald's drive thru serviceBut small businesses say raising the minimum wage would increase their financial pressures at the worst time – during a pandemic. At least 100,000 U.S. small businesses closed last year as governments restricted public gatherings to suppress the virus, and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates a higher federal minimum could eliminate 1.4 million jobs.

This evidence ignores the complexity of low-wage workers’ situations. Employee turnover is extremely common in low-wage jobs in fast food establishments, for example, and workers frequently have bouts of unemployment that further reduce their already low earning power. Raising the minimum wage could somewhat compensate for their spotty employment and provide more money for essential items. And while the CBO warns of job losses, it also predicts that a higher federal minimum wage would lift 900,000 million workers out of poverty.

Many states have approved incremental automatic annual increases, and a $15 minimum wage has been approved in eight states, including Florida. Voters – over the objections of the Florida Chamber of Commerce – approved raising the state’s minimum wage from $8.65 this year to $15 in 2026.

“We won’t get fifteen for another five years. We need that now,” an Orlando McDonald’s worker, Cristian Cardona, told The New Yorker.

Once again, inflation is a problem. “By the time we get fifteen, it’s going to be even less,” he said. …Learn More

Bars of gold

Billionaires Got Much Richer in Pandemic

In the COVID-19 downturn, this blog has had a steady supply of stories and statistics about the damage being done to low-income and middle-class families.

That’s one perspective on the pandemic. The growing billionaire class is another one.

Top 10 US billionairesSince last March, the nation’s 660 billionaires have added more than $1 trillion to their wealth – a 39 percent increase. Their combined net worth is now $4 trillion, which is nearly double the $2 trillion held by the 165 million Americans in the bottom half, according to the Institute for Policy Studies’ new report.

“It’s a troubling sign that too much of society’s wealth and income is flowing upwards to that small group of people,” Chuck Collins of the Institute for Policy Studies said during an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air.

The institute’s report is based on Forbes magazine’s annual estimates of the net worth of the world’s richest people.

Inequality has always been with us, but economists say it has grown as billionaires’ wealth has hit stratospheric levels.

To be sure, inequality would’ve been worse without the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The $500 billion in direct assistance to families last spring prevented a surge in poverty, and the relief bill passed in late December is sending more aid to unemployed and under-employed people who need it.

The billionaires are getting richer for a couple reasons, starting with a surprisingly strong stock market in 2020. Despite the worst public health crisis in a century and a struggling economy, the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index shot up 18 percent.

But some billionaires were also in the right place at the right time – a pandemic. …Learn More

The Cares Act

CARES Act’s Loan Forbearance is Working

As the pandemic was sinking into our collective consciousness a year ago, Congress, fearing economic calamity, allowed Americans to temporarily halt their mortgage and student loan payments.

By the end of October – seven months after President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act – Americans had postponed some $43 billion in debt, including car loans and credit cards, which many lenders deferred voluntarily. Billions more are still being added to the total amount in forbearance.

Fast action in Congress “resulted in substantial financial relief for households,” says a new study by researchers at some of the nation’s top business schools. Their recent analysis found that the assistance went where it was needed – to “financially vulnerable borrowers living in regions that experienced the highest COVID-19 infection rates and the greatest deterioration in their economic conditions.”

When lenders grant forbearance they agree to waive their customers’ debt payments for a specified period of time. For example, Congress said borrowers could request that their payments on federally backed mortgages be deferred by six months to a year.

Although forbearance was less visible than the checks taxpayers also received under the CARES Act, the financial lift was equally potent. Customers who received loan forbearance saved an average of $3,200 just on their mortgages last year – this compares with $3,400 in stimulus checks for a family of four.

Congress also automatically suspended all payments on federal student loans, saving borrowers an average $140 last year, and President Biden has just extended the forbearance until at least Oct. 1. Lenders, in an attempt to prevent massive loan defaults on their books, voluntarily gave consumers a break last year on two types of loans that weren’t part of the CARES Act: automobile loans ($430 saved) and credit cards ($70 saved).

Forbearance is only temporary relief, because the missed payments will eventually have to be made up. But in a telling indication that borrowers didn’t want to fall behind, just a third of the people who asked for debt relief actually used it. In these cases, forbearance “acts as a credit line” borrowers can draw on – if they really need it. …Learn More