August 10, 2017
Beach Reads for and about Old Folks
Who wants to spend their beach vacation reading about growing older? These recommendations just might surprise you.
“The Accomplished Guest” by Ann Beattie
Ann Beattie’s 1983 book of short stories, “The Burning House,” explored the drift, emotional detachment, and cynicism of boomers, whose worldview was darkened by Watergate. That book made Beattie’s reputation, and she has been prolific ever since, including regular appearances in The New Yorker. Her 2017 short story volume, “The Accomplished Guest,” is, for now, a bookend to “The Burning House” (Beattie is only 69 and no doubt has more books in her). While baby boom skepticism remains a central theme, her characters have developed a little heart and sentimentality over the years. I particularly liked “Company,” about an older couple entertaining newlyweds at their Maine summer house (one advantage of getting older). All night, Henry ruminates about his death. But as this glorious summer evening draws to a close, he finds reason to celebrate his friendship with the much younger Jackson. Jackson is still decades away from facing his own mortality, but tonight, they are “just two men – you know, any two men – passing time on the back porch.”
“Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” by Roz Chast
For months, I ignored raving recommendations about Roz Chast’s book on how she navigated her parents’ old age. I should not have. This book by the long-time New Yorker cartoonist is a poignant, laugh-out-loud funny examination of the guilt, love, memories, regrets, anger, and tenderness that churn inside adult children carrying their parents through the final stages of their lives. …Learn More
August 8, 2017
401k Saving Harder at Lower Incomes
Our 401(k) retirement system doesn’t work as well for lower- and middle-income workers as it does for those at the top.
That’s because they face more severe headwinds in pursuit of their retirement goals, concludes a new study.
Consider what happens when a worker’s earnings drop 10 percent or he experiences a bout of unemployment. These episodes are more common among lower-paid workers, and when they hit, they hit their 401(k)s harder than the 401(k)s of people who earn more, according to the study, “Defined Contribution Wealth Inequality.”
In theory, 401(k)s could work for everyone – if everyone had access to an employer savings plan (which they don’t). And while people who earn more money obviously have more to sock away in their retirement plans at work, smaller paychecks aren’t necessarily a problem either.
The key to retirement for any worker is whether he or she has saved enough, along with Social Security, to cover about 75 percent of what they earned at work during the years leading up to their retirement. It’s true that lower-paid workers can’t save as much, but less could still be enough to reach their more modest retirement goals.
But earnings declines, unemployment, smaller employer contributions, and unwise investment choices – these “barely affect earners in the top 10 percent of the earnings distribution but are associated with less DC [defined contribution] wealth accumulation for those at the bottom,” concluded the researchers, Joelle Saad-Lessler at the Stevens Institute of Technology and Teresa Ghilarducci and Gayle Reznik at the New School for Social Research.
This disparity, they argue, has increased the retirement wealth gap in this country. In the post-recession period 2009-2011, for example, more high-income workers saw their DC account balances increase than did workers in the bottom half.
The researchers tracked the same people over time in two groups – the bottom 55 percent of the earnings ladder and the top 10 percent. They were able to more precisely compare each group’s ability to save for retirement by using the actual earnings and employer contributions to individual workers’ retirement plans. Here are their other findings: …Learn More
July 13, 2017
Medicaid: it’s Not Just for Nursing Homes
Medicaid serves millions of low-income Americans, many of them elderly. Federal spending on this program now approaches the dollars spent on Medicare, the primary health care program covering virtually all Americans over 65. Many people confuse the two programs, or cast Medicaid as a program strictly for the poor. Many are unaware of the financial support that it provides to seniors.
With major changes to Medicaid now being debated, Squared Away interviewed Diane Rowland, executive vice president of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, to learn just what Medicaid does.
Q. Describe Medicaid’s broad mission and how older Americans fit into that mission.
A. Medicaid’s basic mission has been to provide support from the federal government to the states to enable them to provide health and long-term care services to their low-income populations, which include seniors in many states. This includes both people who need assistance with long-term care, but Medicaid also helps one in five Medicare beneficiaries pay for their premiums and cost-sharing obligations under Medicare. In essence, Medicaid is the gap-filler for many of Medicare’s seniors, including seniors with disabilities who have low incomes.
Q. Virtually everyone over 65 enrolls in Medicare? So why do seniors need Medicaid?
A. Seniors need Medicaid, because over one-quarter of seniors have very low incomes. Medicare doesn’t pay for 100 percent of medical care, and some of the gaps in Medicare coverage are unaffordable for low-income seniors. They can’t afford Medigap policies to help with Medicare’s cost-sharing requirements. Many struggle even to pay their Part B premiums. One of the first roles of Medicaid – and over the 52-year history of the program – was always that the program was going to fill in the holes for seniors under Medicare. Medicaid’s other role is that Medicare does not provide a lot of the benefits that seniors need in nursing homes and in their communities. At one time, Medicaid also helped with prescription drugs – back when Medicare didn’t cover them. In many places, Medicaid will also help to pay for dental, eyeglasses and other services Medicare doesn’t cover. Essentially Medicaid has always been the wraparound for Medicare for both the benefits Medicare doesn’t cover and for the financial obligations that Medicare imposes on low-income people.
Q. Nearly two-thirds of nursing home patients are on Medicaid. This nursing home funding isn’t just for the poor, is it?
A. Medicare will pay for some nursing-home coverage immediately after hospitalization, but it does not include a benefit that helps people who need long-term assistance, especially people with cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s or who need other services that require substantial help at home. Nursing homes are expensive – $90,000-$100,000 per year – so even if someone enters a nursing home with their own resources, they quickly spend that down. Once they spend it down, Medicaid picks up the remainder of their care. Many good, hard-working, middle-class seniors who retire – if they or their spouse need nursing home care – quickly become unable to pay the full cost of their nursing home stay, and that’s when Medicaid kicks in. …Learn More
June 22, 2017
Boomer Men’s Lifetime Earnings Lower
The first study known to look at changes over several decades in lifetime earnings for the nation’s workers shows a dramatic trend: women are up and men are down.
The oldest people studied, mostly men, began working in the 1950s, when the post-war U.S. economy was going full throttle, and they started retiring in the 1980s when the industrial economy was only in the early stages of a protracted decline. The youngest workers studied are “middle” baby boomers, who came of age during the twin 1980s recessions in heavy industry and experienced the rise of the service economy and two high-tech booms and busts.
Over this time period, men’s earnings went through two distinct phases. In the first phase – which spanned the working lives of men born in 1932 through 1941 – the typical man’s lifetime earnings, adjusted for inflation, saw a 12 percent increase, the researchers found.
In the second phase, men’s lifetime earnings turned negative. Boomers born in 1958 have earned 10 percent less in total than men born in 1942. The decline is primarily due to men being paid less after accounting for inflation, and not from reductions in how many hours or how many years they worked, the analysis found.
In contrast, lifetime earnings for women born over the same 27-year period enjoyed “steady” and “broad-based” gains of 20 percent and 30 percent over the two sub-periods. …Learn More
April 27, 2017
Gay Marriage: Income Gains Quantified
The U.S. Social Security Administration states on its website that it “is no longer prohibited from recognizing same-sex marriages for the purpose of determining entitlement to or eligibility for benefits.”
Numerous disadvantages faced historically by the nation’s 800,000 same-sex partners are falling away in the wake of the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing marriage – access to Social Security’s benefits for a worker’s same-sex spouse or widow is just one. The financial gains from legalized marriage should also increase substantially over time, as more gays and lesbians are drawn out of cohabitation and into married relationships.
A new study, by Urban Institute researchers Karen E. Smith, Stephen Rose, and Damir Cosic, estimates that by 2065 same-sex couples 62 and older with low or mid-range earnings will have about $4,000 in additional net cash income every year. This includes earnings, Social Security and pension benefits, and investment income minus taxes, Medicare premiums and other government levies.
The $4,000 estimate per couple is based on the institute’s population model that simulates multiple financial impacts on U.S. households to arrive at the overall effect. It also takes into account that same-sex married couples will be better able to pool their resources in the future, share employer health benefits, buy a house, and withstand a spouse’s layoff.
A key benefit for older same-sex married couples is access to Social Security spousal and survivor benefits, which were unavailable before the law change. Social Security is especially significant if the spouses have sharply different earnings levels – just as they are to married heterosexual couples in which one spouse, usually the wife, has lower earnings and is eligible for a higher benefit based on her husband’s work history instead of her own. …Learn More
March 28, 2017
Black America’s New Retirement Issue
The retirement issues facing black Americans can’t necessarily be lumped together for many reasons – there are high- and low-income blacks, and there are recent immigrants as well as longstanding families. A similar problem arises when treating the U.S. Hispanic-American population or the Asian-American population as a homogenous group.
Having acknowledged this, however, some recent studies have highlighted the financial challenges particular to each group. For Hispanic-Americans, a major issue is that they live a long time but have low participation in employer retirement plans. For Asian-Americans, extremely high wealth inequality in their working population spills over into retirement inequality.
This blog looks at the recent erosion in homeownership among black Americans since 2000, which threatens to further undermine their retirement security – Generation X is most at risk.
Black workers’ relatively low incomes are probably the first challenge of saving for retirement. In 2015, the typical black family earned $36,898, substantially less than the $63,000 earned by white families, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Not surprisingly, their participation in employer retirement plans was also lower in a 2009 study, even though white and black Americans have roughly similar access to 401(k) plans through their employers. More than 77 percent of whites with this option save in a 401(k), and only 70 percent of blacks do.
Homeownership is also crucial to building wealth for retirement: the largest asset most older Americans possess is their house. This asset can translate into additional disposable income if the mortgage is paid off. Retirees can also downsize to a smaller home or take out a reverse mortgage loan that doesn’t have to be repaid until the homeowner moves out or dies.
The problem for black Americans is that homeownership is going in the wrong direction. …
March 14, 2017
1 in 3 Can Barely Afford Medical Care
More Americans have health insurance, but they’ve also become increasingly worried over the past two years about how to pay for every aspect of their medical care.
While the majority of insured adults still can afford their health care, the minority who say it’s “difficult” to pay their monthly premiums, doctor and prescription copayments, and deductibles is growing.
Potential explanations for these concerns, revealed in a new Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation poll, include rapidly rising prescription drug costs and the fact that employer-provided health insurance plans with high deductibles are far more common than they used to be.
To be sure, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has expanded Americans’ access to health insurance, and federal subsidies have made the premiums more affordable for millions of previously uninsured workers, who now purchase coverage through the ACA’s state health exchanges. But the program hasn’t eliminated concerns about cost. …Learn More