NCOA Benefits Checkup

One-Stop Shopping for Retiree Financial Aid

Fewer than half of low-income retirees who are eligible for SNAP food stamps or don’t automatically receive a medication subsidy as part of their Medicaid coverage are taking advantage of the programs.

These are two prominent examples of the head-spinning number of assistance programs for people over 60, from state property tax breaks and veterans benefits to transportation and healthcare assistance.

“Most older adults are not receiving all the benefits they’re eligible for, and it’s most likely that they’re not aware of what benefits are available to them,” said Erin Kee McGovern, director of the Center for Benefits Access at the non-profit National Council on Aging (NCOA).

And when retirees have heard about a specific program, they often assume – mistakenly – that they won’t qualify, she said. Other barriers are the daunting array of different state programs and lengthy application forms, which can be 15 or 20 pages.

To simplify the search, the NCOA created the Benefits Check Up, an online tool that does the initial screening to figure out which federal and state programs are available to individuals based on whether they fit the eligibility criteria.

The Benefits Check Up has been around since 2001, and more than 1 million individuals and social service agencies use it every year. To get the word out about this tool, NCOA provides grants to food banks, senior centers, and 100 local senior services agencies. It’s important to reach as many retirees as possible who need help.

Retirees enter their zip code and just a few other details and click on the categories that interest them, such as veterans’ benefits, health care subsidies, or tax cuts. The website spits out the programs that people might qualify for based on their income and where they live.

If a program looks interesting, the retiree fills out NCOA’s lengthier screening application for that specific program. Eventually, an application will still have to be filed with the relevant government agency.

But the online screening tool streamlines the process and is a great place to start. So check it out.Learn More

Boomers Lament Disappearance of Pensions

More than one of this blog’s readers said a recent article about 401(k)s was hardly revelatory. But it sure generated a lot of comments.

Ed McGrath wrote this about “Retirees with Pensions Slower to Spend 401(k):” “Well thank you for this Caption Obvious.”

Perhaps the article struck a nerve because baby boomers are the generation who mostly lost out on pensions. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. workers born in the 1920s through the 1940s – many of them parents of boomers – had pensions. But a measly 6 percent of boomers from the tail end of the wave have them.

Millennials and members of Generation Z usually wouldn’t even consider pensions in their retirement plans. But boomers at one time might’ve hoped or even expected to enjoy a retirement similar to their pensioned parents.

“I am a single woman, a former nurse, and not one job offered me a pension,” said Jennifer Lee, who is 67. “I am relying on my savings and Social Security as well as the equity in my home.” Lee expressed chagrin that a 60-year-old cousin – a rare boomer with a pension – has already “mailed in his retirement papers.”

Gumball MachineSeveral readers pointed out problems with a U.S. retirement system that increasingly relies on savings – leaving retirees to figure out how much to withdraw every year – as monthly pension checks have disappeared. Ken Pidock, quoting a financial journalist, said 401(k)s lack the reliability of pensions: “Forcing people of modest means to depend on the stock market for income to pay bills after they stop working is madness.”

Paul Brustowicz, a former insurance company employee in his late 70s, feels lucky to have the security that comes with a pension, along with his Social Security and some IRA funds he converted to an annuity. “The steady monthly income lets my wife rest easy at night,” he said.

But another reader, Brian Jarvis, has a different perspective on the generational pension divide. “Yes, my father had a traditional pension that I don’t have,” he said. But Jarvis and his wife built up an ample nest egg “that my parents couldn’t have dreamed of,” he said. “We’ll be in good shape for quite a while – the rest of our lives – even without our parents’ type of pensions.”

Unfortunately, not everyone is as prepared as Jarvis. About half of U.S. households aren’t saving enough to retire at the traditional age of 65, which puts them at risk of suffering a drop in their standard of living when they quit working and the paychecks stop. …Learn More

Documentary: Navigating a 401k World

Early in this new documentary, the director’s message seems to be that retirement finances are messy, elusive, and too complicated for mere mortals to understand. He’s right on all counts.

Filmmaker Doug Orchard reminds us in “The Baby Boomer Dilemma: An Exposé on America’s Retirement Experiment” that there are no easy solutions for Social Security, which economists predict will deplete its trust fund reserves around 2034. Closing the shortfall will probably require some combination of benefit cuts and revenue increases.

Social Security is “one of the most important problems we face as a nation,” The Wharton School’s Olivia Mitchell says in the documentary.

Our other primary program – a 401(k)-style retirement savings plan – seems great when the stock market is going up, as it has until recently. Viewers are reminded of the 2008 stock market crash, which panicked older workers who realized they might not have time to make up their losses before retiring. The stock market rises over long periods of time, increasing the money in retirement accounts, but it entails risks that can be unnerving for workers and force them into making bad decisions about their investments.

Finally, the filmmaker presents a real-world example – in Florida – of the difficult decisions workers grapple with in a U.S. retirement system that has largely transitioned from defined benefit pensions, which provide regular monthly income, to 401(k) and other defined contribution plans, which accumulate a pot of savings that retirees have to figure out how to manage.

“Baby boomers are sort of the guinea pig, and we’ve said, ‘Okay you figure it out guys,’ ” says David Babbel at Wharton. …Learn More

People of different ages and nationalities

Workers: Social Security Info is Eye-Opening

Most workers have never created an online my SocialSecurity account to get an estimate of their future retirement benefits. The people who do use this feature tend to be older or are retired and already receiving their benefits.

If only more younger adults would log on.

One 31-year-old worker, after looking up his personal estimate for the first time, learned that his future benefit is “not quite nearly enough to survive on.” The estimate – retrieved during an interview with researchers for a new study – prompted him to think about a retirement plan now. A 43-year-old woman realized her spouse’s decision about when to retire would affect her spousal benefit from Social Security. “I had no idea,” she said, calling the information “a reality check.”

And it’s a good thing one 60-year-old logged on to my Social Security. He didn’t know he qualified for retirement benefits, because the last time he’d checked, he had not built up the earnings record – 40 quarters of work – the program requires. “I will look into it further and find out exactly what is going on,” he said.

These and other revelations came from interviews with 24 workers by University of Southern California researchers Lila Rabinovich and Francisco Perez-Arce. They combined these insights with a much larger, online survey to analyze how Americans use the valuable benefit estimates available to them.

It’s important to understand why my Social Security isn’t being used more, especially since first-time users described the online feature as easy to use and eye-opening. Going online didn’t seem to be an issue either, because the people in the survey already search for other information that way.

One of the primary reasons the workers hadn’t looked up their personal accounts, the researchers concluded, was a lack of awareness the feature existed. But this isn’t at all surprising for younger workers, who are more concerned about developing their careers than about retiring. …Learn More

Thanksgiving art

Celebrate a Closer-to-Normal Thanksgiving

Last Thanksgiving, my husband and I made two Cornish game hens and zoomed dinner with his two sons and extended family.

What a different world we are living in this year.

Vaccinated people will be able to gather for Thanksgiving or go Christmas shopping without fearing for their lives. But I also wonder whether we will be a little too eager to throw caution to the wind. It would be wise to keep following the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance for the holidays – masks in public, outdoor activities, air circulation indoors, and testing before gathering with family from multiple households.

Caution is still in order. But so is celebrating a return to something closer to normal.

Read more blog posts in our ongoing coverage of COVID-19.Learn More

People of various occupations

Retirement Saving is Focus of Popular Blogs

U.S. retirement preparedness can best be described as mediocre: about half of workers are not saving enough money to continue their current standard of living once they retire.

Judging by a dozen blogs that attracted the most web traffic in the third quarter, our readers understand the importance of the issue. Some felt strongly that workers need to take responsibility for their retirement finances. Workers “disregard the notion of saving for the future,” one reader said in a comment posted to “Onus of Retirement Planning is on Us.” “They have lived their lives like there is no tomorrow and spend money on any and everything they want.”

To boost savings, growing numbers of state officials and employers are taking charge. The article, “State Auto-IRAs are Building Momentum,” was a roundup of states that are either implementing or weighing a requirement that employers automatically enroll their employees in an IRA. The workers can always opt out if they want to, but they often remain in the plans.

And automatic enrollment in 401(k)s and 403(b)s is gaining traction in the private sector. The plans, which were virtually nonexistent in 2003, now make up a significant minority of corporate and non-profit plans, according to a unique database that tracked the changes in plan design. A summary of this research appears in “401(k) Plans Evolve to Boost Workers’ Savings.”

Baby boomers never seem to get enough information about the nuts and bolts of retirement. In “Enrollment Trends in Medicare Options,” readers had a vigorous debate about the advantages and disadvantages of supplemental Medigap plans versus Medicare Advantage insurance policies. The article revealed a major shift away from Medigap and into Medicare Advantage, which has the benefit of relatively low premiums, with the tradeoff being that Advantage plans tend to provide less protection from large medical bills than Medigap.

Our readers are also interested in the difficult decisions boomers are making about when to retire. The article, “Not Everyone Can Delay their Retirement,” highlighted the racial and educational disparities driving these decisions. And “Disability Discrimination and Aging Workers” dealt with the choice facing aging workers whose bodies are breaking down but who can’t afford to retire.

Here are a few more articles that attracted readers’ attention – some about retirement and some not: …Learn More

Wanted: Workers without College Degrees

The PBS NewsHour has some terrific reporting on an important topic: the job market for the two-thirds of working-age adults who don’t have a college degree.

The problem facing many of them is that, despite their hard work, they will earn much less over their lifetimes than college graduates. In stories for the NewsHour, Paul Solman highlights the opportunities available to workers without degrees at a time that many employers are scrambling to find smart, energetic people to fill good-paying jobs with benefits in light manufacturing and the skilled trades.

Women of color are catching on and entering fields like carpentry and plumbing – in fact, they are over-represented in the trades. But Solman talked to employers early this year who cannot find enough young adults willing to consider working in the trades.

This new NewsHour video (above) features IBM, which has to compete for employees with flashy firms like Apple and Google. IBM created an internship program to train people like Reinaldo Rodriguez for “new-collar jobs” that don’t require a bachelor’s degree. The former supervisor for a drug store chain that cut his pay after he was promoted now works in an IBM electronics lab.

Opportunities like these pay enough for people to support their families. And they are a great alternative to borrowing a lot of money for a bachelor’s degree that won’t necessarily guarantee a job. …Learn More