balancing balls

Social Security: Time for an Update?

The option to start Social Security benefits at any age from 62 to 70 – with an actuarial adjustment – is a key feature of the program. However, the adjustments – reductions in the monthly benefit for claiming early and increases for waiting – are decades old and do not reflect improvements in longevity or other important developments over time.

The option to claim early was introduced just over 60 years ago, when Congress set 62 as the program’s earliest eligibility age. The option to claim between 65 and 70 on an actuarially fair basis stems from the 1983 Social Security amendments, which gradually increased the annual “delayed retirement credit” from 3 percent to 8 percent. Also in 1983, reductions for early claiming were changed in tandem with the gradual increase in the full retirement age from 65 to 67.

The goal of actuarial adjustments to the monthly benefits has always been to ensure that retirees with average life expectancy could expect to get the same total lifetime benefits, regardless of when they started. But calculating lifetime benefits requires assumptions about how long people will live and assumptions about interest rates. The current calculations are based on life expectancy and interest rates in the early 1960s or 1980s.

Much has changed since those dates: life expectancy has increased dramatically and interest rates have declined. Longer life expectancy and, to a lesser extent, lower interest rates would each call for a smaller penalty for early claiming and a smaller reward for delaying claiming.

Consider what this means for baby boomers whose full retirement age is 67. Under the current system, if they claim at 62, they receive 70 percent of their age-67 benefit. However, to reflect decades of increasing life spans and falling interest rates, the researchers calculated that the accurate monthly benefit would be 77.5 percent of the age-67 benefit. That is, early claimers are penalized too much.

For workers who delay claiming, a discrepancy also exists between the current and accurate delayed retirement credits, though the difference is smaller since the credit was initially too small. Specifically, workers who wait until 70 to start Social Security today receive 124 percent of the benefit they would’ve gotten at 67, whereas 120 percent of the age-67 benefit would be more accurate. …Learn More

caregiving

Retirees’ Need for Caregivers Varies Widely

Nothing causes dread in a retiree quite like the prospect of having to go into a nursing home someday or becoming dependent on someone who comes into the house to help with routine daily needs.

But media reports or studies with alarming predictions of infirmity in old age are not very useful to retirees or their family members. A new study provides a more nuanced picture of the various scenarios that can play out.

home care tableResearchers at the Center for Retirement Research estimated that roughly one in five 65-year-olds will die without using any care, and another one in five will need only minimal care.

But one in four will have such severe needs that they will require high intensity support for three years or more. The largest group of people – 38 percent – will fall somewhere in the middle: they are likely to need a moderate amount of care for one to three years. A strong indicator of how much assistance someone will require is whether they are healthy in their late 60s.

To determine future need, the researchers combined two dimensions of care: intensity and duration. The intensity of care varies widely. Many retirees can remain largely independent if they hire someone for a couple days a month to clean house or manage their finances, while others will need round-the-clock support.

The duration of care also varies. The researchers divided duration into three categories: less than a year, one to three years, and more than three years. Many retirees need assistance for only a few days or weeks after being released from the hospital. But others, including people who develop severe disabling conditions such as dementia, may need years of care.

The researchers used 20 years of biennial surveys of older Americans and data on caregivers to predict the share of 65-year-olds who will have minimal, moderate, or severe lifetime needs.Learn More

Disability Discrimination and Aging Workers

Older workerA unique situation faces older workers with a disability: apply for federal disability insurance now or try to hold on and keep working to retirement age.

Of course, people who leave the labor force and apply for disability are taking a risk: they might be denied the benefits. But another possible factor in how these situations play out are state anti-discrimination laws to protect people with disabilities, including older workers, from employment discrimination. If these laws can reduce discrimination, could they increase employment and eliminate the need for some older workers to apply for disability?

A new study suggests that state anti-discrimination laws have prevented some disability applications – if the laws are broad enough to provide better protection to workers with disabilities.

The state laws deemed to be broader set a lower burden for proving that the individual has a disability than the standard in the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the ADA, individuals must prove that their condition “substantially” impacts their ability to function. Under this high burden of proof, many individuals with disabilities were not considered disabled under the ADA and did not receive the federal legal protections from discrimination.

The researchers analyzed whether the broader state laws limited the growth in disability applications between 1992 and 2013 by making it easier for workers at or near retirement age to remain employed.

Disability applications increased during that period for a range of reasons, from the Great Recession to a long-term deterioration in older workers’ health. But the basis for this new study was an increase in disability applications tied to a 1983 reform to Social Security. The reform reduced retirement benefits by raising the program’s full retirement age. Disability checks, which were not reduced, became more attractive to older workers relative to their retirement benefits.

But the researchers found that disability applications did not increase as much – and sometimes not at all – in the states with the broadest disability discrimination laws. The laws were especially effective in reducing applications by people getting close to retirement age. …Learn More

medication

Opioid Use Higher for Disability Applicants

With the nation still in the midst of an opioid crisis, a new study provides the first estimate of opioid use among people who apply for disability.

One out of every four applicants used opioids in 2017 – below the peak in 2012 but still significantly more than in the general population, according to researchers at Mathematica and the U.S. Social Security Administration.

And the researchers may be underestimating the extent of opioid use. Their data come from Social Security’s disability application forms. The forms ask applicants to list their prescriptions, including opioids taken for musculoskeletal pain such as a bad back, as well as their non-prescription drug use, and the stigma around use and abuse may encourage underreporting.

To estimate opioid use required creating a database because none existed. The researchers mined the text fields in each disability application using machine learning to find information about opioid use and then entered the information into the database.

Some interesting demographic trends emerged from the study. Opioid use is most prevalent in middle age, at around 30 percent of disability applicants in their 40s and 50s. “This is notable,” the researchers said, because if Social Security grants their requests for benefits, they “may remain on the [disability rolls] for 25 years.”

In a breakdown by education levels, the biggest opioid users had attended college but didn’t get a degree. Women’s use exceeded men’s throughout the study’s 10-year period, mirroring the population as a whole. And a state-by-state breakdown shows that applicants’ opioid use fell across the nation during that time. But Alabama, Arkansas, Michigan, and Nevada still had particularly high rates in 2017. …Learn More

Immigrants’ Wealth Tied to Residency Status

We celebrate the stories of hard-working immigrants who achieve the American Dream. But their success in the real world largely depends on their residency status.

Immigrant ceremony Undocumented farm workers are the most precarious. Living in the shadows makes it difficult to break out of low-wage jobs and move into more lucrative work. The Dreamers who came here as children are also undocumented. Some have been granted temporary protected status by the federal government, but they’re not eligible for federal student aid, and companies are often reluctant to hire them, even though the law permits it.

UCLA researcher Josefina Flores Morales uses U.S. Census data to investigate the connection between immigration status and socioeconomic status. She confirms what most people would expect – that net worth rises as an immigrant’s residency status becomes more stable.

Consider Latinx households. Dreamers and other undocumented workers have an average $38,000 in net worth. Latinx immigrants who carry green cards allowing them to live and work permanently in the United States have much more – about $66,000 in wealth. The foreign-born people who became citizens have $79,000, and citizens of Latinx descent who were born in this country have more than $92,000.

One reason undocumented immigrants’ wealth is much lower is that they tend to be younger than the immigrants with residency status or citizenship. But the differences in Latinx wealth, depending on immigrant status, persist even after age 50.

Non-Hispanic white households follow a similar pattern – net worth rises as citizenship becomes more secure. Undocumented white immigrants have about $59,000 on average. That’s a fraction of the wealth held by the richest whites, who were born here.

The chips fall somewhat differently in the Asian and Black communities. The immigrants who’ve gained citizenship have higher wealth levels than even the Asian-Americans and Black Americans born here, both of whom have a history of being subject to discrimination and slavery. But these groups are smaller than the Latinx and white communities. …Learn More

Printed Social Security statement

Workers Overestimate their Social Security

The U.S. Social Security Administration reported a few years ago that half of retirees get at least half of their income from their monthly checks. For lower-income retirees, the benefits constitute almost all of their income.

Yet Americans have only a vague understanding of how this crucial program works – one of many obstacles on the road to retirement. A new study by the University of Southern California’s Center for Economic and Social Research finds that workers are overly optimistic about their future benefits, which is one reason so many people don’t save enough for retirement.

Workers “would probably have fewer regrets after retirement” if they were better informed, the study concluded. And many retirees in the study have regrets. Roughly half wished they’d done a better job of planning.

The researchers’ focus was on working people ages 30 and over. In a survey, the workers were asked to pick the age they plan to start Social Security and to estimate their future monthly benefits. To get as good a number as possible, they were instructed to predict a range of benefits in today’s dollars and then assign subjective probabilities to the amounts within that range.

Their guesses were compared with more precise estimates, made by the researchers, who predicted each workers’ future earnings paths – based on characteristics like their age, gender, education, and past and current earnings – and put them into Social Security’s formula to calculate the expected benefits.

The subjective estimates made by every group analyzed – men, women, young, old, college degree or not – on average exceeded the researchers’ more accurate estimates, though to different degrees. For example, women were more likely than men to overshoot the reliable estimates. Interestingly, people who said they had “no idea” what their benefits would be came closer to the mark than anyone – having less confidence apparently offset the tendency toward overestimation.

Young adults, who aren’t naturally focused on retirement, overshot their benefits the most. This is not surprising but still unfortunate, because good decisions made early in a career – namely, how much to save in a 401(k) – will greatly improve financial security in retirement.

One explanation for workers’ widespread inaccuracy, the researchers found, is that they aren’t clear on how much their benefit would be reduced if they claim it before reaching Social Security’s full retirement age. …Learn More

automation conveyer belt

Automation of Jobs Fuels Overdose Deaths

The rise in opioid addiction has created an epidemic of drug overdose deaths in the United States. But what increases the risk that people develop the disorder in the first place?

Automation of the U.S. economy turns out to be a contributing factor, as workers lose good jobs to industrial robots and despair about being disengaged from the labor force, conclude researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Yale in a study funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration.

Manufacturing jobs, often in unionized industries, used to be a major route to the middle class. But millions of factory jobs disappeared as U.S. companies moved operations overseas. Compounding the job losses, corporate employers began installing robots in their remaining domestic operations. Automation was blamed in one study for eliminating more than 700,000 jobs and causing wage stagnation in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Prior research has connected the flight of manufacturing to increasing deaths from drug overdoses. Now, the new study specifically ties technology – measured as an increase in robots per 1,000 workers – to the increase in overdose deaths.

The men who are most affected by the rise of automation are in their prime working years, and they are concentrated in more industrialized areas. Automation accounted for nearly one in five of their overdose deaths in manufacturing counties. For women, automation was responsible for one in 10 overdose deaths in manufacturing counties. …Learn More