The Racial Roots of Retirement Inequality

Financial advisers and retirement experts say the best advice they can give workers to prepare for old age is to save, save, save.

But two young researchers might argue this advice isn’t sensitive to the hurdles that Black and Hispanic workers face when they try to save. At a recent panel discussion, the researchers presented a laundry list of the hurdles, which are harder for minority workers to clear and can be insurmountable.

One disadvantage is widely understood: people of color tend to be in lower-paying jobs overall and disproportionately work in the retail or the food service industries, which have irregular hours, high turnover, and wages that often depend on tips. Many of these jobs do not include employee health and retirement benefits, putting people of color at greater risk than White workers that their retirement income will fall short.

Dania Francis

Dania Francis

But the roots of retirement inequality run deeper and can be seen in the racial differences in intergenerational wealth – whether homeownership or a college education that leads to a good job – said Dania Francis, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a panelist at the event hosted by the university’s Pension Action Center.

White Americans, Francis said, are in a better position to retire because they receive inheritances at dramatically higher rates than Black and Hispanic Americans. She cited Federal Reserve data from 2010 through 2019: 42 percent of White households within 10 years of retiring had already received or expected to receive an inheritance from their parents.

The inheritance numbers were 14 percent for Black and 11 percent for Hispanic households.

White parents also provide money to their young adult children at higher rates to pay for investments in their future such as college or a down payment on a house, Francis said. And, she added, the lower wages earned by workers of color will also make it harder for them to ever “bridge that gap.”

Taha Choukhmane, an assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, agreed. But he pointed to the billions of dollars in retirement incentives built into a tax code that also favors White workers and “contributes to inequality.” …Learn More

Housing Agencies Tend to Go Where Needed

Public housing agencies frequently prioritize people with disabilities on their waiting lists for subsidized apartments and federal rent vouchers. But agency budgets are tight, often requiring state and local governments to stretch a single housing office to serve multiple counties.

Many of the people on the waiting lists are also receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a federal program that makes monthly cash payments to low-income people with disabilities and is one way to verify they qualify for the housing preference.

A new study substantiates this connection: SSI applications are 11 percent higher in counties with housing offices than in counties that lack an office and are being served by a nearby county. The housing agencies also tend to be concentrated in areas with larger non-Hispanic Black populations, which have higher rates of disability than White Americans.

Together, these findings are a pretty good indication that housing officials’ decisions about where to locate their field offices are being driven at least in part by efforts to reach as many people with disabilities as possible, the researchers said in their analysis, which paired federal data on housing subsidies with the Social Security Administration’s records for SSI recipients.

But a more rigorous analysis is needed to determine whether adding a housing office in a county would increase or decrease SSI applications. The answer actually could go in either direction because SSI payments to low-income people are so intertwined with public housing assistance. …Learn More

Encouraging People with Disabilities to Work

Having a physical or mental disability can make it impossible to work. But for people with disabilities who are able, it’s crucial they get the support they need so they can work and feel productive, self-sufficient, and part of a larger community.

So who are they? A new study identifies a small but promising group who are initially awarded monthly cash assistance from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program and eventually qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).

The researchers call them SSI-first beneficiaries because the SSI payments come first and then the workers migrate over to SSDI and sometimes quit their jobs.

If identified early, these individuals could be encouraged to remain in the labor force after their SSDI benefits start or even leave the federal benefit rolls.

The researchers found that people who were receiving SSI and eventually entered SSDI had more success working – and more promise for staying in the labor force – when compared with one other group: SSI awardees who did not enter SSDI.

For example, three out of four SSI-first recipients, who later were awarded SSDI, had worked in the five years after their SSI payments started. This compares with just one in five people receiving SSI who did not enter SSDI later.

In another indication of their employment potential, a third of SSI-first recipients had their SSDI benefits suspended because their earnings were relatively high. It was rare for people receiving only SSI to jeopardize their benefits this way.

To be eligible for both the SSI and SSDI programs, the federal government caps the earnings of workers with disabilities at $1,350 per month. …Learn More

Public-Sector Pensions Weathered Pandemic

The economic turmoil in the early months of the pandemic – a plunging stock market and soaring unemployment – posed a real threat to state and local government pension funds and the workers who rely on them.

One group was particularly vulnerable: public-sector workers who aren’t covered by Social Security and lack the backstop of the federal government if their employer pension plans get into trouble.

The Center for Retirement Research has some good news for these 5 million noncovered workers living in 20 states. Their pension plans got through the first two years of the pandemic unscathed.

In dollar terms, government contributions to these defined benefit pension plans actually increased during COVID. That and a roaring stock market in 2021 significantly improved their financial condition. Of course, this sunny report is clouded by what is happening to the stock market now – it has reversed course and dropped 20 percent this year.

But the researchers’ assessment is that COVID was not the financial disaster many had feared for the public-sector workers who aren’t covered by Social Security.

The 59 noncovered plans in the study vary in size from small local pension plans like the Pittsburgh Police Relief and Pension Fund to the nation’s largest state plan, the California Public Employees Retirement System.

Congress’ financial support during COVID played an important role in stabilizing state and local governments’ finances. They received hundreds of billions in pandemic relief from the CARES Act in March 2020 and, a year later, the American Rescue Plan. The federal relief checks to families and businesses also added billions to state and local tax bases. Importantly, tax revenues snapped back after a brief drop in 2020, because high-income workers, who pay more in taxes, didn’t suffer the dramatic layoffs experienced by low-income workers.

The federal support provided the fiscal breathing room for governments to make their pension contributions on schedule. In fact, some of the states with the most poorly funded plans – namely New Jersey and Connecticut – took advantage of the fiscal windfall to make historically large contributions in 2022. …Learn More

Lonely Seniors are More Vulnerable to Fraud

COVID has created perils that go beyond just the threats to our health. Reports to the FTC of financial fraud and identity theft shot up 68 percent in the first two years of the pandemic – double the pace during the previous five years combined.

Older adults with fading memories and declining cognition have always been especially susceptible to fraud. But the pandemic, by forcing them into isolation, may have worsened their vulnerabilities.

That’s one takeaway from a new study showing that older Americans who report feeling lonely or suffering a loss of well-being are more susceptible to fraud. The study, based on pre-pandemic surveys of people over 65, is also highly relevant post-pandemic and indicates that interventions to reduce social isolation might be effective in blunting their vulnerability.

For retirees with “high life satisfaction and fulfilled social needs,” the researchers said, “fraudulent opportunities promising wealth, status or social connection may be less appealing.”

The analysis relied on the Rush Memory and Aging Project, which monitors retired Chicago-area residents for signs of cognitive decline and its aftereffects. The periodic surveys include questions such as “If a telemarketer calls me, I usually listen to what they have to say” and “If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.”

The surveys also measure loneliness, asking participants to agree or disagree with statements like “I miss having a really close friend” or “I often feel abandoned.” Well-being was determined by whether the individuals had a sense of self-acceptance and purpose, autonomy, mastery of their surroundings, and personal growth. …Learn More

Early Life Traumas Lead to Early Retirement

little girl choosing and taking book from shelf to readMental illness, obesity, smoking, chronic disease – researchers have been able to connect the dots between an array of stresses early in life and how people will fare as they age.

New research zeroes in on the adversities experienced by children and young adults that ultimately contribute to a premature retirement due to a disability.

The basic finding is not terribly surprising – that life’s financial and social circumstances can lead to disabling conditions that will either nudge, or force, older workers to leave the labor force early.

More remarkable is the exhaustive list of past experiences that can increase that risk.

For example, childhood financial adversity in this study took many forms – an unemployed father, family relocations for financial reasons, or even having few books in the house. People whose families struggled financially when they were children were the most likely to retire prematurely.

The study was based on surveys asking older working people born during the Baby Boom, the Depression, and World War II about stressful or traumatic events experienced in childhood and middle age. The researchers followed them through several years of surveys to determine who retired before turning 62. The early retirees were asked whether a medical condition or chronic disability was either an important reason for leaving the labor force or prevented them from continuing to work altogether.

Added to the childhood traumas are a range of social adversities faced by young and middle-aged adults – the death of a spouse, natural disasters, combat duty, divorce, violence, or having a child addicted to drugs – that also increased the likelihood of early retirements. …Learn More

Does Private Disability Affect Federal Rolls?

Does Private Disability Affect Federal Rolls?

Economists have long thought that if employees have disability insurance on the job, they might never migrate over to the government’s disability rolls. A new study finds just the opposite.

In Canada, the existence of short-term disability in the private sector increased the number of people going into the national government’s program by 18,300 in 2015 and increased program spending by 5 percent, according to a researcher at the University of Toronto.

The logic behind this is that enrollment rises in the government program, which provides long-term benefits, because a negative incentive is at play. If employees with a disability or workplace injury have short-term coverage at work, they will have a regular source of income to tide them over while they apply for government benefits and wait for a response.

The Canadian study has implications for the United States, because the two countries’ programs are similar. The connection between U.S. government and employer disability is also of interest because some policymakers here would like to see mandates for employer disability become more widespread. Ten U.S. states and the District of Columbia currently require employers to provide the coverage for serious medical conditions.

This research adds a new voice to a lively debate on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. Others have argued that when companies offer short-term disability, they prevent some people from going onto the government rolls by giving them time off to recover from an illness or injury before it becomes chronic. Employers also have an incentive to control their insurance costs by preventing injuries or accommodating employees with disabilities so they can keep working. …Learn More