CARES check

COVID Relief Checks Helped Needy the Most

In the pandemic’s early days, the unraveling of economic life was breathtaking. Some 3.3 million Americans filed for jobless benefits in the second week of March 2020. A record 6.6 million joined them the following week.

By April, government checks were starting to land in workers’ bank accounts, bringing the urgent relief Congress intended. The unemployed used the often-substantial assistance – up to $3,400 for a family of four – to cover basic expenses, and the people who were holding on to their jobs saved for possibly difficult days ahead.

New research shows that the benefits of this assistance disproportionately went to those who needed it most: low-income workers and people who had financial problems before COVID hit.

The relief checks “have been more of a lifeline for individuals who were struggling,” the study concluded. “Rather than simply help prevent widening inequality,” the relief “may have helped close the gap.”

Consider the workers who either had great difficulty paying their debts in 2019 or had been spending more than they earned. Thanks to the first round of relief distributed in 2020, both groups saw improvement in three major areas, according to the Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research at the University of Southern California.

The disadvantaged workers experienced the largest reductions in financial stress and felt more satisfied with their finances. They also felt less financially fragile, reporting that it was easier to come up with $400 in cash for an emergency like a car repair. And their ability to save increased.

The researchers said they couldn’t directly credit the relief checks for these improvements. Another important factor – the enhanced unemployment benefit of $600 per week – was also simultaneously at play. But one analysis in this study did find that the people who had received the checks saw more gains than the workers who were still waiting for their checks when they participated in the Internet survey in April 2020 that the researchers used.

As was widely acknowledged at the time, lower-paid hourly workers suffered the brunt of the pandemic-related layoffs. The researchers found that $60,000 in yearly income was a sort of dividing line: households that earned less benefited more from the government assistance than households that earned over $60,000. The lower-income households were more likely to build up their checking and savings account balances. …Learn More

UI Benefits Can Get Caregivers Back to Work

Elderly coupleWhen older workers are laid off, the timing of the career disruption could not be worse – when they should keep working and saving for retirement. Their situation is even more precarious if a parent or spouse is in need of care.

A new study shows that people who become unemployed mid-to-late career are more vulnerable to being pulled into the demands of caregiving, which can derail their efforts to find another job.

Intensive caregiving spells usually kick in about four months after a job loss and can continue for up to 12 months – and possibly longer – according to the research, which was based on U.S. Census surveys of the unemployed prior to the pandemic.

“Family caregiving needs have the potential to turn short-term employment shocks into longer-run decreases in labor force participation, impacting the economic security” of future retirees, concluded Yulya Truskinovsky at Wayne State University.

But she also uncovered another factor in workers’ calculations: the generosity of unemployment benefits, which vary dramatically from state to state. The federal and state governments share the cost of the benefits, but states set the minimum and maximum benefit levels. During the pandemic, for example, the weekly maximum in Massachusetts was 3 1/2 times more than Mississippi’s, far exceeding the difference in the two states’ cost of living.

More generous unemployment benefits could cut one of two ways. They might give the worker enough income to support being a caregiver rather than returning to the labor force right away. The downside of taking so much time off is that it could be harder to eventually find a new job.

But the researcher finds that the opposite occurs: more generous benefits sharply reduce the likelihood that someone takes on caregiving duties after losing a job. Benefits that replace more of a worker’s earnings may make it easier to hire a professional caregiver or continue paying an existing one so the worker can focus on a job search. …Learn More

Using Home Equity Improves Retiree Health

Retirees spend $1,500 more per year, on average, for medical care after a diagnosis of a serious condition like lung disease or diabetes.

Often, the solution for individuals who can’t afford such big bills is to scrimp on care or avoid the doctor altogether. But older homeowners can get access to extra cash if they withdraw some of the home equity they’ve built up over the years.

While the money clearly provides financial relief for retirees, a new study out of Ohio State University finds that it is also good for their health. Every $10,000 that Medicare beneficiaries extracted from their homes greatly improved their success in controlling a chronic or serious disease.

Among the retirees who had hypertension or heart disease, for example, one standard used to determine whether the condition was under control was whether blood pressure levels stayed below 140/90, which the medical profession deems an acceptable level. The people who tapped their home equity were more likely to stay below these levels than those who did not.

This is one of several studies in recent years to tie financial security to home equity, a resource many retirees are reluctant to tap. A study in 2020 found that older homeowners were less likely to skip medications due to cost after they had extracted equity through a refinancing, home equity loan, or reverse mortgage.

But this new research is the first attempt to connect the strategy to retirees’ actual health. The analysis followed the health of more than 4,000 homeowners for up to 15 years after they were diagnosed with one of four conditions – lung disease, diabetes, heart conditions, or cancer. …Learn More

The power of words being typed

Viewing Retirement Saving as a Fresh Start

Employers have learned over the years that understanding employee psychology is critical to getting them to save for retirement. Researchers have landed on a novel idea along those lines: explain to employees that they have an opportunity to save in a 401(k) or increase their 401(k) saving on a future date that represents a fresh start, such as a birthday or the first day of spring.

In a 2021 study in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, this “fresh start framing” during an experiment increased the percentage of workers who agreed to contribute to their employer retirement plans and increased the share of pay contributed to the plans. In both cases, the increases were well in excess of 25 percent in a comparison with employees who were presented with less salient future dates.

Add this technique to a well-established one that growing numbers of employers already use with some success: automatically enrolling workers in the 401(k), and sometimes automatically increasing their contributions, which research has shown can work better than waiting for them to do it themselves. Most of the retirement plans in the study did not have any automatic features, and the fresh start dates proved another way to elicit better saving habits – voluntarily.

The option to delay a commitment to save is based on an assumption that people are more willing to make a change that involves sacrifice if it can be postponed – smokers often try to quit this way. One theory for using a fresh start date is that it imbues a feeling of optimism, giving employees permission to set aside past failures. …Learn More

Adults with Disabilities Cluster in Regions

SSDI Hotspots

When workers develop disabilities on the job, it often has some connection to where they live.

Musculoskeletal conditions like arthritis and tendinitis can happen anywhere but are especially prevalent in a swath surrounding the Kentucky-West Virginia border and running south to Alabama. Intellectual disabilities and mood disorders like autism and depression are common in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

The hot spots, described in new research, represent areas that fall in the top 10 percent of all the areas with awards for the specific condition in many of the years studied, 2005 through 2018.

New Hampshire is a dramatic example: all 10 designated areas of the state were identified as hot spots for awards based on mental disorders in all 14 years.

In addition to mental and musculoskeletal conditions, the researchers from Mathematica found a third major hot spot for circulatory and respiratory disorders like heart disease and asthma. These disorders are prevalent in an area that starts in Indiana and Illinois and flows down the Mississippi River to Mississippi.

The explanations for the hot spots are myriad and complex. Musculoskeletal disabilities constitute the largest single type of benefit award – a third of the U.S. total – and hot spots in the Southeast, where coal mining, agriculture and manufacturing are dominant, tend to have older, less educated populations and more veterans. …Learn More

Pharmacist attending to a customer

Mortgage Payoff Frees Up Money for Meds

Paying off the mortgage frees up a lot of money for other things. The homeowners in one study splurged on big-ticket items.

Older homeowners, however, are adding another priority: medications.

After a mortgage payoff, workers and retirees ages 50 to 64 spent 50 percent more on prescription drugs in a comparison with households who had no major changes in their monthly housing costs, according to a new study by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies and funded by the U.S Social Security Administration.

The mortgage is typically a homeowner’s largest monthly expense. If medication spending rises when this big bill is eliminated, it supports the argument that some aging homeowners who are still carrying a mortgage may be choosing housing over necessary medical care.

This research is particularly relevant at a time older Americans are entering retirement with more debt. In 2016, four in 10 retirees had a mortgage – double the share in the late 1980s.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found some indication that lower-income workers and early retirees benefited more from eliminating their monthly payments. They have difficulty paying even for essential expenses, and the increase in their prescription purchases after paying off the home loan appeared to be larger than for higher-income groups with fewer constraints.

The researchers split the homeowners into two age groups – under and over 65. While homeowners under 65 sharply increased their drug spending after the mortgage payments ended, the Medicare beneficiaries did not.

The level spending after Medicare eligibility indicates that the program relieves some of the pressure on the family budget, the researchers said. Medicare also provides an average $5,000 annually to subsidize low-income retirees’ medications under the Low Income Subsidy program.

But for older homeowners who are too young to get Medicare but are still paying a mortgage, the study “raises serious concerns for health care quality and the costs to treat poorly managed conditions,” the researchers said.

To read this study, authored by Christopher Herbert, Jennifer Molinsky, Samara Scheckler, and Kacie Dragan, see “Older Adult Out-of-Pocket Pharmaceutical Spending after Home Mortgage Payoff.”

A blog post last year featured a similar study – this one about the older Americans’ adherence to medications after …Learn More

newborn baby at hospital

Newborns’ Health Issues Affect Moms’ Work

One in five babies born in U.S. cities is in poor health, with profound and lasting impacts on their own and their mother’s lives.

Researchers reached this conclusion after following nearly 3,700 infants and their mothers through Princeton’s Fragile Families Survey, which checked in on the families six times between the child’s birth and age 15. The survey was fielded in cities with a 200,000-plus population, and the babies’ most common medical conditions were low birth weight, premature birth, and genetic or other abnormalities, such as difficulty breathing.

A body of research on the long-run prospects for children with disadvantages – whether medical or socioeconomic – has established that they have far more problems as adults. Consistent with other prior research, a study by Dara Lee Luca and Purvi Sevak at Mathematica also found an immediate consequence for newborns in poor neonatal health: a greater likelihood of having a disability such as a motor or speech disorder or neurodevelopmental problems such as ADHD and autism.

Within their first year, the infants often qualified for federal cash payments to their mothers under Supplemental Security Income for Children (SSI).

The inordinate amount of time spent caring for babies in poor neonatal health takes an enormous toll on the mothers, the researchers found. While caregiving didn’t seem to impact their mental health, their ability to hold down a job was significantly compromised. The mothers of babies in poor health worked fewer hours, especially when the children were very young, and were more likely to drop out of the labor force entirely. …Learn More