Pandemic Puts More Retirements at Risk

Worsening Retirement Outlook figureAmericans’ retirement outlook has gone from bleak to bleaker.

The unemployment caused by COVID-19 has pushed up the share of working-age households not able to afford their current standard of living in retirement from 50 percent to 55 percent, according to a new analysis by the Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog.

The analysis updates a previous estimate, based on 2016 data, to include the harmful effects of surging unemployment. The researchers estimate that perhaps 30 percent of workers – far more than is reflected in the monthly jobless rate – could be affected by layoffs now and in the future. They did not factor in the recession’s impact on the housing and financial markets, which could make things worse.

Unemployment hurts retirement in a variety of ways. Laid-off workers’ paychecks vanish immediately, but they may also earn less in the next job. The depressed earnings, over months or years, reduce the money flowing into their 401(k)s, and the amount they’ll receive in pensions and future Social Security benefits. It may also force some to spend down savings that, had they not lost their jobs, would’ve been preserved for retirement.

Interestingly, the impact on low-income workers is mixed. In one way, they’re protected by Social Security’s progressive benefit formula, which will replace a higher percentage of their earnings as their lifetime earnings decline. But low-income workers have had more layoffs, which widens the gap in their retirement savings – between what they can save and what they should be saving – more than for higher-income people.

The 2020 recession will impact retirement “in a very different way” than the Great Recession, the researchers said. This time, “the destruction is occurring more through widespread unemployment and less through a collapse in the value of financial assets and housing.” However, the lessons of the previous recession can’t be dismissed either. …Learn More

Same Disability. Some Have Tougher Jobs

People lifting a heavy box

Workers at construction sites or in warehouses can feel their bodies breaking down over time. This could be the natural aging process, or it could have to do with their overly strenuous jobs.

It’s not easy to tease apart the effects of each. But consider two groups of workers with back and spine stiffness or deformities employed in a variety of occupations. One group has had the back problems since they were children or teenagers, while the other group’s disability began as adults.

Given that they all have a similar disability, it might seem that both groups would also have similar physical demands at work. But that isn’t the case.

A recent study found that the workers who developed back problems as adults were required to lift and carry more weight as part of their jobs. The maximum weight they were required to lift was 26.5 pounds on average. That was a lot more – six pounds more – than the maximum weight handled by the people who already had back problems when they started working.

The significance of workers with late-onset conditions having more taxing jobs is that their jobs “may have caused their health conditions,” the researchers said.

It’s important to add some perspective to this finding, however. A separate analysis in the study comparing workers with and without a disability showed that many people with disabilities have jobs that accommodate them.

But the disparity in working conditions within the disabled population is still a concern. Another example involves people with emotional and cognitive disorders. Ideally, they cope better if they can work at a reasonable pace. But the researchers found that a larger share of workers – three out of four on average – who developed these disorders as adults were in jobs requiring them to work quickly. That compares with just two-thirds of people with early-onset conditions.

We know aging causes physical infirmities. But the physical demands of work also seem to play a role.
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Woman with mental health problems

Recessions Hit Depressed Workers Hard

Anyone who’s suffered through depression knows it can be difficult to get out of bed, much less find the energy to go to work. Mental illness has been on the rise, and depression and myriad other symptoms get in the way of being a productive employee.

So it’s not surprising that men and women with mental illness are much less likely to be employed than people who have no symptoms. But the problem gets worse in a recession.

In 2008, the first year of the Great Recession, the economy slowed sharply as 2.6 million workers lost their jobs. During that time, people who suffered from mental illness left the labor force at a much faster pace than everyone else, according to a new study from the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

The researchers compared average labor force participation, as reported in the National Health Interview Survey, for three periods. Two periods of consistent economic growth bracketed a period that included the onset of the Great Recession: 1997-1999, 2006-2008, and 2015-2017.

Labor force participation for people with no mental illness dipped less than 1 percent between the late 1990s and the period that included the recession. By 2015-2017, roughly three out of four of them were still in the labor force – only slightly below pre-recession levels.

Contrast this relative stability to large declines in activity for people with mental illness – the more severe the condition, the steeper the drop. Participation fell 17 percent among people with the most severe forms of mental illness between the late 1990s and the period that included the recession. By 2015-2017, only 38 percent of them remained in the labor force – well below pre-recession levels. …Learn More

Home Care Reform’s Outcome a Surprise

Image of nursing home staff

Medicaid pays for care for six out of 10 nursing home residents.

To reduce the program’s costs, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) encouraged states to expand the care that people over 65 can receive in their homes or through community organizations. The hope was that they would delay or – even better for them – avoid moving into a nursing home if they had easier access to medical and support services.

Many states historically did not use Medicaid funding to pay for home care. The ACA’s Balancing Incentive Payments Program required the 15 states that chose to participate in the reform, including Nevada, Texas, Florida, Illinois, and New York, to increase spending on home and community care to half of their total Medicaid budgets for long-term care. By the end of the program, the states had met their goals of more balanced spending on home care versus nursing home care.

But four years after the reform went into effect in 2011, the states’ nursing home population had not changed, compared with the states that did not expand their services, according to a University of Wisconsin study for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium. The researchers said one possible reason the reform didn’t reduce nursing home residence was that people who were never candidates for this care were the ones taking advantage of the alternative forms of care.

The analysis did find other unintended consequences of the shift in Medicaid funds to home and community care. First, somewhat more older people moved out of a family member’s house and were able to live on their own.

Second, as more people moved into their own place, costs may have increased for a different federal program: Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for low-income people. The increase had to do with how this program calculates financial assistance. SSI’s monthly benefits are based on an individual’s income. When retirees decide to live on their own, the housing, meals and other supports the family once provided are no longer counted as income. The drop in a retiree’s income means a bigger SSI check.

On the other hand, the Medicaid reform may have financial benefits for caregiving families, the researchers said.

The greater availability of home and community care for seniors – whether they live with family or on their own – frees up time for their family members to earn more money at paying jobs. …
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Lost Wealth Today vs the Great Recession

For older workers starting to think about retiring, the economic maelstrom the coronavirus set in motion is a reminder of that sinking feeling they experienced just over a decade ago.

In 2008, the stock market plunged nearly 40 percent, accelerating the steep decline that was underway in U.S. house prices. The unfolding 2020 recession is playing out differently. But both downturns have one thing in common: Social Security as a stabilizing influence on older workers’ retirement finances.

Baby Boomers lost wealthA 2011 study of the change in baby boomers’ finances during the Great Recession found that total wealth dipped by 2.8 percent, on average, between 2006 and 2010 for households between ages 51 and 56.

The 2.8 percent decline in wealth at the time was a significant setback for baby boomers. In more normal times, earlier generations had increased their wealth by 3 percent to 8 percent at comparable ages.

Nevertheless, things could have been so much worse for baby boomers were it not for the substantial wealth they had built up over several decades in their future Social Security benefits – an amount that is unaffected by the collapse of financial and housing markets. The average value of these future Social Security benefits was 30 percent of boomers’ wealth.

Wealth in the study also included home equity and retirement plan accounts.

This time around, it’s too early to determine the severity of the downturn’s effects on older workers. Unlike the previous recession, though, this one has had little impact on house prices so far, and the stock market, after sinking in March, has regained about half of its losses thanks to aggressive action by the Federal Reserve.

The major worry is unemployment. The jobless rate approached 15 percent in March – well above the 2009 peak of 10 percent – and economists expect it to keep rising.

But, in any recession, Social Security is a stabilizing force. Today, it represents a large share of older workers’ wealth just as it did a decade ago. And lower- and middle-income workers’ benefits are a much larger share of wealth, because they are far less likely to have substantial assets in 401(k)s. …Learn More

Unexpected Retirement Costs Can be Big

Four high cost eventsResourceful retirees usually weather the financial surprises that come their way. But a handful of unexpected health events can really hurt.

The death of a spouse is at the top of the list. Net worth drops by more than $30,000 over a couple of years as retirees pay for the extraordinary medical and other expenses surrounding a spouse’s death.

Two serious health conditions also deplete retirees’ assets: strokes and lung disease, which strike about one in five older Americans during their lifetimes, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research study funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration that tracked changes in the finances of people 65 and over.

Despite the presence of Medicare, a first-time stroke reduces a retired household’s average wealth by more than $25,000 – or 6 percent – and lung disease reduces it by about $29,000.

Net worth in this study includes financial assets and home equity minus debts.

These estimates of the cost of various events provide new information about a few of the many unknowns that go into retirement planning. Workers who may think they are saving enough to cover their routine retirement expenses don’t necessarily factor in medical and related costs that are difficult or impossible to predict.

Taken together, single and married retirees will use anywhere from 3 percent to 14 percent of their wealth to pay these unpredictable expenses. But wealthy retirees, who can afford first-rate care, spend much more than the average, while poor people, who have Medicaid to supplement their Medicare, spend very little. …Learn More

Art of someone gaining weight

Our Parents Were Healthier at Ages 54-60

Baby boomers aren’t as healthy as their parents were at the same age.

This sobering finding comes out of a RAND study that took a series of snapshots over a 24-year period of the health status of Americans when they were between the ages of 54 and 60.

The researchers found that overall health has deteriorated in this age group, and they identified the specific conditions that are getting worse, including diabetes, pain levels, and difficulty performing routine daily activities.

Obesity is an overarching problem: the share of people in this age group with class II obesity, which puts them at very high risk of diabetes, tripled to 15 percent between 1992 and 2016.

In addition to declining health, the study for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium uncovered strong evidence of growing health disparities among 54 to 60-year-olds: the poorest people are getting sicker faster than people with more wealth.

The increase in women’s pain levels has been starkest over the past 24 years. The wealthiest women have seen an increase of 6 percentage points in the share experiencing moderate to severe pain from conditions like joint or back pain. But the poorest women saw a 21-point leap. The disparity for men was also large: up 7 points for the wealthiest men versus 15 points for the poorest men.

The bottom line: today’s 54 to 60-year-olds are not as healthy as their parents were, and the study suggests that the disparities between rich and poor will continue to grow.

To read this study, authored by Peter Hudomiet, Michael D. Hurd, and Susann Rohwedder, see “Trends in Health and Mortality in the United States.”Learn More