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

Last will and testament

Retirees Intent on Leaving Homes to Kids

Every year, older homeowners leave billions of dollars worth of the wealth locked up in their houses to their adult children.

This is a paradox if one considers that home equity is one of retirees’ primary assets and could be a crucial source of income for people who are “house rich and income poor.” Retirement experts searching for an explanation have long wondered whether the deceased had intended to leave the house to family or simply died before they were able to cash in on the equity and spend it.

A new study has an answer: retirees have every intention of letting family members inherit their homes. The people in the study who expressed a stronger desire to leave an inheritance of at least $10,000 were much less likely to sell their homes before they died – with the intention that the house would be part, if not all, of that inheritance.

The foundation for this study is a precise estimate of the housing decisions being made in the final two years of life from a survey of older Americans. The researchers counted as many people as possible, including the deceased – their final living status came from interviews with next of kin – as well as people who continued to be homeowners after going into hospice or a nursing home.

The homeownership rate in the older population peaks around age 70 and starts falling precipitously after 80. But when the elderly in the study died, about half of them still owned their homes, while the other half had sold them and moved into rental housing.

At younger ages, the retirees had been asked to estimate the probability, from 0 (no chance) to 100 (definitely), that they would leave a financial inheritance. Based on this information, the researchers found that those who had said they had a high probability of leaving an inheritance remained in their homes.

There is also a financial advantage to the owner of not selling the house to avoid the capital gains tax, especially if the price appreciated dramatically during their lifetimes. The researchers didn’t account for this incentive in their analysis.

But they did find that the desire to leave a bequest is so compelling that parents held on to their homes even after predicting they might need to pay for nursing home care within a few years. …Learn More

Nearly Half on Disability Want to Work

people on disability want to workAn unfortunate misperception about people on federal disability is that they’re not interested in working. In fact, nearly half of them want to work or expect to go back to work, and that share has been rising.

But getting or keeping a job has proved difficult, and the employment rate is very low for people who get Social Security disability benefits – or cash assistance from a companion program, Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Yet the vast majority of beneficiaries have past work experience that should help them in the job market.

Researchers at Mathematica mined a survey of people on disability for clues about how to help them find a job or promotion or learn a new skill.

Many of these work-oriented individuals are under extreme financial pressures and are also younger and healthier, despite their disabilities, than the people on disability who didn’t express a desire to work.

Yet only a third of the 2.6 million beneficiaries in the new study who say they want to work are either working now, were recently employed, or are looking for a job.

So, if they are willing to work and feel able to work, why are so few of them in the labor force?

The researchers landed on two big reasons. First, the work-oriented individuals, despite their desire to work, said they can’t find a job. This is a common experience because employers are either reluctant to hire people with disabilities or the available jobs don’t accommodate them. Others are hesitant to try the job market again because they feel discouraged by past employment experiences.

Second, the majority of work-oriented beneficiaries are unaware of federal programs designed to support a return to work or connect them with employers. …Learn More