Small town square

Social Security Stabilizes Local Economies

Social Security’s great achievement for retirees is a guarantee that they’ll get a check every month, without fail. Less appreciated is the stability the program brings to local economies and businesses.

Retirees use their Social Security benefits to patronize establishments that sell goods and services locally such as restaurants, car repair shops, banks, and hospitals. That steady supply of spending in good times and bad helps to stabilize economies, according to research conducted by the Center for Retirement Research and funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration.

Between 2000 and 2018, working-age adults’ employment levels and earnings were less affected by the ups and downs in the state unemployment rate in counties where Social Security provides a higher percentage of residents’ total income.

During the Great Recession, for example, when unemployment rates surged across the country, earnings and employment did not decline as much in counties that were more reliant on the federal retirement benefits.

The researchers’ analysis of U.S. Census data produced similar results when they tested Social Security’s stabilizing effects on specific industries that sell locally. Businesses in several industries – retail and entertainment, healthcare, education, financial services, and other services – had more stable employment and earnings when county residents got a higher percentage of their total income from the program. Manufacturers, which tend to sell their products nationally or internationally, were excluded from the industry analysis.

Social Security’s regularity and reliability set it apart from the countercyclical federal programs that were designed to ease the pain of recessions, such as unemployment benefits or food assistance distributed through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Social Security, the researchers concluded, serves as a valuable “stabilizer for the local economy, above and beyond its direct value to beneficiaries.”

To read this study, authored by Laura Quinby, Robert Siliciano and Gal Wettstein, see “Does Social Security Serve as an Economic Stabilizer?”Learn More

Thinking ahead roadmap logo

How to Pick (or Be) a Retiree’s Financial Ally

If you need help managing your finances in old age, it’s a lot of work to find someone – and not a very pleasant task to think about.

But it’s crucial that retirees plan for this. As to when or whether you might need help, it really depends on your individual circumstance.

Attorney and researcher Naomi Karp cites a variety of studies that provide some clues to the different ways this process can play out. People who develop dementia obviously need what she calls a financial advocate. This might be a trusted friend, family member, lawyer or professional financial adviser.

But roughly a third of aging Americans who are experiencing natural cognitive decline are prone to making poor decisions about their money, she explained during a recent webinar sponsored by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) where she used to work.

Financial acumen actually peaks well before retirement – at 53! – but wisdom makes up for some of that, she said. During one’s 70s and 80s, financial literacy declines, but unfortunately confidence about one’s abilities remains high. “That’s a risky situation,” Karp said.

She and other financial experts have put together an interactive website the Thinking Ahead Roadmapwith six steps to follow to find an advocate. Each step has tips, tools, and information to guide you through the process. An adult child or caregiver could also use this website if they feel the need to assume more responsibility for an elderly parent’s finances. …Learn More

Pain in different areas of the body

Opioids: Cause or Consequence of Disability?

Opioid painkillers are a double-edged sword for older workers. The medications allow them to keep working through their joint or back pain. But a slide into addiction would interfere with doing their jobs.

A new RAND study of workers over age 50 has identified some of the negative consequences of relying on opioids. Rather than promoting work, the researchers found that opioids can cause or exacerbate disabling health conditions, hindering users’ ability to work and making them increasingly dependent on federal disability benefits over time.

Bad results from opioid overuse may seem predictable, given that doctors prescribe them to people who are in worse physical condition in the first place. But older workers’ health is already in decline, just by virtue of their age, so it’s not always clear how, or to what extent, opioids are affecting them.

The researchers sorted this out using a 2009 survey of older Americans in the long-running Health and Retirement Study (HRS). They matched people who didn’t take the medications with similar people who did – similar in everything from their functional limitations and sociodemographics to their labor market histories. The HRS continued to interview both groups over the next decade, allowing the researchers to compare the opioids’ effects over a longer period than prior studies.

For example, although the opioid users and non-users were in similar health in 2008, things changed dramatically – and quickly – the researchers found. As early as 2012, the opioid users were significantly more likely to have developed a disabling condition that limited their work capacity.

Opioid use or abuse is linked to myriad health problems. Overuse can exacerbate autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. Users also have less healthy lifestyles and are prone to infectious diseases and mental illness, and opioids can impair lung function. …Learn More

Boomers Will Struggle with Care in Old Age

Granddaughter and grandmotherThe bulk of care for the nation’s elderly is informally provided by spouses, adult children, and other family members. But if family can’t fill the need, will retirees be able to hire an in-home caregiver or pay for a nursing home in the future?

Just one in five 65-year-olds has enough family and financial resources combined to provide the support they would require in the event they develop the most severe care needs as they age, according to new research by the Center for Retirement Research. At the other extreme, more than one in three will have insufficient resources to cover even a minimal amount of care.

The study builds on previous report showing that most retirees will eventually need some care, though only one in four is predicted to have severe needs. And one in five will not need any care. The new study used data from a national survey of older Americans to determine how many total hours of care are required for three different levels of need – minimal, moderate and severe.

For example, 924 hours of family or professional care per year are used by the typical person who gets minimal assistance, such as housekeeping or cooking for a few weeks or months. But people with severe needs receive nearly 2,300 hours of care per year – with half supplied by family members. This would add up to more than 11,000 hours over a five-year period, which is the length of time the researchers used to define severe care needs.

Next, the researchers calculated how many hours of care could be covered informally by family and how many hours of formal care the retirees could purchase with their income and any financial assets. If the total hours of care they can cover with their resources fall short of what is required for a given level of need, then retirees have insufficient resources to meet that need.

Unmarried women are in the toughest position, because they lack not only a spouse to take care of them in old age but also the financial advantages enjoyed by married couples, who tend to be wealthier than single people. Over half of unmarried women will not be able to cover even minimal care needs. In contrast, only a third of couples could not provide for any future care.

There are also big disparities by race: nearly half of older Black Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics do not have the family and financial resources to provide at least minimal care, compared with only a third of whites. …Learn More

Low-income Spend Tax Credit on Food, Rent

The fate of the recent expansion of the federal child tax credit is uncertain in the ongoing budget negotiations in Congress. What is clear is that poor and low-income families are putting the increased assistance to good use.

Low-income families figureNine out of 10 families earning less than $35,000 are spending the money on one or more essential living expenses, which include food, utilities, housing, clothing or education needs like books and after-school programs, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The American Rescue Plan passed in March temporarily increased the credit from $2,000 to $3,600 per year per child for kids under age 6 and to $3,000 for older kids and teenagers. In another temporary provision in the legislation, the IRS sends the credit to families every month in the form of a monthly payment.

The child tax credit is also now fully refundable, which means that low-income people are eligible for the full credit even if they pay little or no income taxes. If the budget negotiations make this a permanent feature of the credit, the IRS would extend the federal assistance to 27 million more children in low-income families.

Unfortunately, the center estimates, there are some 4 million children in families with very low incomes that aren’t receiving the monthly payments, either because they didn’t file taxes in 2019 and 2020 or didn’t receive an economic relief check from the federal government. The IRS has created an online tool for parents to sign up and start receiving the credit.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities asked the people it surveyed about their specific uses for the monthly cash payments. Six out of 10 families earning under $35,000 said they are spending the money on food. About half are paying their utilities or housing expenses. Even the non-essential expenses seem like good uses for the extra funds, including car payments, childcare, and paying down debt.

Higher-income families also buy necessities with the extra cash. But low-income families struggle more to pay for their basic living expenses, and the center said they are using more of the money from the tax credit to pay for them. …Learn More

The Problem with Low-Income Tax Credits

The federal tax code offers a nifty tax credit to low-income workers who save for retirement. If only it reached more people.

The Saver’s Credit offers what appears on its face to be a strong incentive: the IRS will return up to 50 percent of the amount low-income workers and married couples put into a retirement plan.

But Barbara Wollan, an 18-year volunteer in Iowa with the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, or VITA, which provides free tax preparation to low-income workers, said her clients often don’t qualify. The reason: the tax credit is not what the IRS calls “fully refundable.”

For example, a single person earning $19,750 or less is eligible for a tax credit equal to 50 percent of the amount saved – the maximum retirement plan contribution eligible for the credit is $2,000. The credits are either 10 percent or 20 percent for single workers earning between $19,751 and $33,000. (The income limits are higher for households.)

The catch is that the credit is subtracted from the taxes owed, and low-income people usually pay little or no taxes to the IRS after they take the standard deduction given to all taxpayers. If they don’t owe taxes, they don’t get the credit.

“To dream big about helping low-income people save for retirement, we would make it a refundable credit,” said Wollan, an educator with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, which distributes research information in her state on topics like finance and agriculture.

Congress is considering providing a refundable credit of up to $500 to single and married savers even if they don’t owe anything at tax time. But lawmakers often get into a political disagreement about whether people who don’t pay taxes should get money back from the IRS.

Wollan feels her low-income clients should be rewarded for making what is, for them, a Herculean effort to save. “When I see that they have contributed to a 401(k) or other retirement account, I just want to jump up and down and cheer and pat them on the back,” she said. But “because their income is so low, they don’t get to take advantage of these credits, and that is so sad.” …Learn More

Man working at desk

Attorneys Secure Disability Benefits Faster

Hiring an attorney or other representative seems to be helping workers who apply for federal disability insurance.

Legal representation dramatically increases the chances that individuals with disabilities will be awarded benefits at the initial level of review of their applications filed with the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA), new research finds.

Hiring an attorney has been common when applicants appeal an initial denial to an administrative law judge. What’s new is that they are increasingly getting help earlier – when they first file the application – from an attorney or, in some cases, another representative who has passed an SSA test on the agency’s administrative procedures.

But disability experts have debated the value of representatives amid concerns about unscrupulous practices, such as beefing up their fees by dragging out the application process. SSA pays representatives 25 percent of a client’s back benefits that accrue while he or she awaits a decision – up to a $6,000 maximum fee.

This study – the first to examine attorney effectiveness – finds justification for paying the fees. Attorneys increase the share of applicants who are awarded benefits at the initial level of review from a third to more than half, according to the analysis of SSA data for applicants who received an initial decision between 2010 and 2014.

Hiring a representative “leads to earlier disability awards to individuals who would otherwise be awarded benefits only on appeal,” the researchers said. …Learn More