July 12, 2022
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
July 7, 2022
Imagining the End of The Age of Labor
The tension between technology and work is at least as old as the economics profession itself. A question some people are asking now is: if computers run by artificial intelligence can do the job of humans, will work disappear someday?
Two economists are proposing a couple different scenarios in a new paper that is part science fiction and part mathematical models. In one scenario, lower-paid workers who are not highly valued by society – say, McDonald’s hamburger flippers – are more readily replaced by computers than a scientist searching for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. This will drive down wages for a larger and larger segment of the lower-paid labor force.
In a second sci-fi scenario, machines run by artificial intelligence, or AI, will ultimately be able to do any worker’s job. In that world, work “would cease to play the central role that it currently plays in our society,” the researchers predict. A computer, they muse, could even stand in for a judge. Farfetched? An AI judge might be superior if it “make[s] more accurate and humane judgments than humans, leaving behind the noise, discrimination and biases that have plagued our justice system.”
There are a host of reasons to doubt work will disappear. The economists who reject this worst-case scenario argue that technology is not job-crushing but job-creating. Machines, they say, free up workers from one type of job but open up new opportunities. Only the nature of work changes. It does not disappear. After World War II, for example, new industrial technologies created jobs that lured farmers into the cities. Artificial intelligence shouldn’t be any different.
The authors of this new paper do concede that what they call the End of Labor is far in the future. Supercomputers capable of the most sophisticated AI are extraordinarily expensive. It seems more plausible that jobs involving simple, repetitive tasks will be the ones increasingly replaced by machines. This has already started happening as robots have moved onto factory floors.
But if workers of all types are eventually replaced by machines, how would they buy their groceries, cell phones, and shoes? Something would have to be done to replace their earnings and “avoid mass misery” and “political instability,” the researchers say. They propose a universal basic income. …Learn More
July 5, 2022
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
June 30, 2022
The Many Facets of Retirement Inequality
Retirement inequality is a thread running through several articles that have appeared here this year.
One blog that was particularly popular with our readers distinguishes retirees who have enough wealth to maintain the same spending levels throughout retirement from those who will, over time, have to cut back and reduce their standard of living.
The research behind the article – “Health and Wealth Drive Retirees’ Spending” – makes clear that wealth is just one component of a satisfying lifestyle. Even retirees who can afford to maintain their living standard may not be healthy enough to enjoy their money to the fullest. The retirees who have both – health and wealth – are best equipped to maintain their pre-retirement lifestyle.
Homeownership also marks a dividing line between the haves and have-nots. A home is one of retirees’ largest sources of wealth. Although most are hesitant to withdraw home equity, the ones who have equity and tap it to pay medical bills see large, positive health benefits, according to “Using Home Equity Improves Retirees’ Health.”
Pensions are another dividing line. “Retirees with Pensions Slower to Spend 401(k)s” shows the value of having guaranteed income from defined benefit pensions, which are all but extinct outside the public sector. …Learn More
June 28, 2022
Limiting Medical Debt: a 50-State Ranking
Lawmakers in Maryland, California and Maine have made the most effort to prevent residents from drowning in medical debt. Texas, South Carolina and Tennessee do the least.
This is the assessment of an organization known as Innovation for Justice, a team of researchers at the University of Arizona and the University of Utah. They ranked the 50 states on whether they have taken myriad steps to minimize medical debt. These legislative measures range from restrictions on the healthcare industry’s billing and collection practices to how debt claims are handled in the courts.
Medical debt is the single largest category of consumer debt, and the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that 100 million Americans are behind on paying their medical or dental expenses – and a quarter of them owe more then $5,000.
This project would be important at any time and is even more so during a pandemic when many people have incurred medical debt for COVID. Some of that debt is even for bills the federal government would’ve paid on behalf of the uninsured cashiers, drivers, retail workers, restaurant servers and cooks who were on the front lines in the worst days of the pandemic.
Putting the state rankings into a national perspective, the consumer protections to prevent the accumulation of debt are not exactly impressive. Only three of the 50 states qualify as having good protections. The researchers ranked another 27 states as weak and 20 as poor.
Maryland, which sits at the top of the medical debt scorecard, satisfies most of the researchers’ criteria for debt reduction. State lawmakers have limited residents’ debt by mandating that patients be screened for health insurance or government health benefits. The state also regulates hospital billing practices, instructing them to offer a payment plan before sending a patient’s bill to collections and requiring that bills itemize every charge, every payment, and whether charity care has been provided to the patient.
Last but not least, Maryland expanded its Medicaid program, as encouraged by the Affordable Care Act, to extend subsidized or free health insurance to more of its low-income workers. Medical debt has been reduced in the states that expanded their coverage. The lowest-ranked states – Texas, South Carolina and Tennessee – are among the states that have not expanded Medicaid.
Visit the medical debt scorecard to see what your state is – or isn’t – doing. …Learn More
June 23, 2022
Problem? Medicare Rights Center Can Fix it
He is a one-time heart surgery patient and vulnerable to COVID. She has to take her medication religiously twice a day to prevent a blood pressure spike.
During the pandemic, Mr. and Mrs. Quader of Brooklyn, New York, got a notice that the health care subsidy they had been receiving through the Medicare Savings Program for low-income retirees had been terminated.
Luckily, counselors on the Medicare Rights Center’s telephone hotline solved the couple’s problem – just like they have helped tens of thousands of retirees nationwide every year that the center’s New York City helpline has been operating.
“They knew where to go. They knew what to do,” Mrs. Quader said in one of several video testimonials posted to the Medicare Rights Center’s website. “They stood by us every time.”
She made the call to the center because she had just happened to hear about it. It turned out the Quadar’s paperwork had been lost in the system, and the couple’s counselor got the benefits restored.
The Medicare Rights Center’s services, which are free of charge, cover myriad problems retirees encounter under Medicare, such as how to appeal insurance company denials of coverage for treatments or medications. The counselors also solve unique problems like that of a 66-year-old woman named Rose. The Plant City, Florida, resident needed a replacement wheelchair but had received one she was unable to use, rendering her immobile. The center got her a chair that worked for her.
“When I sat down in that chair for the first time, it was nice and cushy,” she said in a Medicare Rights Center video. “I could finally go [outdoors] and see the light.”
Many people who call the center need help with simpler issues like enrolling in Medicare Parts A and B or sorting out their options for additional coverage. Bill’s enrollment problem was much more complicated. …Learn More
June 21, 2022
Early Life Traumas Lead to Early Retirement
Mental 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