brain and money

Retirees Who Tested Well Added More Debt

A new study finds that debt burdens have grown for older workers and retirees in recent decades. But this isn’t the first research to reach that conclusion.

What is new is whose debt burden is increasing the most: the people who score higher on simple memory and math tests.

Across the three age groups the researchers examined – 56-61, 62-67, and 68-73 – the high scorers on the cognitive tests were more likely to have debts exceeding half of their assets in 2014 than the high scorers who were the same ages back in 1998.

They also added disproportionately more mortgage debt than people with lower cognition during the study’s time frame, a period when house prices were rising.

The upshot of this study is that people who have retained more of their memory and facility with numbers are “more financially fragile” than the high scorers were in the past, the University of Southern California researchers said.

The findings run counter to a common belief that financial companies in recent years have had more success selling their increasingly complex products to unwitting borrowers – a belief perhaps fostered by the subprime mortgages targeted to risky borrowers in the mid-2000s that triggered the global financial collapse.

Older Workers taking on more debtThe share of the older people in the study who were carrying debt increased between 1998 and 2014 regardless of their cognitive ability. The biggest jump occurred after 62 – a popular retirement age pegged to Social Security eligibility.

The heart of the analysis, however, is exploring the connection between cognitive ability and financial vulnerability. The researchers found the opposite of what one might expect: debt problems have loomed larger over time for those with higher scores on survey questions testing word recall and cognitive ability using simple subtraction and backward-counting exercises. …
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Video: Grandparents as Substitute Parents

In 2015, the journal Pediatrics estimated some 3 million children were living with grandparents – and the number is certainly higher today. Grandparents find themselves in a caregiving role in the aftermath of parents’ myriad personal traumas, including opioid addiction, suicide, incarceration, and now COVID-19.

In this excellent PBS NewsHour video, “Grandfamilies,” grandparents tell journalist Stephanie Sy about the financial and emotional toll of caring for children. Despite the challenges, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

But the financial strain is real. Some of the people Sy interviewed said their childcare duties have forced them to close businesses, and others are earning less due to the pandemic.

Lisa Banks stretches herself thin helping each of her three grandchildren with their remote learning. The new members of her household have also increased the electricity and food bills – her two grandsons are teenagers. “It’s like, I’m hungry, I’m hungry, I’m hungry. You hear it all day,” said Banks, who gets food assistance from a non-profit on Sundays.

COVID-19 adds another layer of worries. Kim Elia, who is standing in for her 11-year-old granddaughter’s parents, is recovering from the disease. “I was truly afraid to die because of what would happen to Brooklyn,” she said.

Raising children is a big job for young adults. A second go-around late in life seems even harder. …Learn More

A business team in a meeting

Retirement Ages Geared to Life Expectancy

For most of the 20th century, life expectancy was on the rise. Yet older Americans were retiring at younger and younger ages. That changed in the 1990s. Life expectancy continued to rise, but retirement ages started increasing too.

Many significant developments are behind the dramatic shift in retirement habits, including the decline of private-sector pensions, changing attitudes about working women, and bigger financial incentives from Social Security for people who remain in the labor force in order to get a larger monthly check when they finally retire.

Given all of these changes, Urban Institute researchers wondered whether the dramatic longevity gains experienced by the people who make it to their 50s and 60s could be counted as another reason for the delayed retirement trend.

Their evidence suggests that growing lifespans are keeping men over age 55 in the labor force longer and postponing their retirement, particularly in areas with strong job markets and more opportunity.

But women’s behavior was much more nuanced. Their labor force participation also increased, but only for women under 65 and to a much smaller extent than men. For the oldest women in the study – ages 65 to 74 – the results were puzzling to the researchers because labor force participation actually declined with life expectancy for those in the bottom half of the income distribution. …Learn More

Will More Aid to Parents Be Permanent?

Happy children standing together

To lift families out of poverty during the pandemic, Congress is on the verge of passing a substantial increase this year in the standard child tax credit as part of President Biden’s broader relief package.

But despite the sharp divide over the $1.9 trillion package, some senators – both Democrats and Republicans – want to permanently increase federal assistance to families. Their goals range from reducing racial inequality and rural poverty to providing more financial stability for middle- and working-class parents.

The prospect of a bipartisan plan for increasing assistance to parents beyond this year is welcomed by advocates for the poor and lower-income workers. The proposals represent a belief “that all of society benefits when children are doing well,” said Myra Jones-Taylor, chief policy officer for Zero to Three, which promotes policies to help infants and toddlers.

Prior to COVID-19, she said 40 percent of infants and toddlers were in families below 200 percent of the poverty limit. Parents “didn’t have the financial resources to meet their [children’s] basic needs,” she said.

The current proposal in Congress for immediate pandemic relief would increase the per-child tax credit in 2021 from the current level of $2,000 to $3,600 for children under age 6 and $3,000 for older children and teenagers. This same increase is included in a bill by Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Sherrod Brown of Ohio to make the larger tax credits permanent.

Republican Sen. Mitt Romney’s plan is even more generous. The Utah senator proposed $4,200 in annual cash payments for children under 6 and $3,000 for older children, and some Republicans may be willing to go along. Romney’s plan, if passed, “would arguably be the biggest anti-poverty measure since the Social Security Act of 1935,” Samuel Hammond, director of poverty and welfare policy at the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank, said in an interview.

But Hammond said members of both parties are making serious efforts to alleviate poverty by targeting assistance to children. The United States has the highest poverty rate of any developed country, “because we spend so little on child benefits, and the benefits we do have cut out the poorest families,” he said. The current tax credit is not available at all to the unemployed and low-income families earning under $2,500.

Hammond and Jones-Taylor were among the panelists in a webinar last month at the Urban Institute to explore the pros and cons of each approach – a tax credit versus monthly cash assistance. …Learn More

Federal Minimum Wage is 40% Below 1968

minimum wage figureLargely missing from the debate about raising the federal minimum wage is how much its value has eroded over the past 50 years.

The current federal minimum is $7.25 an hour. If the 1968 wage were converted to today’s dollars, it would be worth about $12 an hour.

At $7.25 an hour, a full-time worker earns just over $15,000 a year before taxes, which is less than the federal poverty standard for a family of two. The Biden administration has proposed more than doubling the federal minimum to $15 by 2025, and one proposal in Congress would begin indexing the minimum wage to general wages so it keeps up with inflation.

A $15 an hour minimum isn’t enough, said one sympathetic Florida contractor who voted in November to gradually increase the state’s mandatory minimum wage to $15. “I’d like to see some of the American people go out there and try to make a living and put a roof over their head and raise a family,” he told a reporter. “It’s literally impossible.”

Customer receiving from McDonald's drive thru serviceBut small businesses say raising the minimum wage would increase their financial pressures at the worst time – during a pandemic. At least 100,000 U.S. small businesses closed last year as governments restricted public gatherings to suppress the virus, and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates a higher federal minimum could eliminate 1.4 million jobs.

This evidence ignores the complexity of low-wage workers’ situations. Employee turnover is extremely common in low-wage jobs in fast food establishments, for example, and workers frequently have bouts of unemployment that further reduce their already low earning power. Raising the minimum wage could somewhat compensate for their spotty employment and provide more money for essential items. And while the CBO warns of job losses, it also predicts that a higher federal minimum wage would lift 900,000 million workers out of poverty.

Many states have approved incremental automatic annual increases, and a $15 minimum wage has been approved in eight states, including Florida. Voters – over the objections of the Florida Chamber of Commerce – approved raising the state’s minimum wage from $8.65 this year to $15 in 2026.

“We won’t get fifteen for another five years. We need that now,” an Orlando McDonald’s worker, Cristian Cardona, told The New Yorker.

Once again, inflation is a problem. “By the time we get fifteen, it’s going to be even less,” he said. …Learn More

Two workers loading a truck

Who Applies for Disability – and Who Gets it

Blue-collar workers who end up applying for federal disability benefits find themselves in that position for a variety of interrelated reasons.

A dangerous or physically demanding job can either cause an injury or exacerbate a medical condition that could lead to a disability. And people with limited resources in childhood often develop health problems earlier in life, and their circumstances can limit their access to job opportunities, making them more likely to end up in dangerous or physically demanding jobs.

A new NBER study untangles all these factors to clarify who applies for disability and which applicants ultimately receive benefits through Social Security’s rigorous approval process.

Researchers at Stanford and the University of Wisconsin linked a survey of Americans 50 and older to occupational data describing the level of environmental and physical hazards they’ve faced during decades of working. Next, socioeconomic measures of their upbringing – the adults’ descriptions of their childhood health, education, and parents’ financial resources – were layered into the analysis. Finally, the researchers repeated the process, replacing childhood health with genetic data on their predispositions to various disabling illnesses.

Blue-collar and service workers are known to apply for federal disability benefits at higher rates than white-collar workers. But the researchers showed that low socioeconomic status in childhood – by limiting the options for less strenuous jobs – played an even bigger role than workplace demands in whether the workers applied for the benefits.

However, when it comes to who is approved for benefits, physical and mental job requirements were key – and socioeconomic status plays no role. This makes sense because the heart of Social Security’s approval process is a determination that a disabled person is unable to do his previous job or another job appropriate to his age and experience.

An applicants’ health is, by definition, always central to whether he qualifies for disability. The final step in the researchers’ analysis used genetic data to get a picture of the applicants’ underlying health – as distinct from the health problems originating from a disadvantaged childhood. …Learn More

Diverse Population Uses Nursing Homes Less

Son with father in wheel chair

Since the 1980s, the share of the U.S. population over 65 has grown steadily. At the same time, the share of low-income older people living in nursing homes has declined sharply.

New research by the University of Wisconsin’s Mary Hamman finds that this trend is, to some extent, being driven by an increasingly diverse population of Hispanic, Black, Asian, and Native Americans. They are more likely to live with an adult child or other caregiver than non-Hispanic whites, due, in some cases, to cultural preferences for multigenerational households.

Nursing home residence is also declining among older white Americans. However, in contrast to the Black population, whites are increasingly moving into assisted living facilities. This creates what Hamman calls a “potentially troubling pattern” of differences in living arrangements that might reflect disparities in access to assisted living care or perhaps discriminatory practices. Notably, the researcher finds that the Black-white gap in assisted living use persists even when she limits her analysis to higher-income adults.

Eight states have seen the biggest drops in nursing home use: Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Many of these states have experienced fast growth in their minority populations or have more generous state allocations of Medicaid funds for long-term care services delivered in the home.

Growing diversity is actually the second-biggest reason for lower nursing home residence, accounting for one-fifth of the decline, according to the study, which was funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration and is based on U.S. Census data.

As one might expect, the lion’s share of the decline – about two-thirds – is due to policy, specifically changes to Medicaid designed to encourage the home care that surveys show the elderly usually prefer. …Learn More