Recession Slams Millennials – Again

Woman waving to a friend

Several young adults in my life have been derailed by the COVID-19 recession.

A few examples. My daughter-in-law just finished her graduate degree in occupational therapy and sailed through her certification only to be met by a stalled job market. A friend’s daughter, fresh out of nursing school, has already been turned down for one job. My nephew, a late bloomer who had finally snared a job making jewelry for a major retailer, was laid off and is floundering again.

Student loans, the Great Recession, and now a pandemic – Millennials can’t seem to catch a break.

Going into this pandemic, people in their 20s and 30s already had lower wages, more student debt, and less wealth than previous generations at the same age. This recession arrives at a critical time when Millennials were trying to catch up, build careers and strive for financial goals.

For the youngest ones, this is their first recession. But the downturn is the second blow for older Millennials, many of whom had the bad luck of entering the job market in the midst of the Great Recession a decade ago.

Does this double jeopardy put them in danger of becoming “a lost generation”? Millennials’ predicament prompted the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis to ask this question in a new report on their finances.

The COVID-19 recession, the report said, “could upend many of their lives.”

The situation is far from hopeless, of course – they have several decades to make up for this rough patch! There’s no reason they can’t overcome the setbacks with some pluck and determination.

But this will require much more effort to pull off amid the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression. The Federal Reserve estimates more than 5.5 million Millennials have become unemployed this year – African-Americans bore a disproportionate share of the layoffs.

Young adults were over-represented in the food service, hospitality, and leisure industries slammed by state shutdowns to control the pandemic. And as the recession plays out, Millennials, with their shorter tenures in the labor market, will continue to be vulnerable to layoffs.

Don’t forget about Generation Z either. The recession will be a tough period for its oldest members, who are just graduating from college and haven’t built up their resumés. They may be less appealing job candidates when so many experienced people are eager to work and willing to compromise on pay at a time of sky-high unemployment. …Learn More

Crowd of people

Readers Lament Decline in Boomer Health

The share of people in their late 50s with the second most severe form of obesity has tripled since the early 1990s. This grim fact, featured in a recent Squared Away article, clarifies COVID-19’s danger to older Americans.

The article, “Our Parents Were Healthier at Ages 54-60,” summarized research establishing that baby boomers are less healthy than their parents’ generation due to several conditions related to obesity, including diabetes, pain levels, and difficulty performing daily activities. The poorest Americans’ health deteriorated the fastest – and COVID-19 is preying on them.

“This decline in markers of metabolic health seems to correlate with increased vulnerability to the pandemic,” wrote one reader, Dan O’Brien, who was among several who commented on recent health-related blogs.

That’s what happened during the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009. Hospitalizations – and possibly death rates – were tied to obesity in adults with multiple health conditions, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“The vast majority of [COVID-19 patients] who reach the ICU suffer from comorbidities. My takeaway is that metabolic dysfunction is tied to immune-system failure in ways we don’t yet understand,” O’Brien said.

Another reader, Lorraine Porto, advocated a simple way for people to keep their weight in check: walk. An elderly woman she knows “walked miles every week.” Porto believes this healthy habit saved the woman’s life when she broke her hip in her 80s and was “walking around, sprightly as ever, less than two months later.” The woman lived into her 90s, Porto said.

A second health-related blog popular with readers looked at the unexpected costs of treating medical conditions that become more common in old age.

Older workers and retirees who try to anticipate their future medical expenses might feel a bit like they’re throwing a dart at a dartboard. The researchers did the work for them in a study described in the blog, “Unexpected Retirement Costs Can be Big.” …Learn More

Photo of a leaky pipe

401ks are a Source of Cash in Pandemic

The U.S. retirement savings system has always been a little leaky. But the leaks seem to be getting bigger.

Some Americans are eyeing withdrawals from their 401(k) plans as the best of a few bad options for paying their rent or solving other cash-flow problems.

As of May 8, 1.5 percent of retirement plan participants had taken some money out of their 401(k) plans under new federal legislation permitting penalty-free withdrawals, The Wall Street Journal reported. An April survey by the non-profit Transamerica Institute put the number of savers responding to the pandemic much higher – about one in five.

Chart of adults most likely to use 401ks as cashBut the data included people who took out loans from their 401(k)s, in addition to withdrawals from 401(k)s and IRAs. Further, Transamerica reported not only on what people have already done but what they say they plan to do. Younger workers and men were the most likely to resort to this desperation move.

Prior to the pandemic, many workers were already behind on their retirement savings and still had not fully recovered from the recession a decade ago.

The current economic downturn will only set them back further as the layoffs, reduced hours and sales commissions derail or curtail their efforts to save. Employers having to lay off workers are also conserving cash by suspending their matching contributions to their employees’ 401(k)s.

“The negative economic effects of the pandemic are further threatening retirement savings and security,” said Catherine Collinson, chief executive of the Transamerica Institute, a partner of the Center for Retirement Research, which funds this blog.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed in March made it easier to withdraw money by waiving the standard 20 percent income tax withholding and 10 percent penalty, which usually applies to people under age 59½. But one estimate made prior to the pandemic shows this is a costly strategy: prematurely taking money out of 401(k)s and IRAs reduces the average amount of money available for retirement by about one-fourth.

People who still have jobs are also saving less. One in five workers have reduced their 401(k) contributions, a Magnify Money survey shows. The informal poll isn’t representative of the population but is certainly an indication of the financial strain the pandemic is putting on workers.

Employers are pulling back too. At last count, some four dozen companies reeling from a drop in revenue – including big names like AutoNation, Best Buy, Hilton Grand Vacations, and Tripadvisor – are temporarily halting their matching contributions, according to a list compiled by the Center for Retirement Research. …Learn More

Puzzle of heads

Disability Applications Spike in Recession

During the Great Recession, the record numbers of Americans who applied for disability included many people who lost their jobs – and it might happen again as the COVID-19 recession plays out.

A 2018 study estimated that 1 million people applied who would not have done so if there hadn’t been a recession. By October 2009, as the jobless rate was peaking, the additional applicants increased the total applications to the U.S. Social Security Administration by 16.5 percent.

The average age of these applicants was 53, and they tended to have impairments that were musculoskeletal or cognitive in nature. Because these impairments are less severe, they were more likely to be denied benefits, often resulting in an appeal.

In contrast, the people who would’ve sought disability benefits even in a strong economy tended to have serious medical conditions such as Crohn’s or chronic kidney disease that usually qualify them automatically under the disability program’s vetting system.

Ultimately, among the applicants who applied in response to the recession, 42 percent were awarded benefits, according to the study funded by the Social Security Administration and based on an analysis of the agency’s disability records.

When they did receive benefits, they were more often awarded on the basis of having a functional limitation and no transferable skills. As a result, many people who used to work were nevertheless approved for benefits, because their options for transferring their skills from their old job to a new job were limited.

Adding so many people to the disability system carried a steep price in terms of an increase in administrative and benefit costs. But the formerly productive workers also paid a price.

“Once people qualify” for disability benefits, the researchers said, “they rarely re-enter the labor force.” …Learn More

Cars in line at a food back in Austin Texas

Money, Virus Angst Combine for Low-Paid

There’s COVID-19 stress, and then there’s money stress. The combination of the two is becoming too much for many low-income workers to bear.

Two out of three people in families that earn less than $34,000 a year told the U.S. Census Bureau in April that they are “not able to control or stop” their worrying several days a week or more. The feelings are the polar opposite for families earning more than $150,000: two out of three of them said they are not worried at all.

The daily blast of pandemic news has pushed U.S. inequality into the spotlight, exposing the financial pressures low-income Americans are dealing with. Despite the unprecedented $3 trillion in financial assistance passed by Congress, the anxiety was probably a contributing factor in the protests that erupted in dozens of U.S. cities last week.

When governors shut down their economies to control the pandemic, the lowest-income workers – disproportionately African-American and Latino – had barely recovered from the previous recession. Yet nearly half of the increase in incomes for all U.S. families over the past decade has gone to the 1 percent of families with the highest earnings. One glaring example of this disparity is homeownership, which is usually the largest form of wealth by the time people reach retirement age. Homeownership rates across the board declined after the financial crisis, but African-American and Latino rates fell more and are still below 2007 levels.

Low-income workers are now bearing the brunt of the current downturn. Economists estimate the true U.S. unemployment rate could be as high as 20 percent. The layoffs have been concentrated among low-wage workers: nearly 40 percent of people living in households earning less than $40,000 have lost their jobs.

The fundamental challenge of surviving from day to day is evident in the miles-long lines of cars at some U.S. food banks. About a third of Americans are having problems paying for all kinds of essentials – rent, utilities, or food – but the number rises to almost half for African-Americans and Latinos, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in mid-May. Children are being disproportionately impacted by rising food insecurity.

Spotty health care coverage is another layer of stress. Workers on the front lines in nursing homes, meat processing plants and grocery stores are more at risk of contracting COVID-19 but less likely to have health insurance from their employers. They may avoid seeing a doctor, even if they have symptoms, out of fear of being unable to afford the charges. …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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Photo of preschoolers playing

Moms of Kids with Disabilities Get Help

Finding child care is difficult for any working parent. It is an even bigger challenge when the child has a disabling condition.

About 1.2 million children under the age of six in the United States are disabled. A new study suggests that federal child care programs may be helping to keep their mothers employed either by meeting their need for care through programs like Head Start or by subsidizing their child care expenses. These supports are particularly important to low-income, single mothers in precarious financial situations.

Preschool children with disabilities were actually more likely to have regular care – at least 10 hours per week – than children without disabilities. And although disabled children’s care arrangements were more likely to be part-time – as was their mother’s employment – they had higher rates of enrollment in child care centers, rather than being in a relative’s care. In the best situations, the centers provide the specialized care these children need.

Their child care costs were also significantly lower, perhaps due to the federal subsidies. For example, families of four-year-olds with disabilities spend less, on average, than the families of children without disabilities, according to research for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

Mothers who stay home to care for infants usually start migrating back to work when the children become toddlers or are approaching kindergarten age.

The researchers gauged the effectiveness of the federal child care programs for disabled preschoolers by comparing their mothers’ employment patterns with other working mothers. The analysis, based on data from U.S. Department of Education interviews with parents, found that both groups had similar changes in their work behavior during these challenging early years.

Federal child care policies, the researchers concluded, “may be adequately supporting employment for parents of children with disabilities.” …Learn More