Think of Saver’s Tax Credit as Free Money

Life’s unpleasant surprises – a new set of tires or a big vet bill – can get in the way of saving money for retirement. This is especially true for low-income workers.

But if they are able to save a little here and there, the federal government provides a very big assist through its Saver’s Credit. Unfortunately, low-income workers are also the least likely to be aware the tax credit exists.

Savers credit tableHere’s how the Saver’s Credit works. The IRS returns half of the amount saved over the year – up to certain limits – by a head of household earning less than $29,626 or a couple earning less than $39,501.

So, the head of household with earnings under the income limit who saves $2,000 in a tax-exempt retirement plan like an IRA or an employer 401(k) would get back the IRS’ maximum credit of $1,000. And the couple that saves $4,000 would get back the $2,000 maximum.

Piggy bankGranted, these are very large sums for low-income workers. But if they can manage to save a little bit every week, the Saver’s Credit is effectively free money from the federal government.

Smaller tax credits are available to people with slightly higher incomes. Individuals and couples do not qualify if they earn more than $49,500 and $66,000, respectively.

Unfortunately, only about a third of households earning under $50,000 are aware of the credit, according to a Transamerica Institute survey.

Now that you know, start saving. You’ll get a big chunk of it back. …Learn More

ACA Proves Itself but Race Disparity Persists

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to reject another challenge to the Affordable Care Act was widely seen as the final word: the law is here to stay.

But it was COVID-19 that underscored how important it is.

Racial disparities in uninsured populations

The federal government said nearly 10 million people signed up for Medicaid health coverage during the pandemic year that ended in January 2021. A decade after passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which expanded Medicaid to include more low-income Americans by increasing the income limit for eligibility, the new sign-ups pushed total Medicaid enrollment to a record high of 80 million.

The recent increase was largely due to the spike in sign-ups among the unemployed or workers who saw their hours reduced and lost some of their wages. The relief packages passed by Congress in March 2020 and this year encouraged Medicaid enrollment by giving states additional funding to pay medical costs and sign up more people.

Beyond Medicaid, sales of regular health insurance policies sold on the state insurance exchanges also rose last year, as COVID-19 raced through the population. A 5 percent increase in enrollment in the policies, which are often subsidized, pushed total enrollment to 12 million.

Earlier this year, the American Rescue Plan continued to shore up health coverage by reducing insurance premiums for people who buy the policies. Unfortunately, these and earlier federal supports were temporary measures put in place for the pandemic, and some progress will be reversed when the supports expire at the end of this year or next year.

Despite the recent coverage gains, it has been a bumpy ride. Prior to COVID-19, sales of ACA policies had been slowing after years of marked progress in reducing the U.S. uninsured rate. And in the states that have not expanded Medicaid to reach more residents, the uninsured rates are nearly double the rates in the expansion states – 15.5 percent vs 8.3 percent. …Learn More

Hard for People on SSDI to Resume Work

Man sanding woodThe federal government runs numerous small-scale experiments across the country to explore ways to help people on Social Security disability ease back into work to reduce the benefits being paid.

In a recent webinar, researchers discussed the extreme challenges of designing programs that are effective, given the inherent disadvantages – from the disabling condition itself and discrimination to having less education – that people with disabilities face in the job market.

After close examination of several programs, the researchers found that the primary goals of most demonstration programs are very difficult to achieve: reducing disability benefits or increasing the earnings of people on disability who have sporadic or part-time work. But they also suggested that the programs would be deemed more successful if policymakers would broaden the goals to include the improved well-being of people with disabilities.

To increase their employment, Kilolo Kijakazi, deputy commissioner of retirement and disability policy at the U.S. Social Security Administration, said it’s critical to first address inequities in the job market.

Research shows that many people on disability express an interest in working but face multiple barriers. Employers aren’t always willing to make the workplace accommodations needed to hire them. People on disability also tend to be older than most workers and may face age discrimination. Others have been discouraged by past work experiences, and finding transportation to and from a job is often a challenge.

Although a minority of all Americans with disabilities are working, the 2020 unemployment rate among people with a disability who are either working or looking for a job was 12.6 percent. However, unemployment among Black Americans with disabilities was 16.3 percent. The rates were also very high for Asian-Americans and Latinos with disabilities –  15.7% and 16.8 percent, respectively.

“We need to develop policies and programs that address these inequities,” Kijakazi said.

Robert Moffitt at Johns Hopkins University analyzed several back-to-work programs, including the use of counselors and financial incentives. He found that the programs are extremely difficult to implement well and that participation is fairly low.

Although they do help some individuals, he concluded, “Most of the efforts to increase employment, earnings and labor force engagement of [disability] beneficiaries have been disappointing.” …Learn More

Helping hands

An Appreciation of Professional Caregivers

My 85-year-old mother had been up a few times during a night in early June and still wasn’t feeling well in the morning. I called her doctor, who sent a prescription to her pharmacy, and went about my day’s work. But when I checked in that afternoon, mom was in a full-blown medical crisis that she and her 92-year-old male companion did not think was bad enough to tell me about.

I asked her companion to call the EMTs, who immediately dispatched mom to an emergency room a few miles from her Orlando retirement community. These events marked the start of my maiden voyage as my mother’s caregiver from 1,300 miles away in Boston. It was a high-stress affair that challenged all my organizational skills and stamina – an experience I am, no doubt, destined to repeat.

I’ve heard about the stresses of caring for an elderly parent but had only a vague sense of what that would be like. Nearly a week was consumed with keeping tabs on mom’s medical care at the hospital and what she needed, tracking down busy nurses and doctors – in a pandemic! – for updates on her condition (pneumonia) and treatment. Finally, upon mom’s hospital release on a Sunday, I wanted to make sure nothing else would go wrong at home.

The clouds started to lift when I hired three professional caregivers – Rachel, Nadine, and Rosa – to keep an eye on my mother for the first 24 hours at home. I developed a great appreciation for their kindness and efficiency and the unique talents each one brought to the job.

The hiring process wasn’t seamless, however, due to the COVID. My mother and her partner are fully vaccinated. But Florida has a much lower vaccination rate – 62 percent of adults have at least one dose, compared with 81 percent in Massachusetts – and I quickly learned that 35-year-old Rachel, the first caregiver assigned to mom, was among the unvaccinated.

I was about to cancel the contract with the company employing the caregivers when they offered to give Rachel a rapid COVID test. That worked for me. Having made my intentions crystal clear, the company texted me Nadine’s and Rosa’s vaccine cards for the later shifts. …Learn More

Medicare

Enrollment Trends in Medicare Options

Most retirees manage to get by on less than they earned as workers. Yet they devote a much larger percentage of their income to medical care than working people.

To limit their annual spending on care, retirees usually buy some type of insurance policy to help pay the bills Medicare does not cover. But a big shift is under way: the Medigap and employer plans that once dominated are now in decline. Only about a third of retirees have one of these two supplementary arrangements, down from two-thirds in 2002.

Retirees are instead swarming into Medicare Advantage plans  – HMOs run by insurance companies – which doubled enrollment in the past decade to become the most popular form of coverage. A small minority of retirees go without any policy at all, so the only premium they pay is for Medicare Part B’s physician coverage. (The Part A hospital coverage has no premium.) At the same time, the vast majority of retirees today enjoy prescription drug coverage, either through a stand-alone Part D plan or as part of an employer or Advantage plan.

Helen Levy at the University of Michigan digs into what the market changes mean for retirees’ bottom line in recent research funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration.

With fewer employers offering retiree health insurance, new Medicare beneficiaries focus on the tradeoffs between Medigap and Advantage policies. A big reason the Advantage plans have taken off is lower premiums, which are, on average, substantially below the premiums on Medigap plans. Advantage plans’ other appeal is that they frequently cover extra services like dentists and eyeglasses.

Both Advantage and Medigap plans can still leave beneficiaries with high out-of-pocket spending. The federal limit on Advantage plans’ deductibles and copays increased this year to $7,550 per year, though insurers are permitted to reduce this cap. Many Medigap plans do not have out-of-pocket maximums at all. However, these plans tend to give more protection from large medical bills overall.

Just as important to retirees as paying the bills is the risk of being socked with inordinately high spending on hospital and physician care in a bad year. Levy defines this unpredictability as retirees having to shell out more than 10 percent of income out of their pockets, excluding all premiums.

Under this standard, about 23 percent of the retirees in the study with Advantage plans spent more than 10 percent of their income for care – versus 17 percent of Medigap buyers.  About 28 percent of those without any coverage outside of Medicare exceeded the 10-percent threshold. …Learn More

Students graduating during the pandemic

Women Faster to Accept Jobs. Pay Suffers

Women attend college at higher rates than men. Women’s labor force participation was also fairly steady prior to COVID, while men’s declined, and women continue to move into fields traditionally held by men.

Despite all this progress, women still earn much less than men.

Discrimination partly explains the pay gap, as does motherhood, which can interrupt the smooth progression in women’s careers at a critical time. But another explanation doesn’t get as much attention: women earn less because they’re not as confident as men about how much they can get and are more afraid of taking some risks in negotiations with employers.

In the 2018 and 2019 graduating classes at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, women started their job searches earlier and accepted employers’ offers more quickly, according to a new analysis of student surveys before graduation and after they’d landed a job.

Men, on the other hand, do take risks, extending the negotiation with employers to see how much they can secure or even rejecting a job in hopes that a better one comes along.

Prior to graduating, nearly two-thirds of the women in BU’s business school had accepted a job during their junior or senior years but only about half of the men had, the researchers found.

The male students also enter their pay negotiations with higher expectations of what they want to earn. Their optimism, verging on overconfidence, serves them well. Male graduates from the BU business school earned about $6,700 more, on average, than their female classmates.

Men’s natural advantages in two psychological attributes – optimism and a willingness to take risks – “play a non-trivial role in generating early career earnings gaps among the highly skilled,” the study concluded. …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