People in their Prime are Working Less

Line graph showing labor force participation since 1990The decline in Americans’ labor force activity started around the year 2000 and accelerated after the 2008-2009 recession. Labor force participation is now at its lowest level since the 1970s.

The main reason for the drop is our aging population. But the news in a systematic review of current research in this area is a more troubling trend that’s also driving it: people in their prime working years – ages 25 through 54 – are falling out of the labor force.

Prime-age men are the most active members of the labor force. Yet in 2017, only 89.1 percent of them were either working or seeking a job, down from 91.5 percent in 2000, according to the review by University of Southern California economists.

Prime-age women’s labor force activity also fell, to 75.2 percent in 2017 from about 77 percent in 2000. This decline ends decades in which women were streaming into the nation’s workplaces at an increasing rate. One possible reason for the leveling off is the scarcity of family-friendly policies, including more generous childcare assistance.

The forces pushing and pulling various groups in and out of the labor force make it difficult to pin down the primary reasons for the overall drop in participation. The decline among prime-age men and women may be tied to opioid addiction, alcoholism, and suicide. Other studies point to the surge in incarcerations of black men.

And while technological advances like robots and growing trade with China have increased the need for many highly skilled workers, they have reduced the demand for less-educated, lower-paid people, including U.S. factory workers, in their peak working years. The resulting fall in their wages has also made work less attractive to them. …Learn More

Checkboxes next to "Now" and "Later"

A Proposal to Fill Your Retirement Gap

David and Debra S. both had successful careers. In analyzing their retirement finances, the couple agreed that he should wait until age 70 to start his Social Security in order to get the largest monthly benefit.

But he wanted to sell his business at age 69 and retire then, so the North Carolina couple used their savings to cover some expenses over the next year.

Waiting until 70 – the latest claiming age under Social Security’s rules – accomplished two things. In addition to ensuring David gets the maximum benefit, waiting guaranteed that Debra, who retired a few years ago, at 62, would receive the maximum survivor benefit if David were to die first.

Other baby boomers might want to consider using this strategy.  As this blog frequently reminds readers, each additional year that someone waits to sign up for Social Security adds an average 7 percent to 8 percent to their annual benefit – and these yearly increments spill over into the survivor benefit.

Delaying Social Security is “the best deal in town,” said Steve Sass at the Center for Retirement Research, in a report that proposes baby boomers use the strategy to improve their retirement finances.

Here’s the rationale. Say, an individual wants a larger benefit. Instead of collecting $12,000 a year at age 65, he can wait until 66, which would increase his Social Security income to $12,860 a year, adjusted for inflation, with the increase passed along to his wife after his death (if his benefit is larger than his working wife’s own benefit). The cost of that additional Social Security income is the $12,000 the couple would have to withdraw from savings to pay their expenses while they delayed for that one year.

Social Security is essentially an annuity with inflation protection – and the payments last as long as a retiree does. So the $12,000 cost of increasing his Social Security benefit can be compared with cost of purchasing an equivalent, inflation-indexed annuity in the private insurance market. An equivalent insurance company annuity for a 65-year-old man, which begins paying immediately and includes a survivor benefit, would cost about $13,500. …Learn More

Photo of an older white man

Why are White Americans’ Deaths Rising?

Rarely does academic research make a splash with the general public like this did. A grim 2015 study, prominently displayed in The New York Times, showed death rates increasing among middle-aged white Americans and blamed so-called “deaths of despair” like opioid addiction, suicide, and liver disease.

Rising mortality, especially for white people with low levels of education, ran counter to the falling death rates the researchers found for Hispanic and black Americans. The husband and wife team who did the study proposed that “economic insecurity” might be an avenue for research into the root cause of white Americans’ deaths of despair.

A 2018 study took up where they left off and found a connection between economic conditions and some types of deaths. Researchers from the University of Michigan, Claremont Graduate University, and the Urban Institute said poor economic conditions – in the form of local employment losses – have played a role in the rising deaths since 1990 from chronic health problems like cardiovascular disease, particularly among 45 to 54 year olds with a high school education or less. However, they could not establish a connection to the rise in deaths of despair.

In a 2019 study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, these same researchers instead focused on what is driving the growing educational disparity in life expectancy trends among whites: life expectancy is rising for those with more education but stagnating or falling for less-educated whites.

As for the health reasons behind this, they found that chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease and even cancer are critical to explaining less-educated whites’ life expectancy, and they warned against putting too much emphasis on deaths of despair. In the medical literature, they noted, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers are consistently linked to the “wear and tear” on the body’s systems due to the stress that disadvantaged Americans experience over decades, because they earn less and face adversities ranging from a lack of opportunities and inadequate medical care to substandard living environments. …Learn More

Photo of Chapter 7 form

1 of 3 in Bankruptcy Have College Debt

One thing bankruptcy won’t fix is college debt, which – in contrast to credit cards – can’t usually be discharged by the courts.

One in three low-income people who have filed for bankruptcy protection from their creditors have student loans and face this predicament, according to LendEdu, a financial website.

The debt relief they can get from the courts is very limited, because the aggregate value of their non-dischargeable college loans is almost equal in value to all of their other debts combined, including credit cards, medical bills, and car loans.

Under these circumstances, a bankruptcy filing “does not sound like a financial restart,” said Mike Brown, a LendEdu blogger.

Although LendEdu analyzed data for low-income bankruptcy filers, the court’s inflexibility around student loans affects a wider swath of college-educated bankruptcy filers.

In the past, individuals were permitted to use bankruptcy to reduce their college loans. But in 1998, Congress eliminated that option unless borrowers could show they were under “undue hardship,” a legal standard that is notoriously difficult to satisfy.

While the legal requirement hasn’t changed since 1998, paying for college has become far more onerous. Americans today owe nearly $1.6 trillion in student debt, which ranks second only to outstanding mortgages. …Learn More

Expect Widows’ Poverty to Keep Falling

Line chart showing poverty rates for widows and married womenThe poverty rate for widows has gone down over the past 20 years. This trend will probably continue for the foreseeable future.

Women face the risk of slipping into poverty when a husband’s death triggers a drop in retirement income from Social Security and a pension (if he had one). But beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, women moved into the nation’s workplaces at an unprecedented pace.

Women now make up nearly half of the labor force and are more educated, which means better jobs – and better odds of having their own employer retirement plan.  As a result, they have become increasingly financially independent.

This trend of greater independence is now showing up among older women. Widows between ages 65 and 85 put in 10 more years of work than their mother’s generation, which has helped push down the poverty rate from 20 percent in 1994 to 13 percent in 2014, according to the Center for Retirement Research. …Learn More

Photo of tornado damage in Beavercreek, OH

Why Americans Can’t Come Up with $400

In Beavercreek, Ohio, the cleanup from a recent tornado has begun. But debris is still piled high on many residents’ lawns.

“What we’re seeing following this tornado is people not having enough cash to pay upfront for house debris removal even though insurance companies will reimburse them,” former mayor Brian Jarvis said on Twitter. The debris cleanup comes on top of other costs like temporary housing in this city east of Dayton.

Much was made recently of a survey in which four of every 10 American families said they could not cover an unexpected $400 expense. But no one explained why. New research has some answers.

Even when people have $400 in their checking or savings accounts, they don’t always feel like they have the money to spend. That’s because they may have already committed the funds to paying off their credit cards, according to an analysis by Anqi Chen at the Center for Retirement Research.

This problem isn’t confined to low- and middle-income people either: 17 percent of households earning more than $100,000 would have to scramble to find the extra $400.

The study uncovered what cash-strapped families have in common. …Learn More

Washington, DC skyline

Spotlight on Our Research, Aug. 1-2

Topics for this year’s Retirement and Disability Research Consortium meeting include the opioid crisis, retirement wealth inequality over several decades, trends in Social Security’s disability program, and the impacts of payday loans, college debt, and mortgages on household finances.

Researchers from around the country will present their findings at the annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Anyone with an interest in retirement and disability policy is welcome. Registration will be open through Monday, July 29. For those unable to attend, the event will be live-streamed. The agenda lists all of the studies.

Here are a few:

  • Why are 401(k)/IRA Balances Substantially Below Potential?
  • The Impacts of Payday Loan Use on the Financial Well-being of OASDI and SSI Beneficiaries
  • The Causes and Consequences of State Variation in Healthcare Spending for Individuals with Disabilities
  • Forecasting Survival by Socioeconomic Status and Implications for Social Security Benefits
  • What is the Extent of Opioid Use among Disability Applicants? …

Learn More

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