Drawing of Arthritis

Same Arthritis. But Some Feel More Pain

The X-rays look very similar for two 60-year-old women with arthritic knees.

But the less-educated woman has more severe pain than the person who graduated college.

A new study of men and women finds that the degree of knee-joint deterioration visible in an X-ray isn’t the primary reason one person experiences more knee pain than someone else. Instead, the overwhelming reason is knee strain caused by obesity and the toll taken by physically demanding jobs – both of which are more common among less-educated workers.

The researchers focused on knee arthritis, because musculoskeletal pain is one of the leading causes of Social Security benefit payments to people who develop a disability and can no longer work.

Understanding what’s behind the pain differences is important, because the need for workers in certain jobs requiring physical strength – home health aides, janitors, and construction workers are examples – is expected to increase in the future.

Given this growing demand and predictions of a continued rise in obesity, the researchers conclude that “pain is expected to contribute to an increase” over time in the percentage of the population who will be impaired by their pain.

The people in the study fell into three educational groups: a high school degree or less; some college; or a four-year college degree. The researchers also had information about their occupations, as well as several data sources that gauge the severity of their knee pain, including the ability to do things like walking a quarter of a mile.

Knee arthritis worsens with age. However, a surge in reports of severe knee pain came about a decade earlier for people with no more than a high school degree than the surge for college graduates. …Learn More

Street worker working at night

Public-Sector Disability is Fairly Generous

About one in four state and local government employees – some 6.5 million people – do not participate in the Social Security system. They get their disability insurance, as well as their pensions, from their employers.

Whether the coverage is more or less generous than Social Security disability depends on the individual worker’s circumstance and how the state or local employer calculates benefits. But a new study concludes that public-sector workers who have a disability generally receive benefits that are at least as generous as the federal benefits.

To compare them, researchers at the Center for Retirement Research had to construct a database with each state’s and locality’s eligibility requirements and benefit payments. The sample consisted of 67 different disability programs, which cover a majority of the U.S. workers who don’t pay into Social Security.

The main thing Social Security and the public-sector have in common is eligibility – a 35-year-old must have five years of employment to receive federal disability and four to six years under most public-sector programs. One way they differ is that most state and local governments have a more liberal definition of what qualifies as a disability. Social Security pays benefits to a worker who can no longer do any job. Public-sector benefits go to a worker who can’t continue doing his current job.

The disability benefits are also calculated differently. Social Security’s progressive formula is the most generous to low-wage workers, because it replaces a higher percentage of their past earnings. But each state and local government uses the same formula for all of its workers, regardless of their earnings, and the formula gives more credit to employees who have been with their employer the longest.

What does all this add up to? The older public-sector workers, who are most at risk of developing a disability, receive relatively generous protection under the state and local programs, because the eligibility requirements are less strict than Social Security’s and because the benefits for most long-tenured employees replace a higher percentage of their earnings.

Older people who moved into the public sector late in their careers are in a different situation. …Learn More

low-income older workers

Financial Survival of Low-Income Retirees

Watch these six videos and walk in the shoes of low-income older Americans. It’s an arduous journey.

Social Security is the primary or only source of income for the retirees who agreed to be interviewed for the videos. Since their income doesn’t cover their expenses, they live with family, frequent the Salvation Army, and continually stress about money.

“You’re lucky if you come out even or a little behind” at the end of the month, said Howard Sockel. The 81-year-old resident of Skokie, Illinois, supports two sons – one with autism and one unemployed – on his Social Security, a small Post Office pension, and credit cards.

The older workers who were interviewed are on the same road to a difficult retirement. Cathy Wydra, who was 64 when the videos were made, shares the expense of a two-bedroom apartment in a Chicago suburb with her daughter and grandson and sleeps on an inflatable mattress.

“It’s a little scary. I think, am I going to be able to retire in two years?” she says.

One out of three older people can’t cover their costs comfortably, often because they lack savings, said Sarah Parker with the Financial Health Network, which produced the videos in conjunction with AARP Foundation and Chase. “You often have to rely on debt, and that’s a very precarious financial situation to be in,” she said.

The video topics are: “When Fixed Incomes Fall Short,” “All in the Family,” “The Caregiver Conundrum,” “A Shock to the System,” “When Retirement Won’t Work,” and “Good Advice Never Gets Old.”

Some of the retirees admitted to making strategic mistakes around their retirement finances. Many other people have made these same mistakes, but they are catastrophic for people who were already on shaky ground. Verner Reid, a former Chicago teacher, was forced to retire when she became ill. Rather than a teacher’s pension, she took a lump sum and is now short on funds – “the mistake of my life.” …
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Lost and Found art

Pension, 401k Registry Bill Resurfaces

When COVID-19 throws people out of work, their chances of retiring comfortably can deteriorate rapidly. What better time to find a new way to help?

A perennial proposal just reintroduced in Congress would do some good: establish an online database of employer retirement plans so workers and retirees can locate old pensions and 401(k) accounts.

Workers are increasingly responsible for making sure they have enough money to retire. But moving from job to job is now the norm – the one-employer career is a distant memory – and pensions get left behind and 401(k)s fall by the wayside. People who try to find old plans often can’t locate employers that have changed names, merged, relocated, or terminated a plan.

The primary way to find retirement plans now is through the lost property records kept by each state. But Anna-Marie Tabor, director of the Pension Action Center in Boston, which recovers lost pensions and 401(k)s for the center’s clients, said billions more in unclaimed funds can’t be located in the state records, because employers are not required to turn over plan information to the states. Also, 401(k)s are hard to find since many employers transfer small accounts to third-party IRAs without the account owner’s awareness.

Tabor argues in the Journal of Aging and Social Policy that the COVID-19 recession brings new urgency to passing the proposed Retirement Savings Lost and Found Act of 2020, especially for low-income workers hit hardest by layoffs and older workers who are running out of time to repair their finances prior to retiring.

“Connecting people with money they’ve already earned is an easy and inexpensive way to support the economic recovery,” she said. …Learn More

Retirement Research Presented Virtually

A video call

Like much in life under a pandemic, the research presentations for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium’s annual meeting are going virtual.

This year’s online meeting will also be scaled down from the traditional two days to one: Thursday, Aug. 6.

The purpose of the meeting, which is usually held in Washington, D.C., is for academics from universities and think tanks to describe their latest research to colleagues, policy experts, financial professionals, and the press. Topics this year will include taxes in retirement, federal disability insurance, housing, health, and labor markets. The U.S. Social Security Administration has funded the research and is sponsoring the meeting.

The agenda and information about registration are available online, and participants can register anytime. Questions for the researchers can be submitted during the presentations via a moderator.

One fresh idea being explored this year is taxes in retirement. Taxes are central to whether retirees have enough money to cover their essential expenses, but households that are approaching retirement age may not factor the need to pay federal and state taxes into their planning. Despite the importance of this issue, only a handful of existing studies have tried to estimate the tax burden. This paper fills the gap.

One session will feature a pair of papers looking at whether cognitive decline has a detrimental effect on older Americans’ finances. One will explore whether dementia leads to financial problems overall, and the other will focus exclusively on debt.

Researchers will also try to resolve a conundrum in the disability field: why are applications for federal benefits declining at the same time that Americans’ health is deteriorating? One hypothesis is that jobs are becoming less physically demanding. A second disability study will produce a publicly available database for researchers who want to examine the local factors affecting applications.

The agenda lists all of the papers that will be presented. Learn More

Some with Severe Mental Disability Work

Artwork of stairs

People with intellectual disabilities, autism, or schizophrenia have high rates of unemployment. But a new study finds that some can find part-time or even full-time jobs with the help of coaches funded by the government.

Having a coach doesn’t guarantee that a person with a disability will get a job. But in a 2019 study, the people who received this support “were significantly more likely to become employed” than those who did not get the help, according to researchers for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

To get and keep these jobs requires a lot of personal attention. The federal-state Vocational Rehabilitation program provides coaches – often at non-profits – who find the right jobs for their clients and then act as a liaison to smooth out the bumps and guide the employer-employee relationship.

Because the cognitive disabilities of the individuals in the study varied so much, the researchers broke them out into nine groups, based on their specific disabilities, education levels, and likelihood of benefitting from the program. In all but one of the nine groups, the people who received support had significantly higher employment rates than those who did not receive the help.

Between a third and half of the people with coaching support had a job, the researchers found. Among the people who did not receive any support, employment rates were as low as one in four. …Learn More

Pandemic Puts More Retirements at Risk

Worsening Retirement Outlook figureAmericans’ retirement outlook has gone from bleak to bleaker.

The unemployment caused by COVID-19 has pushed up the share of working-age households not able to afford their current standard of living in retirement from 50 percent to 55 percent, according to a new analysis by the Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog.

The analysis updates a previous estimate, based on 2016 data, to include the harmful effects of surging unemployment. The researchers estimate that perhaps 30 percent of workers – far more than is reflected in the monthly jobless rate – could be affected by layoffs now and in the future. They did not factor in the recession’s impact on the housing and financial markets, which could make things worse.

Unemployment hurts retirement in a variety of ways. Laid-off workers’ paychecks vanish immediately, but they may also earn less in the next job. The depressed earnings, over months or years, reduce the money flowing into their 401(k)s, and the amount they’ll receive in pensions and future Social Security benefits. It may also force some to spend down savings that, had they not lost their jobs, would’ve been preserved for retirement.

Interestingly, the impact on low-income workers is mixed. In one way, they’re protected by Social Security’s progressive benefit formula, which will replace a higher percentage of their earnings as their lifetime earnings decline. But low-income workers have had more layoffs, which widens the gap in their retirement savings – between what they can save and what they should be saving – more than for higher-income people.

The 2020 recession will impact retirement “in a very different way” than the Great Recession, the researchers said. This time, “the destruction is occurring more through widespread unemployment and less through a collapse in the value of financial assets and housing.” However, the lessons of the previous recession can’t be dismissed either. …Learn More