August 20, 2019
Modifying a Retirement Plan is Tricky
Employers beware: changing your retirement plan’s design can have unfortunate, unintended consequences for your employees.
That’s what happened to the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) for federal workers, says a new study by a team of researchers for the NBER Retirement and Disability Research Center.
Like many private-sector savings plans, the $500 billion TSP – one of the nation’s largest retirement plans – has automatic enrollment. Federal employees can make their own decision about how much they want to save and, in a separate decision, how to invest their money. But if they don’t do anything, their employer will automatically do it for them.
In 2015, the TSP changed its automatic, or default, investment from a government securities fund to a lifecycle fund invested in a mix of stocks and bonds with the potential for higher returns than the government fund. However, the employer did not change the plan’s default savings rate for workers – 3 percent of their gross pay. (The government matches this contribution with a 3 percent contribution to employees’ accounts.)
After the TSP switched to the lifecycle fund, the new employees at one federal agency – the Office of Personnel Management – started saving less, the researchers said.
This probably occurred because, in passively accepting the TSP’s new lifecycle fund – a more appealing option than the old government securities fund – they were also passively accepting the relatively low default 3 percent contribution.
Employees seem to “make asset and contribution decisions jointly, rather than separately,” the researchers concluded. …Learn More
June 11, 2019
Self-employed Lose Some Social Security
Self-employed and gig workers who fail to report all of their earnings to the federal government will pay a price: a smaller monthly Social Security check when they retire.
Gauging the magnitude of this problem is tricky since the IRS doesn’t know how much is not being reported by a group of workers not easily identified in the available data. As a first step, new research derived estimates of the unpaid self-employment taxes that result from the under-reporting, using a combination of U.S. Census data on the workers’ incomes and past studies on the prevalence of the problem.
Specifically, the researchers found that more than 3 million self-employed people – construction contractors, small business owners, and other independent contractors – did not disclose some or all of their earnings to the IRS in 2014. This under-reporting translated to unpaid self-employment taxes of $3.9 billion to Social Security and another $900 million to Medicare.
An additional 2.3 million Americans sell goods and services on platforms like Airbnb, Lyft, and Etsy every month. A large share of these gig workers are not reporting all of their income either. Their under-reporting resulted in an estimated non-payment of $2 billion to Social Security and $500 million to Medicare in 2014.
In fact, the estimates are conservative, and the true level of the missing payroll taxes is probably larger, said the study’s authors, a tax expert at American University and a private policy consultant.
Independent contractors are most likely to be baby boomers over 55, while Generation Xers are more common on the online platforms. Self-employed people fail to disclose earnings for a couple of reasons: they are confused about the tax law or they want to increase their disposable income. But responsibility also falls on the platform companies that process payments for their workers and sellers, the researchers said, because the companies are not required to file 1099 earnings forms with the IRS for a majority of their workers.
Whatever the reasons for the underreporting, self-employed workers will one day get less from Social Security. This study raises an obvious question for future research: how much less? …Learn More
May 7, 2019
Social Security Benefits Stump Workers
A majority of workers do not know a crucial piece of information about their retirement: how much married couples can expect to receive from Social Security.
The program will one day be the most important source of income for millions of Americans. But they showed their lack of understanding of how benefits work in a recent survey by researchers at RAND.
A previous blog covering the same survey reported on workers’ poor knowledge of the survivor benefit for widows. This blog focuses on the other benefit for couples: the spousal benefit.
Social Security works a little differently for a married couple than for a single worker, whose future benefit check will simply be determined by his or her earnings history.
For the highest-earning spouse in a working couple – usually the husband – the size of his monthly check is also based on his past earnings. But his wife’s benefit is complicated. If she didn’t work, the rules entitle her to a spousal benefit equal to half of her retired husband’s benefit. If she did work, her benefit is based on her work history – with an exception. If her benefit is less than half of her husband’s, Social Security increases her monthly check to half of his check.
Only one in three of the people surveyed understood how this works, probably partly because of the complexity.
Most workers also had misconceptions about other aspects of the program. For example, only about one in four knew that a couple must be married for more than a year for the lower-paid person to receive the spousal benefit. If a couple has divorced, the lower-earning ex-spouse gets the spousal benefit only if the marriage lasted more than 10 years. Again, just one in four workers knew this important rule.
Couples of all ages should know the rules about a program they will rely on – no retirement plan is complete without this information. …Learn More
April 18, 2019
Know the Social Security Survivor Benefit
My divorced aunt did not work while she was raising eight children. After her former husband died, she was pleasantly surprised to learn she could start collecting his Social Security.
She has a lot of company. Nearly two out of three men and women in a new survey by RAND were unaware of this rule: a divorced person who was married for at least 10 years is entitled to the deceased spouses’s survivor benefit. In fact, she would even get the benefit if he remarried.
In the case of couples who were still married when the spouse died, the marriage had to last only nine months for the survivor to get the benefit. Fewer than half of the people surveyed by the RAND researchers were aware of this rule.
The responses were no more impressive for some of the other questions about Social Security’s survivor benefit. This benefit is based on the higher-earning spouse’s work record – typically the husband. Even a wife who used to work and is collecting Social Security based on her work record is eligible to switch to her husband’s benefit after he dies – if his check is larger than hers.
To make the switch in this particular case, the widow must file with the Social Security Administration either online or at a local office. (However, if the wife never worked and is at retirement age, she will automatically start receiving her late-husband’s check.)
Unmarried partners sometimes operate under a misconception too: three out of four think, incorrectly, either that unmarried people can get the survivor benefit, or they don’t know.
One thing to note about this study is that Americans of all ages were surveyed, and it is not surprising that young adults would have little knowledge of program benefits intended for widows. But age doesn’t seem to bring wisdom: the results were equally dismal in a similar earlier survey of individuals who were at least 50 years old.
April is National Social Security Month. Couples should celebrate by learning more about how Social Security works – it’s critical to a widow’s standard of living. …Learn More
August 30, 2018
Why US Workers Have Lost Leverage
A 1970 contract negotiation between GE and its unionized workforce is unimaginable today.
A strike then slowed production for months at 135 factories around the country. With inflation running at 6 percent annually, the company offered pay raises of 3 percent to 5 percent a year for three years. The union rejected the offer, and a federal mediator was brought in. GE eventually agreed to a minimum 25 percent pay raise over 40 months.
“They said we couldn’t, but we damn sure did it,” one staffer said about his union’s victory.
Former Wall Street Journal editor Rick Wartzman tells this story in his book about the rise and fall of American workers through the labor relations that have played out at corporate stalwarts like GE, General Motors, and Walmart.
Critics use examples like GE to argue that unions had it too good – and they have a point. But that’s old news. What’s relevant today is that the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, and blue-collar and middle-class Americans seem barely able to keep their heads above water even in a long-running economic boom.
New York University economist Edward Wolff in a January report estimated that workers lost much ground in the 2008 recession and never recovered. The typical family’s net worth, adjusted for inflation, is no higher than it was in 1983 and far below the pre-recession peak. Granted, workers’ wages have gone up recently, though barely faster than inflation, but they had been flat for 15 years. Workers are also funding more of their retirement and health insurance.
Wartzman’s theme in “The End of Loyalty: the Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America” is that the system no longer works for regular people, because companies have weakened or broken the social contract they once had with their workers.
The loss of employer loyalty is one way to look at the state of labor today. The loss of workers’ leverage against global corporations is another. …Learn More