Posts Tagged "COVID-19"

Low-income Spend Tax Credit on Food, Rent

The fate of the recent expansion of the federal child tax credit is uncertain in the ongoing budget negotiations in Congress. What is clear is that poor and low-income families are putting the increased assistance to good use.

Low-income families figureNine out of 10 families earning less than $35,000 are spending the money on one or more essential living expenses, which include food, utilities, housing, clothing or education needs like books and after-school programs, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The American Rescue Plan passed in March temporarily increased the credit from $2,000 to $3,600 per year per child for kids under age 6 and to $3,000 for older kids and teenagers. In another temporary provision in the legislation, the IRS sends the credit to families every month in the form of a monthly payment.

The child tax credit is also now fully refundable, which means that low-income people are eligible for the full credit even if they pay little or no income taxes. If the budget negotiations make this a permanent feature of the credit, the IRS would extend the federal assistance to 27 million more children in low-income families.

Unfortunately, the center estimates, there are some 4 million children in families with very low incomes that aren’t receiving the monthly payments, either because they didn’t file taxes in 2019 and 2020 or didn’t receive an economic relief check from the federal government. The IRS has created an online tool for parents to sign up and start receiving the credit.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities asked the people it surveyed about their specific uses for the monthly cash payments. Six out of 10 families earning under $35,000 said they are spending the money on food. About half are paying their utilities or housing expenses. Even the non-essential expenses seem like good uses for the extra funds, including car payments, childcare, and paying down debt.

Higher-income families also buy necessities with the extra cash. But low-income families struggle more to pay for their basic living expenses, and the center said they are using more of the money from the tax credit to pay for them. …Learn More

Elderly lady looking out the window

Caregivers Lament Elderly’s COVID Isolation

The magnitude of the tragedy is unfathomable: Americans have lost nearly 187,000 family members living in nursing homes to COVID-19.

Even when residents survive outbreaks in the facilities, their family caregivers experience trauma. Barred from visiting residents during the lockdowns, caregivers observed – on Zoom, over the phone, or from the other side of a nursing home window – loved ones suffering from the devastating impact of isolation.

“To think in her final year[s] when she is most vulnerable and most in need of love and support from her children and was denied this for 6 months is in my opinion devastating,” one caregiver said in a survey of 518 caregivers, the vast majority of them women and mainly daughters.

Granted, nursing homes – and the entire country – were not prepared for a once-in-a-century pandemic that has been difficult to control, given that COVID-19 is often asymptomatic. The lockdowns were a health precaution. Many nursing homes were also put in an untenable position when COVID-19 created staff shortages as nursing assistants and other workers took time off after contracting the disease or simply quit their jobs. And perhaps better communication between nursing home staff and family members would have eased some of the concerns.

Nevertheless, the caregivers’ perceptions of what unfolded inside nursing homes are alarming. “Anger,” “helplessness” and “heartbreak” were common reactions, conveyed in the survey compiled in the Journal of Aging & Social Policy.

The situation became so untenable for 30 of the caregivers surveyed that they pulled their parent or family member out of a facility and brought them home to live with them.

Four themes pervaded their descriptions of what their loved ones were going through: social isolation, cognitive and emotional decline, inhumane care, and a lack of oversight at the long-term care facilities.

The source of many caregivers’ concerns were nursing homes’ decisions to confine residents to their rooms to prevent contagion. But one caregiver said that while her mother’s facility went to great lengths to keep her healthy, the staff did little to ease her isolation: “Almost no effort has been made to ensure [her] mental health due to the isolation. Staff rarely stay and visit with Mom, no special in-room activities or stimulation has been attempted.” …Learn More

700,000 Retirees are Behind on Mortgages

Boy and grandma playing soccerIn the second half of 2020, the number of retired homeowners who fell behind on their mortgage payments doubled to about 1 million per month.

By July of this year, it had dropped to 680,000 retirees. The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which issued the report on homeowners over age 65, said about 12 percent of this population is vulnerable to imminent foreclosure and possibly homelessness. Some of the people who are having the hardest time paying their loans either have disabilities or are over 75.

But most the retirees in the CFPB report are largely reliant on Social Security, so their income is stable. To understand why they’re having problems paying the mortgage requires reading the tea leaves in the CFPB report. More than half of the retirees with past due mortgages live with at least two other people, including children and teenagers.

Lower-income people in multigenerational households typically share the burden of paying their living expenses. If a retired homeowner’s adult family member lost a job because of the pandemic, the homeowner might not be getting the money she needs to pay the mortgage. The CFPB survey confirms this is occurring: more than a third of older homeowners who are behind on their mortgages said a family member was unemployed.

Many of the people who are struggling had less than $25,000 in retirement income or were people of color. Their family members in the multigenerational households – presumably people of color – also may have worked in lower-paid jobs and bore the brunt of last year’s layoffs and reduced hours at work. …Learn More

Older Americans Felt Lonely in Pandemic

Last year, millions of older Americans went into hiding to protect themselves from the ravages of COVID-19.

Did the isolation take a psychological toll? How did they respond to infrequent contact with friends and family? Researchers in a recent webinar tried to understand the unique phenomenon of loneliness in a modern pandemic.

Over 50 and lonelyWhat we know from the National Poll on Healthy Aging in the early months of the pandemic is that more than half of older workers and retirees between 50 and 80 said they “felt isolated from others” – twice the levels seen in 2018.

In a different survey conducted every two months for most of last year, loneliness was “common and it was incredibly persistent during the first six months of the pandemic,” said Lindsay Kobayashi, a University of Michigan epidemiologist involved in the COVID-19 Coping Study, a survey of adults over age 55.

Two groups in particular suffered rates of loneliness that were twice as high as their peers: older people who live alone and residents of senior communities and nursing homes, where staff often separated the residents or confined them to their rooms in an attempt to protect their health.

A larger share of Black Americans also expressed feelings of loneliness than whites and Hispanics, and women were generally more lonely than men. “I’m very afraid that we are going to get so used to being alone, on our own, by ourselves that we won’t reconnect the way we need to,” a 76-year-old woman told the Coping Study researchers last fall.

But the news isn’t all bad. Feelings of loneliness, especially among the oldest retirees, had subsided a bit as early as November as news reports emerged that the vaccines were effective. Older people also found ways to cope with their isolation, and some even felt the pandemic gave them a renewed sense of purpose, according to a pair of studies in The Gerontologist. …Learn More

Healthcare Deductibles: the Burden Grows

At $140 billion, the nation’s unpaid medical bills are the single largest form of past due debt. One thing driving this is no doubt rising deductibles for health insurance.

Health Insurance CartoonA third of insured Americans said in a survey that it is difficult to pay the deductibles in their employer health insurance plans and in the policies sold on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplaces.

Among employer-sponsored insurance plans, policies with high deductibles are becoming more pervasive, even in large corporations. Employers are choosing high-deductible plans in part to keep their workers’ monthly premiums at a reasonable level – a tradeoff that is inherent in health insurance.

But the sky-high cost of medical care can quickly run-up out-of-pocket spending in years when someone in the family becomes very ill or needs surgery. Average deductibles exceed $3,000 for a single worker’s policy in half of the U.S. companies with less than 200 workers. The family plan deductibles exceed $6,000 in more than 40 percent of small companies.

ACA plan deductibles are rising in almost every state and have surpassed $4,000 per year, on average, in 11 states from Arizona and Michigan to Oregon. A variety of plans are available on the exchanges, including plans with lower deductibles for people willing to pay higher premiums. But ACA premiums have also been rising, though the federal government has temporarily increased the premium subsidies as part of COVID-19 relief.

New research appearing in the July issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) estimates that medical bills made up more than half of all the consumer debt in collections last year. And the data are through June 2020 and don’t even reflect the full cost of caring for COVID patients. …Learn More

Elderly couple at a window

Retirement Researchers to Meet Aug. 5-6

The pandemic will be on the marquee at this year’s annual meeting of retirement and disability researchers.

COVID-19 has encroached on every aspect of older Americans’ lives, from their day-to-day work and home life to their retirement planning. Researchers will present studies on three impacts of the pandemic in presentations funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration.

The event will be held over two days, Thursday and Friday, Aug. 5 and 6, from noon to 4 p.m. The event will be virtual again this year and anyone can sign up to attend for free.

The first study on the agenda will explore the pandemic’s impact on older workers’ ability or willingness to work and on their retirement decisions. And for the adults who lost their jobs during COVID-19’s economic downturn, a second study will explain whether the slump will affect their future Social Security benefits. In the final study relating to the pandemic, researchers will assess whether the relief bills passed by Congress helped older people.

Other prominent topics of discussion include retirement planning and retirees’ financial security. These will include new findings on workers’ decisions about saving, retirees’ decisions about spending, and the financial adjustments couples make after their children leave home.

The final major topic is federal benefits for people with disabilities. The presentations here include the relationship between the benefits and two government programs: food stamps and workers compensation insurance.

Summaries of the working papers will be posted online for the meetings. …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