November 26, 2019
The Art of Persuasion and Social Security
Retirees could get substantially more in their Social Security check if they would just wait longer – up to age 70 – to sign up.
But only a tiny fraction of workers make it to 70, and more than a third get the minimum monthly benefits because they start them as soon as the program allows, at 62. A Bocconi University professor and three UCLA professors have set about trying to change minds by testing 13 ways of encouraging older workers to hold off and lock in a larger Social Security check.
The techniques, which they tried on various groups of workers between ages 40 and 61, ranged widely in approach. But two of the most successful tests had one thing in common: participants were asked to engage in a little reflection about the personal impact of choosing when to start receiving their Social Security. This approach departed from the more common strategy of trying to influence people by feeding them financial or other information.
Everyone began the same way: they saw a table showing how much more they would receive from Social Security for each year after 62 that they delayed. One of the most effective tests was an exercise in self-reflection. The participants were asked to list “their own reasons” for how delaying would help them personally. Only after this step did they list the reasons to start their benefits at a younger age.
The order of these requests was intentional and intended to counteract the tendency by most people to focus on their short-term desires. This group reported that they intended to sign up 10 months later than the control group, which wasn’t exposed to the test, according to the study conducted for the Retirement Research Consortium. …Learn More
November 19, 2019
Social Security Eases Racial Disparities
Social Security is a major source of income for most retirees. It is even more important to blacks and Hispanics in a nation that is becoming increasingly diverse.
Social Security is helping to even out the racial and ethnic inequities in income and wealth that exist in the working population and continue in old age, according to a study by the Center for Retirement Research for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.
The researchers estimate how much Social Security reduces this inequality by comparing retirement wealth for white, black, and Hispanic-Americans.
Wealth is defined broadly to include obvious things like home equity and financial assets such as 401(k) retirement accounts, certificates of deposit, and money market accounts. In addition, the researchers converted the income that workers get from Social Security and defined benefit pensions into wealth by estimating the total value today of their future benefit checks.
The estimates of wealth, when Social Security is excluded, reveal enormous disparities. The typical white worker in his early- to mid-50s can expect to have about $177,000 in non-Social Security wealth in retirement, compared with just $24,000 for blacks – about a 7 to 1 ratio. Hispanics have $35,000 – or a 5 to 1 ratio.
These ratios improve dramatically, dropping to roughly 2 to 1 when Social Security is added in. The white worker has $378,000 in total wealth, compared with $173,000 for blacks and $186,000 for Hispanics.
Social Security’s progressive benefit formula reduces retirement inequality by replacing more of the income of lower-paid workers. The program also provides nearly universal coverage, whereas many workers do not have access to retirement plans at work. These features help black and Hispanic workers, who tend to have lower incomes and are also less likely to have retirement plans.
“Social Security is the most equal form of retirement wealth and the most important source for most minority households,” the researchers conclude. …Learn More
November 12, 2019
From Disability to Low Retirement Income
By their early 60s, four out of five workers have chronic health problems. One in four has developed some type of physical or cognitive limitation.
If these problems force them to stop working, they can apply to Social Security for disability. But developing a disability late in a career still has long-term financial consequences. These workers not only give up their steady paychecks. Their preparations for retirement are also derailed at a critical time.
A 2018 study in the Journal of Disability and Policy Studies quantifies the financial fallout. Four groups were compared, each ranging in age from 67 to 69. One started receiving disability benefits sometime between 58 and 62. A second group went on disability between 62 and Social Security’s full retirement age, which is 66 for most boomers. The other two groups claimed their regular retirement benefits. One signed up between the earliest age allowed – 62 – and the full retirement age, and one started their benefits after the full retirement age, which yields a larger monthly check.
Where each of the four groups falls in a ranking of retirement incomes is easy to predict: the earlier a worker starts disability benefits, the less income he’ll have. Healthy retirees, on the other hand, enjoy big rewards from continuing to work, saving in a 401(k), accruing pension credits, and delaying Social Security.
Household income for the last group to retire was $76,000 per year at ages 67 to 69, with Social Security providing only about a third of it, according to researchers at Mathematica who conducted the study for the Disability Research Consortium. Households that claimed a retirement benefit between 62 and the full retirement age had $48,000 in income, with 45 percent supplied by Social Security.
The retirees who had been on disability were far worse off in their late 60s. If they started receiving the benefits between 62 and their full retirement age, they had only $36,000 in household income in their late 60s – not even half the income of the late retirees. Social Security retirement benefits were the largest source of income, supplying two-thirds of it. …Learn More
October 22, 2019
Most Data Sets Agree on Retiree Income
What kind of financial shape are retirees in?
A 2017 study refocused attention on this old question, and it has taken on greater urgency as more and more baby boomers retire.
The study looked at the accuracy of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS) and confirmed earlier research showing that it dramatically under-estimates retirees’ income. The under-reporting in the CPS could raise concerns about the accuracy of other surveys that paint a less-than-rosy picture of retirement life.
To get to the bottom of things, the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) dug into other standard sources of survey data on retired households so they could be compared with CPS data. They found that the income estimates in the CPS were much lower than the others and clearly the outlier – the other four data sets roughly agreed on how much income retirees have.
The CRR researchers then selected one of the reliable sources of income data – the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) – to assess how retirees are faring. They concluded that around half of over-65 households may be experiencing difficulty maintaining the standard of living they enjoyed while they were working. The researchers based this on the rule of thumb that they need about 75 percent of their past employment earnings.
To be sure, every survey has its strengths and shortcomings, because they rely on what people say they are getting from their Social Security, retirement plans, and investments. …Learn More
June 4, 2019
Husbands Ignore Future Widow’s Needs
The amount of money a widow receives from Social Security can mean the difference between comfort and hardship.
Husbands have a lot of control over how this will turn out. Each additional year they postpone collecting their own Social Security adds another 7.3 percent to the amount a future widow will receive every month from the program’s survivor benefit.
But husbands can be a stubborn lot.
Previous research has shown that a large minority fail to take their wives into account when deciding to start their Social Security. A new study confirms this in an online experiment designed to raise husbands’ awareness of the financial impact their claiming age could have on a spouse. The men’s ages ranged from 45 to 62.
In the experiment, the researchers displayed Social Security’s benefit information to the men three different ways. In the first format, a control group saw the basic information: the husband’s full retirement benefit, and then a link to a second page displaying his benefits for various claiming ages. A second format also displayed his full benefit, but the link went to a page with estimates of his widow’s survivor benefits, based on the husband’s various claiming ages – the later he files, the more she would receive. The third format had the same information as the second format, but it was presented on a single web page.
Regardless of the way the survivor benefits were displayed, the men weren’t persuaded to postpone their own benefits to one day help their widows. Potential explanations include their feelings about work, existing health issues, and whether they will get a defined benefit pension from an employer.
Whatever their motivation, simply educating husbands on the financial impact of choosing a claiming age “is unlikely to improve widows’ economic outcomes,” concluded the study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
The impact of widowhood is often significant. An average widow’s total income drops 35 percent when a husband passes away, the researchers estimated from financial data for married men who had retired. The earlier the husband had started his benefits, the larger the drop in the widow’s income after the couple’s second Social Security check stops coming in. …Learn More
May 2, 2019
Retiring Can Strain Food Budgets
More than 10 percent of the nation’s retirees struggle with hunger.
New research offers one explanation: when people retire and give up a regular paycheck, they sometimes adjust to having less income by reducing their food intake.
After retiring, the men in the study ate 17 percent less protein, which becomes more important as people age. Their total calorie intake also dropped 19 percent, and their Vitamin E consumption fell 16 percent, on average, according to researchers at the University of Michigan and University of Delaware. The retirees also cut back on several other nutrients.
This contradicts previous studies, which had failed to uncover a link between diet and retirement income. Skeptical of the findings, the researchers did an exhaustive study that used various types of analyses and several datasets to follow male heads of households from employment through retirement. They controlled for race, education, household size, and health.
They consistently found, across several data sources, that a drop in income reduces food intake. In fact, the effect was so large that it exceeded the impact of another dramatic financial event: unemployment among working-age people.
Although a small minority of seniors are threatened by hunger, it’s a serious problem. …Learn More
April 11, 2019
Our Financial Status: Race Really Matters
Racial differences in workers’ finances are nothing less than shocking: whites have roughly six times more wealth than Latinos and black-Americans and double the income.
These age-old disparities will be as familiar to readers as they are to economists. But a clear and updated picture of their magnitude was presented in a recent study.
In 2016, U.S. household wealth, regardless of race, still had not rebounded to 2007 levels. But whites made a lot more progress climbing out of the hole created by the plunging stock market and housing crash that ushered in the 2008 recession.
The researchers examined changes in each group’s net worth over a decade. Pre-recession, white households had five times more wealth than blacks; this ratio grew to 7-to-1 in 2016. The white-Latino wealth ratio doubled from 3-to-1 to nearly 6-to-1.
The 2016 data are the most recent from the Federal Reserve’s triennial survey of American households’ personal finances.
The earnings picture isn’t as dire but the gap is still large. White households are earning slightly more than they did in 2007, and blacks and Latinos are not. In 2016, white Americans had two times more income than either minority group.
Many factors, notably education, influence how well someone does. But, clearly, race does matter. …