June 18, 2019
Vignettes Improve Social Security Savvy
There’s an informal rule in journalism: put too many numbers in an article, and readers will drop like flies. A similar phenomenon might also be at work when someone looks at a Social Security statement filled with numbers.
The statement, which is intended to help workers plan for retirement, shows the size of the monthly benefit check increasing incrementally as the claiming age increases. Yet many people still choose to claim their benefits soon after becoming eligible at 62, which means smaller Social Security checks, possibly for decades.
In a recent experiment, a friendlier approach proved effective in helping people process this information: tell a story. Researchers at the Center for Economic and Social Research at the University of Southern California created a fictional 3-minute video of a 62-year-old man talking with a financial adviser about retirement. The researchers showed it to workers between 50 and 60 years old.
Here’s one exchange in the video:
Adviser: [Social Security has] a tradeoff: you can decide to claim earlier. In that case, you would have a lower monthly benefit, but you’d get to enjoy these benefits for a longer period.
Worker: So if I claim sooner, I get less money per month? …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
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 21, 2019
Retirement Dates Don’t Always Fit Plan
Today, half of U.S. workers say they want to work past age 65 – in the 1990s, only 16 percent did.
Apparently, people are getting the message that, if they want to be comfortable in retirement, they will need to work as long as possible. However, good intentions don’t pan out for more a third of workers closing in on retirement age. And the older the age they had planned to retire, the more they fall short of the goal.
Researchers at the Center for Retirement Research, which sponsors this blog, wanted to uncover why people do not follow through. Their study was based on a survey that asked people in their late 50s when they planned to retire and then watched them over the next several years to see what they did and why.
Two factors – the researchers call them shocks – play important roles in pushing people to retire early. The big factor is health. One health-related reason is intuitive: when older people develop a new condition, they become more likely to retire earlier than they’d planned. A second reason is that, when setting a date, they over-estimate how long they’ll be able to work if they have already developed health conditions like arthritis, heart disease, or emphysema. …Learn More
May 14, 2019
20,000 Savers So Far in New Oregon IRA
About a third of retired households end up relying almost exclusively on Social Security, because they didn’t save for retirement. Social Security is not likely to be enough.
To get Oregon workers better prepared, the state took the initiative in 2017 and started rolling out a program of individual IRA accounts for workers without a 401(k) on the job. The program, OregonSaves, was designed to ensure that employees, mainly at small businesses, can save and invest safely.
Employers are required to enroll all their employees and deduct 5 percent from their paychecks to send to their state-sponsored IRAs –1 million people are potentially eligible for OregonSaves. But the onus to save ultimately falls on the individual who, once enrolled, is allowed to opt out of the program.
More than 60 percent of the workers so far are sticking with the program. As of last November, about 20,000 of them had accumulated more than $10 million in their IRAs. And the vast majority also stayed with the 5 percent initial contribution, even though they could reduce the rate. This year, the early participants’ contributions will start to increase automatically by 1 percent annually.
The employees who have decided against saving cited three reasons: they can’t afford it; they prefer not to save with their current employer; or they or their spouses already have a personal IRA or a 401(k) from a previous employer. Indeed, baby boomers are the most likely to have other retirement plans, and they participate in Oregon’s auto-IRA at a lower rate than younger workers.
Despite workers’ progress, the road to retirement security will be rocky. Two-thirds of the roughly 1,800 employers that have registered for OregonSaves are still getting their systems in place and haven’t taken the next step: sending payroll deductions to the IRA accounts.
The next question for the program will be: What impact will saving in the IRA have on workers’ long-term finances? …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