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A brief history of Social Security benefit claiming goes like this: In the beginning, benefits were available only at age 65. In 1956, reduced benefits were made available to women as early as age 62. In 1961, this treatment extended to men. Over time the age people claimed benefits steadily decreased and the average age for retirement stuck at 62 years old. In 1983, when facing an imminent shortage of funds, the age for full benefits increased from 65 to 67. While this reform did not change the earliest age you could claim Social Security, it reduced benefits further for early claimers. Currently, claiming benefits at age 62 instead of age 67 results in 25 percent less in every monthly check. So, $938 per month rather than $1,250 per month. Get it? Good!

In the past decade, the age of claiming Social Security benefits steadily increased as people began to comprehend how much money they lose by retiring early. That is, until the recent economic recession. A brief from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College shows a large increase in early benefit claims from 2007 to 2009. More than 5 percent of the eligible population were enticed to claim Social Security at age 62, which was not part of their plan before the crisis. These individuals will now receive a reduced benefit for the rest of their lives.

Simulations by the authors suggest that compared to experiencing no recession, people claimed benefits about 10 months earlier than they planned, which reduced their monthly benefit by 8 percent. This many not seem like much now but every little bit helps when living on a fixed income. Ask an 82-year-old and she may tell you her Social Security check was plenty of income 20 years ago. Now she finds herself struggling to stay out of poverty.

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A recent post by the CRR shows that non-working Baby Boomers age 55 to 61 (ages ineligible for Social Security benefits) are wealthier now than non-working 55 to 61 year olds of the past. The post explores how they’ve accumulated the wealth and why they chose to leave the labor force. An important point of the article is that, though they find themselves wealthier than non-workers of the past, they still only have a median wealth figure of $98,000. This “isn’t a lot of money for a boomer with a long spell of retirement ahead of them.  Boomers who leave the labor force often put themselves at risk of depleting their 401(k) assets too soon.”

Full post from the Center for Retirement Research.

Post Introduction: “Baby boomers who’ve left the labor force in their pre-retirement years are in better financial shape than they once were.

The wealth of non-working Americans between ages 55 and 61 increased from $83,000 in 1992 to $98,000 in 2008, according to new research from the Urban Institute in Washington.  (Comparisons are in constant dollars.)

Potential explanations for this trend range from greater U.S. inequality that launched more boomers into the top wealth tier to a rise in the numbers of married men who don’t work – but have wives who do.  Barbara Butrica, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, said her study did not look into the “why” for the emerging group of voluntary non-workers who are approaching traditional retirement ages, married and single men in particular.  One possibility, she said, is that “they are leaving the labor force because they can afford to.”

…Read the full story

The Older Women’s League has come out with their 2012 Mother’s Day report. Their reports are always thorough, up-to-date, and readable. This year the topic is on women in the U.S. workforce and highlights what women are faced with as they grow older. As OWL’s president mentions in her message to readers, this is a timely report since mid-life and older women are the fastest growing segment of our workforce and the economic downturn presents new challenges in their ability to find work, keep their jobs, and build their retirement wealth.

Women and the Workforce: Challenges and Opportunities Facing Women as They Age

MDR2012

From the OWL National Website: “This year’s report looks at how factors such as unemployment and underemployment, pay inequality, caregiving, age and gender discrimination, and education, training, and technology are impacting women age 40 and older. The report highlights existing programs that produce real results and offer innovative solutions and policy-driven recommendations to expand economic diversity and accelerate our nation’s productivity.”

Last week I was asked to present high school students with information on women in the workforce and saving for retirement. One of my major goals was to instill the value of starting early. But I had the sense, maybe because I’m not too far from high school age myself, that my slides about compound interest and Roth IRAs would be particularly boring.

Rather than watch their eyes glaze over I added a new slide: A personal story about my mother, her life course, marital history and saving behavior. I wasn’t saying anything novel but by explaining compound interest this way I kept everyone’s attention. So, I encourage you to share this with the young people in your life and reflect on what it really means to save early and save often.

(For simplicity, the interest rate at all time points is 5%. In actuality, she gained more during her earlier life and has lost a lot during the recent recession).

This figure tells us two stories. Let’s begin with the story in blue, which is what really happened. At age 21, my mom got married and started working a new job. She was so excited to finally have her own money and be able to buy all the clothes she wanted and decorate their new house. My dad, however, didn’t think this was a good plan and told her, “Save your money! We both should be saving now for our future.” Reluctantly she saved, putting $2,000 away each year for her retirement. By the time her first child was born (me!) she had saved up $20,000.

In her 30’s she had another baby and raised my sister and me. She was not working or saving at this time but her $20,000 continued to grow. By 42 her marriage was on the rocks and she became divorced. Now, all that planning for her future had to be done alone. She spent a couple years searching for a new job and struggling with the change. Even so, the savings from her 20’s continued to grow. By 45 she found a new job and started her career over. She was getting nervous about her retirement savings and started putting away $5,000 a year. The savings from her new job were added the nice nest egg she had accumulated while she wasn’t working. The final blue bar shows an optimistic future where she continues to save each year, the economy improves and hopefully she reaches over $300,000 by retirement.

What is the reality of saving? Well, you can’t always save when you want to or need to and it’s hard to predict the future. For example, my mom couldn’t predict that we’d be in an economic recession right at the time most people her age start saving for retirement. The green bars show us what this path would look like for her. Nothing in her life has changed except that she didn’t save in her 20’s. Instead she chose to ignore my dad’s suggestion and spend her money on clothes, new furniture and all the other things she wanted. The message is clear: Saving early, even if it’s just a little, makes a huge difference for your future.

I can tell you honestly that most of my mom’s friends are extremely worried about their futures. They are in their 50’s, starting to save now and having a difficult time. She knows, though she hates to admit it, my dad was right.

Many older workers would like to retire slowly, decreasing their hours at work before completely retiring. With the current economic downturn, people are expressing interest in working longer. People have a lot of their identity wrapped up in their careers, so reducing your hours can be a smoother transition both psychologically and financially. But is this option available to everyone? The Boston College Center for Retirement Research answered this question in a report titled Phased Retirement: Problems and Prospect.

Phased retirement is a white-collar phenomenon and high income individuals who are White, wealthy and educated are more likely to be able to reduce their hours with their employer. Interestingly, 73% of employers interviewed said they would ‘work out’ a phased retirement plan for certain managerial or higher level employees. These informal policies dominate over formal procedures with older workers being kept on to train colleagues or new staff. Unfortunately, not all workers are given the same options.

Employers point to a variety of constraints that make it difficult for them to provide phased retirement options. Pension plans or paying health insurance for older part-time workers is a frequently named drawback. Employers also express interest in only keeping certain employees. In fact, phased options are often offered to the best or favored employees allowing the employer to weed out undesirable workers. Still, one of the main reasons a company did not have phased retirement was simply because their business did not want or need part-time work.

The good news is that phased retirement options continue to increase among companies. If you are interested in phased retirement talk to your employer. Many different arrangements can be made to accommodate both the worker and the company. Here are some tips:

  • Double check – does your employer already have a phased retirement program in place?
  • Determine your needs – what do you want and what options are realistically available to you?
  • Pension impacts – does your plan provide for phased retirement? how could it impact your benefits?
  • Health insurance – what will happen to your health benefits if you reduce your hours?
  • When can I start – does your employer have policies that could affect your decision? (for example: 6 months after you retire you can come back and work part-time)
  • Employer expectations – what will be expected of you and how will your role and responsibilities change?
  • Find more information from the Wall Street Journal and AARP’s Public Policy Institute

Today, after listening to the President speak, I started thinking about the economy’s impact on older Americans. I found an interesting report from The National Academies Press titled:  Assessing the Impact of Severe Economic Recession on the Elderly. You can read the document here, which summarizes a workshop called by The National Institute on Aging. The report’s main goal is to reflect on what we already know and what we need to learn about the current recession’s effect on older adults. Unfortunately, what we already know is quite bleak.

How People are Coping: All age groups are being affected by the recession but older workers are often unable to completely recover from these kinds of financial shocks. The most common ways people are coping with income loss are to reduce spending, reduce saving, utilize unemployment benefits, withdraw money from savings, get financial assistance from friends or family, and borrow money (i.e. credit cards, loans). Some older workers are also choosing to delay retirement as an additional coping method.

Our Health and Well-Being: Our health is being negatively effected by the economic recession. GDP is strongly, inversely related to mortality over the long term, and older workers who lose their jobs are at greater risk for certain health conditions than those who remain employed. Still the Gallup Well-Being Index found that people’s well-being significantly declined in the fall of 2008 but went back up substantially by May 2009. I am nervous, now that we lost our AAA rating and the current stock market is in turmoil, if people’s well-being will again decline.

Unemployment or Retirement: Unfortunately, older adults who lose their job are less likely to get hired back into the labor force compared to younger workers. Those who do find work are often making significantly less than they made at their previous job. Researchers find that age discrimination in the workplace continues to exist, particularly for older women. It is therefore not surprising that many older adults who lost their jobs are deciding to retire. This early retirement, however, could hurt future finances. Increases in Social Security’s full retirement age, less time to invest in your retirement accounts, fewer vested years with your employer, or simply having less in wages over your lifetime can all have negative effects on your finances in old age.

What Can You Do: The report summarizes a depressing situation and then has limited suggestions (and most of them seem pretty intuitive to me). I don’t know if it will tell you anything new but here they are along with my own comments:

  • Buy low, sell high – Experts suggest raising your contribution rates (if you can) to your stocks, bonds and pension accounts while the market is doing poorly. If the markets bounce back before you retire you may gain substantially (the younger you are the more you are likely to gain). If you are retired and have spare cash, consider moving it into low-risk funds so that you too may gain from the markets being low (Please consult a financial adviser who will learn about your personal situation. Do not take this as professional advice).
  • Reduce your spending – A no-brainer but often hard to do. Consider what you really need now and what can wait. Did you know that “I don’t need it” is the most common reason eligible individuals refuse welfare? Figure out what you really need, what you can live without, and what is most important to you.
  • Stay in your home – Selling now is not a great idea, so consider modifications if your home is currently not a safe place to grow old.
  • Keep your job – If possible, consider waiting to retire. If you have been laid off, consider looking for new employment and working a few more years before you retire. Collecting your Social Security benefits early will mean a lower monthly paycheck for the rest of your life.
  • Utilize family – Your family may be able to provide some insurance against financial shocks. It’s important to have someone you can call on for help, even if you don’t use them.
The report highlights a ton of questions we need to research before we can understand what is going on. Unfortunately all that means is the recession’s impact on older workers will be understood after it’s all over, providing them little support in the meantime.

Employment over one’s life time is rarely with a single company. Individuals often change jobs or employers over their working years. People leave to have children, to go back to school, or to try their hand at running a business.  All these changes in employment could confuse retirees trying to determine what pensions they are entitled to. And let’s be honest, who couldn’t use an extra $100 a month.

For New England residents there is a free resource that I’d love to share with you. The Pension Action Center was launched in 1999 and is based out of the University of Massachusetts Boston. Its primary program, the New England Pension Assistance Project, brings together pension experts, pension lawyers and a group of dedicated, knowledgeable volunteers to help you understand or obtain your pension benefits.

As their website states, the goals of the Center are to:

• offer individual counseling and assistance
• help you negotiate layers of bureaucracy
• help locate pension funds
• explain the benefits and rights under your pension plan
• supply referrals to attorneys if needed
• supply a listing of financial advisers if needed

The Pension Action Center complied this informative booklet in 2009 to help retirees answer a few burning pension questions. Am I entitled to a pension from my former employer or my spouse’s former employer? Where do I start looking? What documents will I need to understand my situation? What resources are available in my state? I think I have a lost pension, now what?

Employers are not required to provide a pension, so everyone’s results will be different. But now more than ever it is important to make sure you are getting all the benefits you are entitled to from your years of hard work. Check out the booklet to read more or contact the Center if you’d like to talk to someone directly. No one should be missing out on their much needed and well deserved retirement income.

The New England Pension Assistance Project
Phone: (617) 287-7307 or toll free (888) 425-6067
Fax: (617) 287-7080
E-mail: npln@umb.edu

Recently I’ve been working on this crazy data analysis for my professor. I say crazy because it involves 9 waves of data (different interview time points), a sample of over 22,000 Americans nearing retirement, and over 400 calculated Dow Jones scores representing changes in the stock market from 1992-2008 (That took me a better part of a week!) Our data comes largely from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a nationally representative, longitudinal data set  that looks at people over 50 and follows them through the end of their working lives and into retirement.

This all started with an idea about the lasting effects of the 2008 stock market crash. All else being equal, whether you were interviewed by the HRS in March or December should have no bearing on your retirement plans. Unless, of course, historical time and place played a role in your decisions. By December you may have been listening to the news, watching your stocks drop, and talking to your spouse about an unanticipated future. Did the changes in 2008 influence people’s plans for retirement? Preliminary results indicate, Yes. Many people who were planning on working till 62 or 65 are now planning to work longer or are no longer sure when they can expect to retire.

So we’ve taken it a step further (enter my hundreds of stock calculations) to examine stock market fluctuations from 1992 to 2008 and see whether or not economic conditions at the time people are interviewed have any effect on individuals’ plans for retirement. I mean sure, people may be thinking and worrying about it but have they really changed their plans? The answers are yet to come!

Social Security was projected to be in the red 6 years from now, yet it’s happening this year. Due to the current economic downturn and waves of individuals retiring earlier than expected because of unemployment, both the CBO and the Social Security Administration were taken by surprise.

But lets get one thing straight, you won’t notice. This above all else worries me. Because of the trust fund, the system will be able to pay all its checks on time. And since people will be receiving their checks, thoughts of increasing taxes, reducing benefits, or modifying the system in any way will continue to be met with opposition.

You won’t notice, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. For the first time Social Security will start to add to the deficit rather than subtracting from it. As the SSA states in their 2009 report, “Projected long run program costs are not sustainable under current program parameters” and after 2016 taxes will only be able to support 76% of scheduled benefits. In 2037 the combined OASDI Trust Fund is projected to be exhausted.  This is a big deal.

Talking with people, it seems some are confused about the trust fund, assuming it is similar to their 401(k) or savings account. It isn’t a pile of money in a bank vault. It’s actually a stack of IOUs from Uncle Sam. But don’t be too worried, we know how to fix it! The reform options are relatively well understood and have been for decades. The choices, however, are difficult and politically charged. Some combination of tax increases and benefit cuts will have to be put in place and the longer we wait the more painful both will be.

Dare I bring up Medicare? As the SSA says, “Its cost growth can be contained without sacrificing quality of care only if health care cost growth more generally is contained.” The problems for Medicare are coming sooner and will be more severe than those approaching Social Security.  Obama has said that fixing Social Security is on his agenda for next year. While there is much debate over the health care bill, I believe that if he can actually reform health care in America, Social Security will be a walk in the park and we may have a bright future ahead.

The United States economy is in rough shape, has accumulated a lot of debt, and is projected to continue to accumulate debt for some years to come. However, this debt is minuscule compared to the debt that has the potential to develop from our lack of alterations to the entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in particular. A report by the Government Accountability Office (2008) states that if policy actions are not taken to reduce the deficit, not only will the government face unsustainable growth in debt but this would unavoidably result in a declining GDP and living standards in the future.

The most recent report from the Social Security and Medicare trustees (2009) states that our waiting to take action, in combination with the current recession has reduced to the date of reckoning to 2037. At this time the Social Security system will have exhausted the trust fund and will only be able to pay out about three-fourth of expected benefits. To wait and reform the system at this point would require a drastic change. Moreover, the Trustees Report shows that Medicare is in the worse shape as we are currently using the trust fund to pay benefits and with the HI trust fund being depleted by 2017. The costs of health care are projected to increase much more drastically than the earnings per worker. Acting soon to phase in changes will allow reforms to be less severe and also will allow more time for those most impacted by changes to adjust.

While Social Security is an important element of the long-term fiscal outlook, the real driver is health care spending. The federal health programs are a much larger, rapidly growing, and immediate problem. The government’s obligations to the newly created Medicare Part D will alone exceed the unfunded obligations for Social Security (GAO, 2008). The rise in health care costs is not only a federal problem, but also a challenge for state and local governments. Medicaid along with health insurance for state and local government employees and retirees is the primary issue surrounding their long-term fiscal problems. In addition, problems surrounding health care for children continue as researchers call to attention investing in our children’s health as part of the fiscal solution. It could be stated that the future of our country, the country that will exist for our children and grandchildren will be worse if we do not take action now and make touch choices. President Obama has issued a call to the American people to partake in a Grand Bargain. Tough choices need to be made to reform our entitlement programs and shape up our economy. With a Grand Bargain, everyone needs to lose a little, rather than a certain demographic or cohort taking on the entire burden.

And it seems like the time for a Grand Bargain in upon us. Perhaps there is nothing quite as convincing, bring together party lines and prompting politicians to take action, like a financial crisis. Many state that this may be the biggest advantage for President Obama because we are at a point where everyone is forced to focus on the nation’s long-term fiscal problems (Scherer, 2009). This does not mean that the Obama Administration will have an easier task than those before them but it seems the difficulty has not discouraged them. Provisions of the stimulus bill show that his Administration has already started the move to a more cost-effective health-care system and this may shed some light on what may be in store for a larger revamping of the system. As he continues this difficult reform process echos of this “new era of responsibility” seem to pop up in his words and actions. Are we finally in a new era of American society and government?

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