MONEY Pensions

Why Some Private-Sector Workers Are Facing Big Pension Cuts

Multi-employer pensions are in financial trouble—and any solution is likely to mean workers end up with smaller retirement benefits.

The window is closing on our last best chance to protect the pensions of 10 million American workers and retirees.

These workers are in multi-employer plans—traditional defined benefit pension plans jointly funded by groups of employers in industries like construction, trucking, mining and food retailing. Although many of the country’s 1,400 multi-employer plans are healthy, 1.5 million workers are in plans that are failing. And that threatens the broader system.

Losses during the crash of 2008-2009 left those plans badly underfunded. In many cases, the problems have been compounded by declining employment in their industries, which leaves sponsors with a growing proportion of retirees to current workers paying into the pensions funds.

The plans are insured by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, the federally sponsored agency funded through insurance premiums paid by plan sponsors. But the level of PBGC protection for workers in multi-employer plans is—by design—much lower than for single-employer plans. Multi-employer plans historically have been stable, so policymakers set premiums, and benefits, at a lower level than for single-employer pension plans.

But the PBGC projects that about 200 plans will become insolvent over the next two decades. If it has to fund benefits for those plans, many beneficiaries will suffer. That’s because the maximum benefit for these retirees is much lower than for those in single-employer plans—it’s capped this year at $12,870 for a worker retiring at age 65, compared with $59,318 for workers in single-employer plans. PBGC estimates that multi-employer workers with 30 years or more of service would lose an average of $4,000 in annual benefits.

Policymakers, legislators, business and labor groups have debated the issue for two years. Now we’re at a key turning point, argues Josh Gotbaum, the PBGC’s director. “If Congress doesn’t act this year, it is very likely that major plans will fail and the multi-employer system will collapse,” he told me in an interview this week.

It’s not that plans will run out of money this year or next, Gotbaum says. Instead, he says employers could start scrambling off a sinking ship, accelerating pressures on the system. Under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), one employer departing a multi-employer plan must make an exit contribution capped at two years of annual contributions. With a mass exodus, each employer pays a full proportionate share of the plan’s underfunded liability.

“We have a prisoner’s dilemma going on,” Gotbaum says. “Employers are looking at the other employers and thinking that they want to beat the rush—they don’t want to be the last one standing.”

Fixes would require revisions to ERISA, which governs private sector pension plans. Gotbaum says that needs to happen this year because “virtually all the congressional talent that has focused on this issue for the last year is leaving.”

Representative John Kline (R-Minnesota), chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, will rotate out of that position next year. Two others aren’t seeking re-election—House Ways and Means Chairman David Camp (R-Michigan) and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

If Congress doesn’t act this year, employers may be encouraged to quit the system, Gotbaum says, because they’ll conclude that change will be postponed until after the 2016 presidential elections.

Gotbaum hopes a reform package will include a mix of higher multi-employer insurance premiums, to beef up the agency’s ability to backstop plans that fail, and ERISA reforms that help other plans restructure so they can remain solvent. But he won’t be on the scene to help craft a solution; he leaves next month after four years at the PBGC to return to the private sector.

A coalition of employers and labor unions has been pushing for changes that would let healthy plans adopt more flexible plan designs aimed at keeping them in the system. But one controversial element has drawn strong pushback from pension advocates; it would give plan trustees wide latitude to cut the benefits of current retirees—albeit at levels slightly higher than PBGC guarantees.

Gotbaum is optimistic that an agreement could be forged after this year’s midterm elections. “Congress is taking this seriously,” he says. “It’s been difficult for them to reach agreement, but they clearly are trying. Democrats and Republicans both know something needs to be done.”

Related links:

 

MONEY Social Security

The 5 Key Things to Know About Social Security and Medicare

No need to panic, but both Social Security and Medicare face long-term financial challenges, this year's trustees report finds. There's still time to make fixes.

If you worry about the future of Social Security and Medicare, this is the week to get answers to your questions. The most authoritative annual reports on the long-term health of both programs were issued on Monday, and while the news was mixed, there are reasons to be encouraged about our two most important retirement programs.

Under the Social Security Act, a board of trustees reports annually to Congress on the status and long-term financial prospects of Social Security and Medicare. The reports are prepared by the professional actuaries who have made careers out of managing the numbers and are signed by three cabinet secretaries, the commissioner of Social Security and two publicly appointed trustees—one Republican, one Democrat.

Here are my five key takeaways from this year’s final word on our social insurance programs.

* Imminent collapse nowhere in sight. Social Security and Medicare face long-term financial problems, but there’s no cause for panic about either program.

Social Security’s retirement program is fully funded for the next 19 years. It has $2.8 trillion in reserves, and that figure will rise to $2.9 trillion in 2019, when the surplus funds will begin depleting rapidly as baby boomer retirements accelerate. Although you’ll often hear that Social Security spends more annually than it receives in taxes, the program actually took in $32 billion more than it spent last year, when interest on bond holdings and taxation of benefits are included.

The retirement trust fund will be depleted in 2034, at which point current revenue would be sufficient to pay only 77% of benefits—unless Congress enacts reforms to put the program back into long-term balance.

Medicare’s financial outlook improved a bit compared with last year’s report because of continued low healthcare inflation. The program’s Hospital Insurance trust fund – which finances Medicare Part A— is projected to run dry in 2030, four years later than last year’s forecast and 13 years later than forecast before passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

In 2030, the hospital fund would have enough resources to cover just 85 percent of its expenditures. (Medicare’s other parts—outpatient and prescription drug services—are funded through beneficiary premiums and general revenue, so they don’t have trust funds at risk of running dry.)

Could healthcare inflation take off again? Certainly. Some analysts—and the White House – chalk up the recent cost-containment success to features of the ACA. But clouds on the horizon include higher utilization of healthcare, new medical technology and a doubling of enrollment by 2030 as boomers age.

* Medicare is delivering good pocketbook news. The monthly premium for Medicare Part B (outpatient services) is forecast to stay put at $104.90 for the third consecutive year in 2015. That means the premium won’t take a larger bite out of Social Security checks, and that retirees likely will be able to keep most— if not all—of the expected 1.5% cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in benefits projected for next year. (Final numbers on Part B premiums and the Social Security COLA won’t be announced until this fall.)

* Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) requires immediate attention. The program faces a severe imbalance, and only has resources to pay full benefits only until 2016; if a fix isn’t implemented soon, benefits would be cut by 20 percent for nine million disabled people.

That can be avoided through a reallocation of a small portion of payroll tax revenues from the retirement to the disability program – just enough to keep SSDI going through 2033 while longer-range fixes to both programs are considered. Reallocations have been made at least six times in the past. Let’s get it done.

*Aging Americans aren’t gobbling up the economic pie. Social Security outlays equalled 4.9% of gross domestic product last year and will rise to 6.2% in 2035, when the last baby boomer is retired. Medicare accounted for 3.5% of GDP in 2013; it will be 3.7% of GDP in 2020 and 6.9% in 2088.

* Kicking the can is costly. There’s still time for reasonable fixes for Social Security and Medicare, but the fixes get tougher as we get closer to exhausting the programs’ trust funds. Social Security will need new revenue. Public opinion polls show solid support for gradually eliminating the cap on income subject to payroll taxes (currently $117,000) and gradually raising payroll tax rates on employers and workers, to 7.2% from 6.2%. There’s also strong public support for bolstering benefits for low-income households and beefing up COLAs.

Medicare spending can be reduced without resorting to drastic reforms such as vouchers or higher eligibility ages. Billions could be saved by letting the federal government negotiate discounts on prescription drugs, and stepping up fraud prevention efforts. And an investigative series published earlier this summer by the Center for Public Integrity uncovered needed reforms of the Medicare Advantage program, pointing to “tens of billions of dollars in overcharges and other suspect billings.”

Your move, Congress.

Related stories:

How to Fix Social Security—and What It Will Mean for Your Taxes

Why Taxing the Rich Is the Wrong Way to Fix Social Security

3 Smart Fixes for Social Security and Medicare

 

MONEY IRAs

This Simple Move Can Boost Your Savings by Thousands of Dollars

Stack of Money
iStock

Last-minute IRA savers and those who keep their money in cash are paying a procrastination penalty.

Individual Retirement Account contributions are getting larger—an encouraging sign of a recovering economy and improved habits among retirement savers.

But there is an “I” in IRA for a reason: investors are in charge of managing their accounts. And recent research by Vanguard finds that many of us are leaving returns on the table due to an all-too-human fault: procrastination in the timing of our contributions.

IRA savers can make contributions anytime from Jan. 1 of a tax year up until the tax-filing deadline the following April. But Vanguard’s analysis found that more than double the amount of contributions is made at the deadline than at the first opportunity—and that last-minute contributions dwarf the amounts contributed throughout the year. Fidelity Investments reports similar data—for the 2013 tax year, 70% of total IRA contributions came in during tax season.

Some IRA investors no doubt wait until the tax deadline in order to determine the most tax-efficient level of contribution; others may have cash-flow reasons, says Colleen Jaconetti, a senior investment analyst in the Vanguard Investment Strategy Group. “Some people don’t have the cash available during the year to make contributions, or they wait until they get their year-end bonus to fund their accounts.”

Nonetheless, procrastination has its costs. Vanguard calculates that investors who wait until the last minute lose out on a full year’s worth of tax-advantaged compounded growth—and that gets expensive over a lifetime of saving. Assuming an investor contributes the maximum $5,500 annually for 30 years ($6,500 for those over age 50), and earns 4% after inflation, procrastinators will wind up with account balances $15,500 lower than someone who contributes as early as possible in a tax year.

But for many last-minute savers, even more money is left on the table. Among savers who made last-minute contributions for the 2013 tax year just ahead of the tax-filing deadline, 21% of the contributions went into money market funds, likely because they were not prepared to make investing decisions. When Vanguard looked at those hasty money market contributions for the 2012 tax year, two-thirds of those funds were still sitting in money market funds four months later.

“They’re doing a great thing by contributing, and some people do go back to get those dollars invested,” Jaconetti says. “But with money market funds yielding little to nothing, these temporary decisions are turning into ill-advised longer-term investment choices.”

The Vanguard research comes against a backdrop of general improvement in IRA contributions. Fidelity reported on Wednesday that average contributions for tax year 2013 reached $4,150, a 5.7% increase from tax year 2012 and an all-time high. The average balance at Fidelity was up nearly 10% year-over-year to $89,100, a gain that was fueled mainly by strong market returns.

Fidelity says older IRA savers racked up the largest percentage increases in savings last year: investors aged 50 to 59 increased their contributions by 9.8%, for example—numbers that likely reflect savers trying to catch up on nest egg contributions as retirement approaches. But young savers showed strong increases in savings rates, too: 7.7% for savers aged 30-39, and 7.3% for those aged 40-49.

Users of Roth IRAs made larger contributions than owners of traditional IRAs, Fidelity found. Average Roth contributions were higher than for traditional IRAs across most age groups, with the exception of those made by investors older than 60.

But IRA investors of all stripes apparently could stand a bit of tuning up on their contribution habits. Jaconetti suggests that some of the automation that increasingly drives 401(k) plans also can help IRA investors. She suggests that IRA savers set up regular automatic monthly contributions, and establish a default investment that gets at least some level of equity exposure from the start, such as a balanced fund or target date fund.

“It’s understandable that people are deadline-oriented,” Jaconetti says. “But with these behaviors, they could be leaving returns on the table.”

Related:

 

MONEY 401(k)s

Why Your 401(k) Won’t Offer This Promising Retirement Income Option

More investors are flocking to deferred annuities, which kick in guaranteed income when you're old. But 401(k) plans aren't buying.

Longevity risk—that is, the risk of outliving your retirement savings—is among retirees’ biggest worries these days. The Obama administration is trying to nudge employers to add a special type of annuity to their investment menus that addresses that risk. But here’s the response they’re likely to get: “Meh.”

The U.S. Treasury released rules earlier this month aimed at encouraging 401(k) plans to offer “longevity annuities”—a form of income annuity in which payouts start only after you reach an advanced age, typically 85.

Longevity annuities are a variation of a broader annuity category called deferred income annuities. DIAs let buyers pay an initial premium—or make a series of scheduled payments—and set a date to start receiving income.

Some forms of DIAs have taken off in the retail market, but longevity policies are a hard sell because of the uncertainty of ever seeing payments. And interest in annuities of any sort from 401(k) plan sponsors has been weak.

The Treasury rules aim to change that by addressing one problem with offering a DIA within tax-advantaged plans: namely, the required minimum distribution rules (RMDs). Participants in workplace plans—and individual retirement account owners—must start taking RMDs at age 70 1/2. That directly conflicts with the design of longevity annuities.

The new rules state that so long as a longevity annuity meets certain requirements, it will be deemed a “qualified longevity annuity contract” (QLAC), effectively waiving the RMD requirements, so long as the contract value doesn’t exceed 25% of the buyer’s account balance or $125,000, whichever is less. (The dollar limit will be adjusted for inflation over time.) The rules apply only to annuities that provide fixed payouts—no variable or equity-indexed annuities allowed.

But 401(k) plans just aren’t all that hot to add annuities—of any type. A survey of plans this year by Aon Hewitt, the employee benefits consulting firm, found that just 8% offer annuity options. Among those that don’t, 81% are unlikely to add them this year.

Employers cited worry about the fiduciary responsibility of picking annuity options from the hundreds offered by insurance companies. Another key reason is administrative complication should the plan decide to change record keepers, or if employees change jobs.

“Say your company adds an annuity and you decide to invest in it—but then you shift jobs to an employer without an annuity option,” says Rob Austin, Aon Hewitt’s director of retirement research. “How does the employer deal with that? Do you need to stay in your former employer’s plan until you start drawing on the annuity?”

Employees are showing interest in the topic: A survey this year by the LIMRA Secure Retirement Institute found 80% would like their plans to offer retirement income options. The big trend has been adding financial advice and managed account options, some of which allow workers to shift their portfolios to income-oriented investments at retirement, such as bonds and high-dividend stocks. Some 52% of workplace plans offered managed accounts last year, up from 29% in 2011, Aon Hewitt reports.

“The big difference is the guarantee,” says Austin. “With the annuity, you know for sure what you are going to get paid. With a managed account, the idea is, ‘Let’s plan for you to live to the 80th percentile of mortality, but there’s no guarantee you’ll get there.'”

Outside 401(k)s, the story is different. Some forms of DIAs have seen sharp growth lately as more baby boomers retire. DIA sales hit $2.2 billion in 2013, more than double the $1 billion pace set in 2012, according to LIMRA, an insurance industry research and consulting organization. Sales in the first quarter this year hit $620 billion, 55% ahead of the same period of 2013.

Three-quarters of those sales are inside IRAs, LIMRA says, since taking a distribution to buy an annuity triggers a large, unwanted income tax liability. But the action—so far—has been limited to DIAs that start payment by the time RMDs begin. The new Treasury rules could accelerate growth as retirees roll over funds from 401(k)s to IRAs.

“For some financial advisers, this will be an appealing way to do retirement income planning with a product that lets them go out past age 70 1/2 using qualified dollars,” says Joe Montminy, assistant vice president of the LIMRA Security Retirement Institute. “For wealthier investors, [shifting dollars to an annuity] is also a way to reduce overall RMD exposure.”

Could the trend spill over into workplace plans? Austin doubts it. “I just don’t hear a major thirst from plan sponsors saying this is something we should have in our plan.”

Related:

How You Can Get “Peace of Mind” Income in Retirement

The New 401(k) Income Option That Kicks In When You’re Old

Need Retirement Income? Here’s the Hottest Thing Out There

MONEY retirement planning

Answers to 5 of Twitter’s Most-Asked Questions About Retirement

Following a recent Twitter chat, a retirement expert expands on answers to queries about Roth IRAs, Social Security and more.

The Twitterverse has questions about retirement. What’s the best way for young people to get started saving? Are target-date funds good or bad? Should we expand Social Security to help low-wage workers?

Those are just a few of the great questions I fielded during a retirement Tweet-up convened this week by my colleagues at Reuters. Since my column allows for responses beyond Twitter’s 140-character limit, today I’m expanding on answers to five questions I found especially interesting. You can view the entire chat —which included advice from personal finance gurus from Reuters and Charles Schwab—on Twitter at #ReutersRetire.

Q: What’s the best way for parents to help young adult children save for the long term? How about Roth IRAs?

Roth IRAs are no-brainers for young people. With a traditional IRA, you pay taxes at the end of the line, when you withdraw the money. With a Roth, you invest with after-tax money, and withdrawals (principal and returns) are tax-free in most situations. That’s especially beneficial for young retirement investors, since most people move into higher income-tax brackets as they get older and make more money.

Q: How would you expand Social Security? Any current proposal appealing?

This question was posed during Twitter chatter about the difficulty low-income workers face building retirement saving, and ways to make our retirement system more equitable. Expanding Social Security may fly in the face of conventional wisdom, which argues that rising longevity should dictate reductions in future benefits, not increases. But this is a case where the conventional wisdom is wrong.

An expanded Social Security system is the most logical response to our looming retirement security crisis because of its risk pooling and progressive approach to income distribution. Social Security replaces the highest percentage of pre-retirement income for workers at the low end of the wealth scale.

Several ideas are kicking around Congress. Most would raise revenue by gradually phasing out the cap on wages subject to the payroll tax ($117,000 in 2014) and raising payroll tax rates over a 20-year period. Some advocates also would like to see a surtax on annual incomes over $1 million. On the benefits side, advocates want to increase benefits across the board by 10%, recognize the value of family caregivers by awarding work credits toward Social Security benefits and adopt a more generous annual cost-of-living adjustment formula.

Q: With the myriad questions about retirement, can “live” advisers really be replaced by automated advice and data-driven programs?

Online software-driven services—so-called robo-adviser services – can’t fully replace human advice. But they address a key problem: how to deploy retirement guidance to mass audiences at a low cost. Services like Wealthfront and Betterment interact with clients online using algorithms, with low fee structures—typically 0.25% of assets under management or less.

Another variation on this theme: services that deliver advice through a combination of software and human advice, such as LearnVest. One of the most interesting tech-enabled experiments is Vanguard’s Personal Advisor Services, which provides access to a managed portfolio of Vanguard index funds and exchange-traded funds, along with portfolio management services from a human adviser.

Vanguard charges just 0.3% of assets under management for the service. The service is in test mode with a small group of clients, and only available to clients with $100,000 to invest. The minimum will be reduced when the service expands, and it should be rolled out more broadly over the next 12 to 18 months, a spokeswoman says. Given Vanguard’s huge scale, it’s a venture worth watching.

Q: What’s the final verdict on target-date funds—good or evil?

We don’t have a final verdict yet, but target-date funds (TDFs) are doing more good than evil—though they generate plenty of controversy, confusion and misunderstanding. The general idea is to reduce the risk you’re taking as retirement approaches by cutting your exposure to stocks in favor of fixed-income investments—the “glide path.” But some TDFs glide “to” your retirement date, while others glide “through it.” Experts debate which is better, but you should at least know which type of fund you own.

Many retirement investors misuse TDFs by mixing them with other funds, a recent survey found. These funds are designed as one-stop investment solutions that automatically keep your account balanced; doing otherwise will hurt your returns.

Bottom line? TDFs do more good than harm by automatically keeping millions of retirement portfolios balanced with reasonably good equity-to-fixed-income allocations. And they are the fastest-growing product in the market: Some $618 billion was invested in TDFs at the end of 2013, according to the Investment Company Institute, up from $160 billion in 2008.

Q: Anyone know what the highest Social Security income is for a retiree today versus what’s expected 30 years from now?

This year’s maximum monthly benefit at full retirement age (66) is $2,642. The Social Security Administration doesn’t have projections for future benefit levels, but the answer certainly will depend on how Congress decides to deal with the program’s long-term projected shortfalls. Solutions could include tax increases (discussed above) or higher retirement ages. Boosting the retirement age would mean a lower benefit at age 66.

MONEY retirement income

Need Low-Risk Yield? CDs are Back in Fashion

Dollars and cents
Finnbarr Webster / Alamy

Retirees and other people desperate to earn interest can find respectable deals on certificates of deposit.

Getting low-risk yield has been one of the toughest challenges for retirees ever since the financial meltdown of 2008-2009. Interest rates are near zero, and many retirees are nervous about bonds out of fear that rates might jump.

All of which leaves a simple question: How about a good old-fashioned certificate of deposit?

Retirees desperate for yield can find some respectable deals on CDs. The yields may not sound sexy, but there’s no risk to principal and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation protects accounts up to $250,000.

There’s nothing new about the higher rates on CDs compared with bonds. Banks, especially those without extensive retail branch networks, have long offered generous rates on CDs, mostly online, as an inexpensive way to attract deposits. It’s also a way for banks to bring in retail clients who can be cross-sold other higher-margin products.

But there’s an especially compelling case to be made for CDs in the current rate environment.

“For retirees, it’s the one corner of the investment world where you can get additional return without additional risk,” says Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com.

The most aggressive banks will sell you a two-year CD with an annual percentage yield (APY) of 1.25%; compare that with current two-year Treasury rates, now at about 0.48%. Three-year CDs top out at 1.45%, compared with 0.92% on a Treasury of the same duration. If you want to go longer, five-year CDs top out over 2%.

Five or 10 years ago, the high rates came mainly from smaller no-name banks, but that’s not the case now. Some of the more aggressive offers currently come from big names like Synchrony Bank (formerly GE Capital Retail Bank), Barclays and CIT Bank. Bankrate.com lets you search and compare offers.

You could get higher yields on corporate or junk bonds. But they’re risky because the available yield isn’t adequate for the credit risk you need to take, argues Sam Lee, editor of Morningstar’s ETFInvestor newsletter.

“I’d rather be in a five-year CD than a bond fund taking on more duration or credit risk,” Lee says. “If rates do rise, you can lose a whole bunch of money on long-duration bonds — maybe 10 or 20% of your principal.”

The only risk you face locking in a longer CD — five years, for example — is the lost opportunity cost of obtaining a higher rate should rates jump. Lee likes that strategy.

“The interest rate sensitivity is very low, because you can always just get out and reinvest at a higher rate,” he says. “You’ll pay a bit of a penalty, but that is more than offset by the higher rate and value of the FDIC guarantee.”

McBride isn’t convinced rates will jump substantially anytime soon. “The long-awaited rising rate environment has yet to show itself — it might happen next year, or maybe not.”

Still, you should understand CD penalties in case you do need to make a move, because the terms can vary. The most common penalties for early withdrawal on a five-year CD are 6 or 12 months’ worth of interest, says McBride. “The terms can vary widely — some are assessed just on the amount you withdraw, others on the entire investment.”

If you’re worried about opportunity cost, some of the banks offering aggressive CD rates also have attractive savings accounts that let you make a move at any time – although some require a minimum level of deposit to qualify for the best rates. For example, Synchrony will pay you 0.95%. That’s not much less than the 1.1% it pays on a one-year CD – or the 1.2% for a two-year CD, for that matter.

The other option is a step-up CD that boosts your rate if interest rates rise in return for a lower initial rate. But those aren’t easy to find right now, McBride says. “We’ll see those become more prevalent if we get into a rising rate environment.”

No matter how long you go, Lee says, the implication for retirees is clear: Use CDs for the risk-free part of your portfolio and equities for whatever portion where some risk is acceptable.

Equities should help keep your overall portfolio returns substantially above the rate of inflation. The Consumer Price Index is up 2.1% for the 12 months ended in May.

“The U.S. stock market’s expected real [after-inflation] return right now is about 4%,” he says. “The expected inflation-adjusted yield on bonds right now is close to zero.”

MONEY Aging

Americans Want to Age in Place, and Your Town Isn’t Ready

Households headed by 70-year-olds will surge 42% by 2025. Who will drive them to the store?

The graying of the American homeowner is upon us. The question is: Will communities be ready for the challenges that come with that?

The number of households headed by someone age 70 or older will surge by 42% from 2015 to 2025, according to a report on the state of housing released last month by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, or JCHS.

The Harvard researchers note that a majority of those households will be aging in place, not downsizing or moving to retirement communities. That will have implications for an array of support services people will need as they age.

But the housing age wave comes at a time when federal programs that provide those supports are treading water in Washington. Consider the signature federal legislation that helps fund community planning and service programs for independent aging, the Older Americans Act. The OAA supports everything from home-delivered meals to transportation and caregiver support programs—and importantly, helps communities plan for future needs as their populations get older.

States and municipalities use the federal dollars they receive via the OAA to leverage local funding. The law requires reauthorization every five years, a step that has been on hold in Congress since 2011. Funding has continued during that time, with one exception: During sequestration in March 2013, OAA programs were cut by 5%; many have since been reversed, but other cuts now appear to be permanent.

A survey last year by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (NAAAA), which represents local government aging service providers, found that some states had reduced nutrition programs, transportation services and caregiver support programs.

Recovery since then has been uneven, according to Sandy Markwood, chief executive officer of the NAAAA. “In some cases, states made up the differences, but many programs still are not back to pre-sequestration levels.”

But here’s the more critical point: Even if all the cuts had been restored, treading water wouldn’t be good enough in light of the challenges communities will soon face.

“From a planning perspective, putting in place things like infrastructure and transportation services takes time,” Markwood says. “We don’t have the luxury of time here.”

Indeed, aging of communities is shaping up as a signature trend as the housing industry continues its slow recovery after the crash of 2008-2009.

Young people typically drive household formation, but the Harvard study notes that millennials haven’t shown up in big numbers because of the economic headwinds they face. Real median incomes fell 8% from 2007 to 2012 among 35- to 44-year-olds, JCHS notes, and the share of 25- to 34-year-old households carrying student loan debt soared from 26% to 39%. Meanwhile, home prices have been jumping, and qualifying for mortgage loans remains difficult.

Millennials eventually will account for a bigger share of households as more marry and start having families, according to the study. But for now, boomers are the story.

The oldest boomers start turning 70 after 2015, and the number of these households will jump by 8.3 million from 2014 to 2025. Most will be staying right where they are. Mobility rates (the share of people who move each year) typically fall with age: Less than 4% of people over age 65 moved in 2013, compared with 21% of 18- to 34-year-olds and 12% for those 35 to 45.

Mobility has been on a downward trend since the 1990s, and the housing crisis accelerated the trend, according to Daniel McCue, research manager at JCHS.

Aging in place could create problems in suburbs, which are designed around driving, McCue says. “People are going to need a more distributed network of services for transportation, healthcare and shopping in the suburbs. They’ll need some way to get to services or for the services to get to them.”

There is one possible silver lining in this story: The needs of aging-in-place seniors could spur better community planning. If so, the elderly won’t be the only group that benefits.

“When you do things to make roads safer or increase public transportation, or add volunteer driver programs, that’s good for everyone in the community,” Markwood says. “It’s not a zero-sum game.”

Related story: Why Most Seniors Can’t Afford to Pay More for Medicare

Related story: The State of Senior Health Depends on Your State

MONEY Aging

Why Most Seniors Can’t Afford to Pay More for Medicare

Replacing Medicare with vouchers would push costs higher and put older Americans at risk.

Should seniors pay more for Medicare? Republicans think so; they have repeatedly called for replacing the current program with vouchers that would shift cost and risk to seniors.

There’s no doubt this is where Republicans will take us if they capture control of Congress this year, and the White House in 2016. Representative Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the House Budget Committee, advocates “premium support” reforms that would give seniors vouchers to buy private Medicare insurance policies in lieu of traditional fee-for-service Medicare.

Under the latest version of Ryan’s budget proposed in April, starting in 2024 seniors could opt to buy premium-supported private plans or stay in traditional Medicare. Ryan has argued that introducing competition will bring down costs over time, and capping the government’s costs does sound like a tempting way to address Medicare’s financial problems.

Medicare’s trustees project total annual spending will jump 78% by 2022, to $1.09 trillion. Much of that increase will be fueled by higher enrollment as the baby boom generation ages.

But premium supports would shift risk to seniors, and could effectively make traditional Medicare much more expensive by siphoning off healthier seniors to private plans. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that this effect could boost traditional Medicare premiums 50% by 2020 compared with current projections.

Most seniors simply can’t afford to pay more. If you doubt it, check out the new interactive tool launched last month by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, one of the country’s leading healthcare research groups.

The tool analyzes the income and assets of today’s 52.4 million Medicare beneficiaries, and how their financial picture will change between now and 2030, when 80.9 million people will be covered by the program. It can compare different demographic slices of the Medicare population based on variables such as education, race, gender and marital status—and here you get a stark look at how economic inequality affects the pocketbooks of seniors.

Kaiser’s tool is based on a simulation model developed by the Urban Institute that uses population data to analyze the long-range impact on retirement and aging issues. I encourage you to test-drive the tool, but here are some highlights:

INCOME

Fifty-three percent of Medicare beneficiaries had $25,000 or less in annual income last year; half had savings below $61,400 and less than $67,700 in home equity on a per-person basis.

The income figures reflect the sharp divisions that characterize the wider U.S. population. Just 4% of seniors had income over $100,000 last year; 27% had income below $15,000 (which is just a bit higher than the average annual Social Security benefit).

Healthcare already is one of the largest expenses for seniors, most of whom are on fixed incomes. HealthView Services, which develops software for gauging healthcare costs, recently estimated that a senior retiring this year in high-cost Massachusetts would pay $7,020 in Medicare premiums alone—a number that will jump to $11,536 in 2024. And that figure doesn’t include co-pays and out-of-pocket costs for things Medicare doesn’t cover, such as dental care. It also doesn’t include costs for a catastrophic event.

“Sixty-six thousand in savings is less than the cost of one year in a nursing home,” says Tricia Neuman, senior vice-president at the foundation and director of the foundation’s Medicare policy program. “That tells us that many people on Medicare today don’t have the resources they’d need to pay for a significant health or long-term-care expense if it should arise.”

DEMOGRAPHIC DIVIDES

Neuman says she was especially surprised by the extent of the gaps in income and saving by race, ethnicity and gender. Median 2013 per capita income for white Medicare beneficiaries was $26,400, compared with $16,350 for African Americans and $13,000 for Hispanics.

Men had $25,880 in median income, compared with $21,800 for women. And married couples were better off than singles: Per capita income for married seniors in 2013 was $27,400, compared with $20,250 for divorced people, $21,050 for widows and $14,150 for those who never married.

That’s unlikely to change by 2030. “The model suggests there won’t be phenomenal changes in wealth, or that seniors will be that much more comfortable,” Neuman says.

Neuman says the data also points to continued income inequality and sharp divisions in the status of seniors. In 2030, 5% of Medicare beneficiaries will have income over $111,900, while half will have income below $28,250.

“There will always be a small share of the Medicare population with sufficient wealth and resources to absorb higher costs, but most will not be in that position,” she says. “The assumption that boomers are healthier and wealthier and that we’ll have a much rosier Medicare outlook down the road just isn’t going to happen.”

MONEY Health Care

The State of Senior Health Depends on Your State

Dollars and cents
Finnbarr Webster / Alamy

Reports on senior health reveal a north-south divide. Many worst-ranking states rejected Medicaid expansion.

What are the best and worst places to stay healthy as you age? For answers, take out a map and follow the Mississippi River from north to south. The healthiest people over 65 are in Minnesota, the sickest in Mississippi.

That’s among the findings of the America’s Health Rankings Senior Report released in May by the United Health Foundation. The report ranks the 50 states by assessing data covering individual behavior, the environment and communities where seniors live, local health policy and clinical care.

Minnesota took top honors for the second year in a row, ranking high for everything from the rate of annual dental visits, volunteerism, high percentage of quality nursing-home beds and low percentage of food insecurity. This year’s runners-up are Hawaii, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. (See how your state fared here.).

The researchers base their rankings on 34 measures of health. But here’s one you won’t find in the report: state compliance with the Affordable Care Act (ACA). While the health reform law isn’t mainly about seniors, it has one important feature that can boost the health of lower-income older people: the expansion of Medicaid.

The ACA aims to expand health insurance coverage for low-income Americans through broadened Medicaid eligibility, with the federal government picking up 100% of the tab for the first three years (2014-2016) and no less than 90% after that. But when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the ACA’s legality in 2012, it made the Medicaid expansion optional, and 21 states have rejected the expansion for ideological or fiscal reasons.

And guess what: Most of the states with the worst senior health report cards also rejected the Medicaid expansion.

Nearly all Americans over age 65 are covered by Medicare. But the Medicaid expansion also is a key lever for improving senior health because it extends coverage to older people who haven’t yet become eligible for Medicare. That means otherwise uninsured low-income seniors are able to get medical care in the years leading up to age 65—and they are healthier when they arrive at Medicare’s doorstep.

Two studies from non-partisan reports verify this. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported late last year that seniors who had continuous health insurance coverage in the six years before enrolling in Medicare used fewer and less costly medical services during their first six years in the program; in their first year of Medicare enrollment, they had 35% lower average total spending.

The GAO study confirmed the findings of a 2009 study report by two researchers at the Harvard Medical School. That study looked at individuals who were continuously or intermittently uninsured between age 51 and 64; these patients cost Medicare an additional $1,000 per person due mainly to complications from cardiovascular disease, diabetes and delayed surgeries for arthritis.

Fifty-two percent of Medicaid-rejecting states ranked in the study’s bottom third for senior health, including two very large states, Texas and Florida. Many of these states also can be found in a list of states with the highest rates of poverty among people over 65.

What emerges is a north-south divide on senior health. “Many states that haven’t expanded Medicaid are in the South, and there’s a clear link between socioeconomic status and health status,” says Tricia Neuman, senior vice-president at the Henry J Kaiser Family Foundation and director of the foundation’s Medicare policy program. “Insurance may not be the only answer, but it certainly is helpful.”

The United Health Foundation—a non-profit funded by the insurer UnitedHealth Groupdidn’t consider insurance coverage in its study, but it did consider poverty. Minnesota’s rate was 5.4%—well below the 9.3% national rate. Mississippi ranked dead last, with a 13.5% poverty rate.

In states that rejected the Medicaid expansion, we are witnessing a victory of politics over compassion and morality. Jonathan Gruber, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a key architect of health reform in Massachusetts and under the ACA, summed it up in an interview with HealthInsurance.org earlier this year, saying that these states “are willing to sacrifice billions of dollars of injections into their economy in order to punish poor people. It really is just almost awesome in its evilness.”

MONEY Social Security

As Social Security Cuts Take Effect, The Most Vulnerable Are Left to Cope

Cuts to Social Security have closed offices in some of the areas where they're needed most.

Until earlier this year, there was a Social Security field office in Gadsden County, Florida, in the state’s panhandle. It’s the kind of place where seniors need to get in-person help with their benefits rather than pick up a phone or go online.

“Our poverty rate is nearly double the state average, and we trail the state averages in education,” said Brenda Holt, a county commissioner. “Most of the people here don’t have computers, let alone reliable Internet access.”

Holt testified Wednesday before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, which is investigating the impact of budget cutting at the Social Security Administration over the past five years. Sixty-four field offices and more than 500 temporary mobile offices, known as contact stations, have been closed. And the SSA is reducing or eliminating a variety of in-person services that it once provided in its offices.

The SSA also has been developing a long-range strategy for delivering services. A draft document states that it will rely on the Internet and “self-service delivery”—and provide in-person services in “very limited circumstances, such as for complex transactions and to meet the needs of vulnerable populations.”

Gadsden County meets any criteria you could pick for vulnerability. But the field office in Quincy, the county seat, was closed with just a few weeks’ notice in March, Holt said. The nearest office is 30 miles away in Tallahassee—reachable only by car or a crowded shuttle bus that runs once a day in each direction.

The Senate committee’s investigation found SSA’s process for office consolidation wanting for clear criteria, transparency and community feedback. Only after persistent objections by local officials did the SSA offer to set up a videoconferencing station in a local library that connects seniors to representatives in its Tallahassee office.

“It’s deeply frustrated and angered our community,” said Holt. “Many of our residents live in a financial environment where they make choices between medications and food to feed their families. Problems with Social Security benefits can have a catastrophic effect on families.”

The SSA’s workload is rising as baby boomers retire; the number of claims in fiscal 2013 was 27 percent higher than in 2007. Yet the agency has 11,000 fewer workers than it did three years ago, and hiring freezes have led to uneven staffing in offices.

The SSA has received less than its budget request in 14 of the last 16 years. In fiscal 2012, it operated with 88% of the amount requested ($11.4 billion). The budget was restored somewhat in fiscal 2014 to $11.7 billion. And President Barack Obama’s 2015 budget request is $12 billion.

But service still suffers. The National Council of Social Security Management Associations reports that field office wait time is 30% longer than in 2012, and wait times and busy rates on the agency’s toll-free 800 number have doubled.

The SSA’s plan to save $70 million a year by replacing annual paper benefit statements with electronic access also has been a misstep, at least in the short run. Paper statements were suspended in 2011, but just 6 percent of all workers have signed up for online access, in some cases because of a lack of computer access or literacy but also because of sign-up difficulties related to the website’s complex anti-fraud systems.

In April the agency backtracked, announcing it will resume mailings of paper statements this September at five-year intervals to workers who have not signed up to view their statements online. (You can create an online account here.)

Wednesday’s hearing shed much-needed light on the customer service squeeze at SSA, though it would have been good to hear legislators acknowledge that Congress had no business cutting the SSA budget in the first place. The agency is funded by the same dedicated stream (payroll taxes) that funds benefits, and its administrative costs are low, 1.4% of all outlays. The SSA is funded by Americans’ tax dollars and exists to provide customer service to all Americans.

Nancy Berryhill, the SSA’s deputy commissioner for operations, did her best at the hearing to defend the agency’s efforts to cope. “It’s my job to balance service across nation—these are difficult times.”

Still, she conceded that there’s room for improvement. “We need to get more input from the community,” she said, speaking about the events in Gadsden County. “Adding the video service made a difference after the fact, but we need to be more thoughtful in the future.”

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