Who Applies for Disability – and Who Gets it


Two workers loading a truck

Who Applies for Disability – and Who Gets it

Blue-collar workers who end up applying for federal disability benefits find themselves in that position for a variety of interrelated reasons.

A dangerous or physically demanding job can either cause an injury or exacerbate a medical condition that could lead to a disability. And people with limited resources in childhood often develop health problems earlier in life, and their circumstances can limit their access to job opportunities, making them more likely to end up in dangerous or physically demanding jobs.

A new NBER study untangles all these factors to clarify who applies for disability and which applicants ultimately receive benefits through Social Security’s rigorous approval process.

Researchers at Stanford and the University of Wisconsin linked a survey of Americans 50 and older to occupational data describing the level of environmental and physical hazards they’ve faced during decades of working. Next, socioeconomic measures of their upbringing – the adults’ descriptions of their childhood health, education, and parents’ financial resources – were layered into the analysis. Finally, the researchers repeated the process, replacing childhood health with genetic data on their predispositions to various disabling illnesses.

Blue-collar and service workers are known to apply for federal disability benefits at higher rates than white-collar workers. But the researchers showed that low socioeconomic status in childhood – by limiting the options for less strenuous jobs – played an even bigger role than workplace demands in whether the workers applied for the benefits.

However, when it comes to who is approved for benefits, physical and mental job requirements were key – and socioeconomic status plays no role. This makes sense because the heart of Social Security’s approval process is a determination that a disabled person is unable to do his previous job or another job appropriate to his age and experience.

An applicants’ health is, by definition, always central to whether he qualifies for disability. The final step in the researchers’ analysis used genetic data to get a picture of the applicants’ underlying health – as distinct from the health problems originating from a disadvantaged childhood. …Learn More


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Big Picture Helps with Retirement Finances

The prospect of retiring opens a Pandora’s box of questions. But one big question dominates all the others: How will I manage my finances when I retire?

This is a vexing problem, and baby boomers could use some help thinking it through. To ease the process, a team at UCLA and Cornell University led by David Zimmerman, a UCLA doctoral student, created an online decision tool. In an experiment, they found that the tool might help future retirees understand how to smooth out their income over many years and make their savings last.

The results are preliminary, and the researchers are refining their analysis. But for the initial experiment, they recruited 400 people, ages 40 through 63. The participants were instructed to use the tool to make three big retirement decisions: starting Social Security, choosing a 401(k)-withdrawal strategy, and deciding whether to purchase an annuity. Their decisions would be on behalf of a 60-year-old who is single and plans to retire in two years. He earns $55,000 and has $250,000 in savings to work with.

The participants were split into two comparison groups. One group received immediate feedback on the impact of each separate decision. For example, when the participants picked a Social Security starting age for the hypothetical person, a chart showed a horizontal line tracking the fixed annual benefit locked in by that decision.

When they moved on to another page and selected a plan for 401(k) withdrawals, a chart showed the age when the savings would probably run out. The final decision was whether to buy a deferred annuity with some portion, or all, of the 401(k) assets. The chart on this page displayed the fixed income the annuity would generate every year for as long as the person lives.

The participants were encouraged to change their decisions as much as they liked to see how a change affected that particular source of income. But the researchers suspected that seeing each decision in isolation doesn’t help to clarify how various decisions work together to determine total retirement income over time.

So, the second group got to see the big picture. The chart in this case displayed the impact of any single decision on the annual income from all sources.Learn More

Is Job Automation Connected to Disability?

Grocery store clerk with a mask on

Manufacturing workers file more applications to the federal disability program than any other workers. What seems new is that jobs like administrative assistant and retail worker aren’t that far behind.

Is one possible explanation that the computerization of once-routine occupations like these plays a role in decisions to apply for disability benefits?

Consider the example of a retail worker with a bad back who is laid off, or perhaps she quits because she struggled to handle the cognitive challenges of increased automation. Even simple tasks such as processing customer transactions or locating a product at another store now require computer skills. And the worker’s skills may not match up with the technical qualifications needed to find a new job in a labor market where routine jobs are rapidly disappearing.

Given her disability, the worker might decide that her best – or only – option to ensure she has some income is to apply for disability benefits.

Job Automation ChartA study by Mathematica researcher April Yanyuan Wu did not find direct evidence that this skills mismatch triggers applications. But her findings suggest it might be a factor.

Wu provided new statistics on the types of jobs once held by disability applicants and on the changes over time in the job attributes, compared with the changes in job attributes facing the general working population.

Between 2007 and 2014, for example, the share of the applicants’ former jobs that required computer skills rose by 18 percentage points, outpacing the increase for the labor force overall. At the same time, jobs requiring moderate cognitive ability also increased more for people with disabilities than it did for all workers.

Stress is a telling indication of the challenges of increased job automation. The growth in high-stress jobs once held by people with disabilities was much larger than for workers overall, according to the study, which was funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration. …Learn More


House roof illustrations

Boomers Repairing their Mortgage Finances

The housing market collapse more than a decade ago inflicted a lot of financial damage on baby boomers nearing retirement. But a new study finds that some have been trying to make up for lost time by rapidly reducing their mortgage debt.

Since the Great Recession, the boomers who were born in the 1950s – they are now in their 60s – have paid down more than 40 percent of their remaining mortgages and home equity loans, on average – a much faster pace than their parents did at that age.

Not all the damage from the Great Recession can be repaired, however, because many people lost their homes in the wave of foreclosures. For example, the homeownership rate for the boomers born in the early 1950s quickly dropped slightly more than 10 percentage points after the housing crisis, to 67 percent, where it remained until 2016, the last year of data in the study.

Since then, the U.S. homeownership rate has increased but is still below the pre-recession peak.

The impact of the housing crisis was far less dramatic for Americans born in the early 1930s. Their homeownership rate dipped 2 percentage points right after the crisis, to a relatively high 76 percent, according to Jason Fichtner of Johns Hopkins University.

The decline in boomers’ homeownership leaves fewer of them with housing wealth to fall back on when they retire.

They have also fallen behind in fully paying off their mortgages, which would eliminate their monthly payments and make the house a low-cost place to live. Just half of the boomers born in the early 1950s who held onto their homes during the Great Recession own them outright – two-thirds of the people born in the early 1930s had paid off their mortgages by that age. …Learn More


2021 art

Our Popular Blogs in the Year of COVID

2020 was a year like no other.

But despite the pandemic, most baby boomers’ finances emerged unscathed. The stock market rebounded smartly from its March nosedive. And the economy has improved, though it remains on shaky ground.

Our readers, having largely ridden out last spring’s disruptions, returned to a perennial issue of interest to them: retirement planning.

One of their favorite articles last year was “Unexpected Retirement Costs Can be Big.” So was “Changing Social Security: Who’s Affected,” which was about the toll that increasing the program’s earliest retirement age could take on blue-collar workers in physical jobs who don’t have the luxury of delaying retirement.

COVID-19 in the nation’s nursing homes has caused incomprehensible tragedy. A nursing home advocate explained how this happened in “How COVID-19 Spreads in Nursing Homes.” And the mounting death toll in nursing homes surely confirmed a longstanding preference among baby boomers – as documented in “Most Older Americans Age in their Homes.”

Despite the economy’s halting recovery, layoffs due to COVID-19 still “may be contributing to the jump in boomer retirements,” the Pew Research Center said. Pew estimates that 3.2 million more boomers retired last year than in 2019, far outpacing the increases in recent years.

The layoffs have no doubt forced some boomers to start their Social Security earlier than planned, as explained in “Social Security: Tapped more in Downturn” and “A Laid-off Boomer’s Retirement Plan 2.0.” But unemployed older workers who are still too young for retirement benefits might apply for disability insurance, according to a study described in “Disability Applications Spike in Recession.”

Baby boomers hoping to ease into retirement on their own terms liked a pair of articles about ongoing research by Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile: “Mapping Out a Fulfilling Retirement” and “Retirement is Liberating – and Hard Work.”

Other 2020 articles popular with our readers included: …Learn More


Tax Form 1040

How Much Will Your Retirement Taxes Be?

Four out of five retired households will pay little or no income taxes. But the tax rates at the highest income levels are meaningful, averaging 11 percent of household income and as much as 23 percent at the very top.

These estimates come from a new analysis by the Center for Retirement Research that sheds light on a potentially important consideration that is often overlooked by people approaching retirement age.

The highest tax rates are paid by the highest-income households because they often withdraw money from 401(k)s and IRAs to supplement their Social Security benefits. They must also pay capital gains taxes when they sell stocks and bonds for a profit from their regular financial accounts.

Retirement Taxes ChartHouseholds with income in the top 20 percent have nearly $770,000, on average, in retirement savings and other financial assets – their taxes equal 11 percent of their total retirement income. However, limiting the households to the top 5 percent of the income distribution, the tax rate increases to 16 percent – and the top 1 percent pays 23 percent.

These estimates assume retirees start pulling money out of their taxable 401(k) and IRA accounts when the IRS’ required minimum distributions (RMDs) kick in at age 70 1/2 – this age will increase to 72 next year. The tax rates were very similar under alternate scenarios that assume retirees either start withdrawing savings prior to the RMD or buy an immediate annuity with a survivor’s benefit.

The tax estimates are based on data for older U.S. households with at least one recent retiree. The researchers first calculated their expected future lifetime income from Social Security, 401(k)s and other sources in each year. The future yearly tax payments were then estimated using a program that applies IRS rules and each state’s tax rules to the various types of retirement income.

The tax rates are their total tax bills as a percentage of their total income. …Learn More

Blue-Collar Workers Often Retire Early

Construction workers

Construction and factory workers, truck drivers, and cleaning crews don’t always have the flexibility to work a few extra years to beef up their monthly Social Security checks.

Several blog readers stressed this point in their comments on a recent blog article, “Changing Social Security: Who’s Affected.”

Lorraine Porto retired from a desk job, but her family is filled with craftsmen, carpenters, electricians, farmers, and truckers who worked “until they were worn out.”

People in white-collar jobs don’t always appreciate “just how tough and demanding it is” to climb poles every day, descend into manholes, build skyscrapers, or bring in the hay in 90-degree heat and sub-zero temperatures, Porto said.

Her comment was in response to the article, which described a study about a hypothetical increase in Social Security’s retirement ages. It found that if Congress were to increase the earliest possible age for starting Social Security from 62 currently to 64, blue-collar workers would have much more of an adjustment to make.

Blue-collar workers, Kenneth Wegner wrote, “are less physically able to remain in their jobs.”

Policymakers are well aware of this concern, and a proposal to increase the early retirement age isn’t currently on the table. Yet many people are deciding to postpone retirement on their own. The general trend in recent decades is for all workers – even some people in physically demanding jobs – to delay when they collect Social Security.

That wasn’t possible for Mark Roberts. The former electrician, who worked on construction sites in Austin, Texas, said he had to go on disability due to an old foot injury that got worse over time. Now 67, he said he wasn’t able to work long enough or earn enough to save for retirement and ekes out an existence on his Social Security checks.

“I have to survive for a month on what I used to make every week,” he said.

White-collar workers who lose their jobs can also find themselves in a similar predicament. …Learn More

 


Originally posted at https://squaredawayblog.bc.edu/tag/social-security/

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