Resolutions to getting back on track financially a catalyst for positive change

Published on December 27, 2021 in RINewsToday

With the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, we will see a scaled back Times Square celebration where the ball swiftly drops as 15,000 people, in a viewing area that holds around 58,000 revelers, will loudly count down to one at the stroke of midnight. At this time, we traditionally make New Year Resolutions to accomplish in the coming year – to perform acts of kindness, take steps to ensure our financial security, or for self-improvement.

Experts say that making resolutions can help us set goals and provide us with time for reflection as to what is important to us in the coming year. They can serve as catalysts for positive change and increase our self-esteem and sense of accomplishment. Here are the findings of two resolution studies, recently released by Voya Financial, Inc. and Fidelity Investments that may well be good for your physical health and well-being, and financial health.

Many Seek to Re-Focus Their Life Priorities

As we approach 2022, Voya Financial, Inc. released its latest study with findings indicating that nearly one-third (31%) of survey respondents say they are not planning to make any new year’s resolutions in 2022. According to researchers, the results suggest that nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans might be seeking to re-focus their life’s priorities. 

However, Voya’s latest consumer research survey also revealed that when asked specifically what resolutions individuals do plan to make in 2022, more than half (60%) noted an interest in improving their overall well-being, with 44% noting a focus on physical health and 31% on their mental health.

“For many, it may seem refreshing to see that perhaps many Americans are taking a more holistic view of what’s valuable to them as we approach almost two years of pandemic life, and we understand that the impacts of the pandemic have shifted priorities for many individuals,” said Heather Lavallee, CEO of Wealth Solutions for Voya Financial, in a Dec. 9 statement announcing the study’s findings. “With the much-needed focus on what is most important and valuable, it seems that a good number of Americans are ready to take a pass on the resolution ritual this year. That said, it is reassuring to see that those who are planning to do so are most focused on their physical and mental health,” says Lavallee.

However, surviving the financial impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has many of the survey recipients say that they are monitoring financial changes that might be occurring in 2022, thus indicating that financial security continues to be a priority resolution. 

Voya’s research shows a large number of individuals are likely or extremely likely to: save more for emergencies (76%); reduce or pay down their overall debt (72%); and save for retirement (72%). The researchers also say that these numbers are even higher for those generations who might have been impacted financially more during the pandemic, with Generation Z (89%) and millennials (83%) noting that they are likely or extremely likely to save more in the coming year. 

“We continue to see interest in making changes to feel more financially secure, which is something we have found consistently since the beginning of the pandemic. But what’s most encouraging is the continued interest in saving for those generations who may have been impacted from job loss or furloughs throughout the pandemic,” added Lavallee. “And we’re seeing this shift to more positive savings behaviors in our own data as well — as more than 60% of Generation Z and millennial workers who changed their savings rates in their workplace retirement plan during the third quarter of 2021, increasing their contribution,” he said.

As individuals continue to begin building back savings and improving their overall financial well-being, many also appear to be seeking support from their employer. When asked about the importance of employer-offered benefits, Voya’s survey revealed that the majority of individuals rank the following benefits as important or extremely important: employer-sponsored retirement savings (82%); flexible work hours (77%); mental health benefits (72%); short-term/long-term disability income insurance (76%); and whole life or term life insurance (69%).

“With these findings in mind, and for those employers who are looking to help their employees as we approach the new year, we recommend considering reminding employees of the benefits and resources that are available to them at the workplace, whether that may be an employee assistance program, a resource for helping with elder or child care, or making the most of their benefits to achieve those more financially focused resolutions,” said Rob Grubka, CEO of Health Solutions for Voya Financial. “The reality is that we often find many individuals don’t recognize how many great resources are available to them — and many without cost — directly from their employer,” he says.

Fidelity Survey’s Take on 2022 Resolutions  

According to Fidelity’s 2022 Financial Resolutions Study released just weeks ago, Americans are feeling a little bit more hopeful about their finances in the upcoming year. More than 62% of Americans feel optimistic about their future, despite the unknowns of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, and 72% are confident they’ll be in a better financial shape. Sixty-eight percent are considering making a financial resolution for the new year.

Despite the optimism reflected in this survey, respondents noted that inflation (43%), unanticipated expenses (43%) and COVID-19’s impact on the economy (36%) are their top concerns for the upcoming year. 

Like the Voya’s study, the respondents indicated that they are also making resolutions around physical (74%), mental health (61%)  and general well-being (73%) at higher levels than in the past year. The researchers note that this may be the result of achieving success in 2021 with goal-setting, as greater numbers of people report being able to stick to resolutions in 2021 in all areas; notably, 71% of respondents were able to stick with their 2021 financial resolutions, up from 58% in 2020.

“The country has been through a seemingly unrelenting roller coaster over the past two years, so it’s encouraging to see people feeling more hopeful about the coming year and placing a priority on themselves,” said Stacey Watson, senior vice president of Life Event Planning, Fidelity Investments in a Dec. 9 statement announcing the study’s findings. “This study confirms that actions taken at the start of the pandemic – such as budgeting better and replenishing that emergency savings fund – are becoming permanent habits for many,” she said.

What silver linings did American’s experience during the past two years of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?  Respondents say they became more thoughtful about savings and spending (42%), followed by “becoming closer to family” (39%) and “becoming stronger as a person” (34%). 

The survey respondents also noted they will be taking a more thoughtful approach to finances next year, taking a more practical view toward creating their financial resolutions. 38% say they are considering more conservative goals, a number that is even higher (46%) among the next generation. The top three financial resolutions, identified by this study were saving more money (43%), paying down debt (41%) and spending less money (31%). 

For those looking to save more in 2022, the objectives are somewhat split—51% plan to save for the long term, while 49% are looking at shorter-term objectives, such as boosting emergency savings or saving for a mortgage. Among the next generation, 62% plan to increase their retirement contribution in the year ahead, at a far higher level than older Americans (34%).

And what do people say they want to do once they’ve paid off the bills and set aside money for the future? By far, Americans are looking to get away if it’s safe to do so, as travel tops the list for where people plan to spend their extra dollars.

Compared to last year’s Financial Resolution Study, however, the latest study suggests stress levels—those things keeping people up at night—have significantly decreased. When stress is present, it involves finding money to save after paying monthly bills, the ability to simply pay bills and saving for retirement, say the researchers. Part of this stress reduction may be attributed to acceptance, as 84% of Americans say after living through the pandemic, they’ve learned to let go of worrying about that which can’t be controlled.

With New Year’s Day just five days away, if you have not done it, it’s time for you to write your resolutions for 2022.  Have a great year…

Social Security learns from remote experience, plans field office openings

Published on December 13, 2021 in RINewsToday

On March 17, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly spread throughout the nation, the Social Security Administration  (SSA) issued a press release announcing that its offices would only offer phone service and online services.

However, in-person appointments at SSA were scheduled for critical issues, specifically for those who were without food, medicine, shelter, or those needing to apply for benefits or to reinstate them. This decision allowed SSA to provide critical services while protecting its employees and older beneficiaries, many with underlying medial conditions. 

Congress Expresses Concern Over Closing of SSA Field Offices  

Almost four months later, House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee chairperson John B. Larson (D-CT) and Republican Leader Tom Reed (R-NY) sent two letters to the SSA Inspector General Gail S. Ennis asking for a review of SSA’s telephone service during the COVID-19 pandemic and SSA’s process for obtaining medical evidence for disability claims.

The correspondence to SSA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) noted that as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, beneficiaries are relying on their Social Security now more than ever. Except in dire need, beneficiaries are unable to access in-person services and are relying instead on telephone services.

Members of Congress warned that beneficiaries, especially those from vulnerable populations who lack internet connection especially in rural areas or don’t have a reliable phone number or mailing addresses, are struggling to gain access SSA while field offices are closed.

“As highlighted in the OIG’s recent report, even before the current crisis the pubic relied heavily in SSA’s telephone services, but often could not access timely information or assistance. In fiscal year 2019, SSA’s national 1-800 number and field  offices received over 143 million calls – but handled fewer than to 3 of these calls. Callers who did not get a busy signal or give up while on hold waited to speak with an SSA employee for an average of 20 minutes on the 1-800 number and three minutes at field offices.

In addition, SSA requests millions of medical records each year from health care facilities and health professionals across the country to obtain evidence of an individual’s medical condition. The medical records request is an important part of the disability process, but the most recent report on this topic from the OIG is from 2001 and does not reflect changes to the process over the past nearly 20 years.

“Social Security benefits are earned by hard-working Americans, and we must do everything we can to ensure people are receiving the quality customer service they deserve.  These reports will provide important information to make sure Americans are receiving the service they expect and deserve from SSA,” said Larson and Reed.

SSA Responds to the Closing of Field Offices 

Almost two weeks ago, Ennis released a 58-page Congressional Response report, “The Social Security Telephone Service Performance,” detailing the impact on the closing of about 1,300 field offices.

The OIG found that in FY 2020, SSA received over 150 million calls, more than any other federal agency surveyed, and handled over half of those calls. Calls to field offices increased dramatically, from an average of 4.6 million calls per month leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic to an average of 7.5 million calls per month from April to Sept. 2020.

According to the OIG’s report, SSA’s telephone services shifted to more calls to field offices in FY 2020 when the agency closed its offices and provided the public with more field office telephone numbers. The increase in field office calls resulted in increased busy messages and wait-times toward the end of FY 2020. During the pandemic, SSA adjusted national 800 number operations to reduce wait times and the number of callers who received a busy message. National 800 number performance began to decline toward the end of the fiscal year, though it was still better then pre-pandemic performance.

When comparing SSA to 13 customer service call centers from 10 other federal agencies, SSA had a higher call volume in FY 2020 with similar or better performance.

To reduce wait times, improve caller experience, and ensure more calls are handled SSA hired additional 800-number staff, modified automated service options, and plans to implement a new telephone system.

“This [IOG] report highlights that SSA’s telephone services are vital to the American public. While I applaud the hard work of SSA employees, especially during the pandemic, the report also highlights actions that SSA is taking to reduce telephone wait times, handle more calls and improve caller experience, said Larson, noting that SSA will need more funding to do so and that is why he is supporting House Appropriations and Chair DeLauro’s proposal to give SSA an additional $1.1 billion in FY 2022.

Adds Reed, “This report provides clear evidence that with determined agency leadership and the hard work of dedicated staff, the SSA was able to respond to the largest management crisis in its history. With the almost 65 percent increase in phone calls during the pandemic the report also demonstrates the public’s clear and continued demand for access to the SSA’s vital services.” 

Opening the Doors

According to newly released 19-page SSA reentry plan, after more than 18 months working from home, senior SSA leadership are beginning to return to their offices, in early December. Employees are scheduled to return to their desks by Jan. 3. Along with in-person appointments, the agency will now also embrace telework. 

The agency will lift its current “work from home by quarantine” policy starting Jan. 2, at which point related collective bargaining agreements and pandemic policies will end as well. Reentry dates could change with the spread of the delta and omicron variant.

“We will use the evaluation period to develop, assess, and, if necessary, adjust any personnel or operational policies to provide public service and accomplish our mission as well as or better than, before the pandemic,” the SSA reentry plan reads. “Each [deputy commissioner] will evaluate their operations to identify ways to improve service, hire and retain the best employees and to operate efficiently including the consideration of potential space savings resulting from increased telework and information technology improvements.”

Over the next six months, the agency will review metrics on customer satisfaction, employee experience, service availability, workload, and environmental considerations.

“Throughout the pandemic, Social Security has helped many people through in-person appointments for certain situations in local offices nationwide and through options like online, telephone and video service,” Nicole Tiggemann, an SSA spokeswoman, said in an email to AARP, reported by Writer John Waggoner in his Nov. 11 blog posting, “Social Security Takes Steps to Reopen Field Offices.

“We know that those options do not work for everyone, says Tiggemann. “In order to improve service, especially for people who have had difficulty reaching us during the pandemic, Social Security will begin implementing the reentry process agencywide as soon as possible, including taking steps to increase in-person accessibility,” she said.

AARP applauds a return to normalcy at SSA. “Obviously, from our point of view, we’d like to see those offices open and staffed as soon as possible,” says Joel Eskovitz, director of Social Security and Savings at the AARP Public Policy Institute,” in Waggoner’s blog posting.

A Sacred Trust – moves to strengthen Social Security

Published on November 8, 2021 in RINewsToday

Almost two weeks ago, House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairperson John B. Larson (D-Conn.) threw H.R. 5723, the Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust, into the legislative hopper. During its unveiling in the historic committee room of the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, the same room where Social Security and Medicare legislation was crafted in the 1930s and 1960, the Connecticut Congressman’s proposal comes on the heels of the Social Security Administration’s 2021 estimate that the trust funds that support the program will be depleted in just 13 years, averting an estimated 20 percent cut in benefits by 2034.

The Sacred Trust Act is the successor to Larson’s original Social Security 2100 Act, which he first introduced in 2014.The House Ways and Means Committee is planning to hold a hearing on the bill in Nov. followed by a markup.

At press time, 194 House Democratic Members are cosponsoring the 100-page House Democratic proposal with no Republican lawmakers crossing the aisle. Almost 40 advocacy groups are endorsing the House Democratic proposal.

At the Oct. 26 news conference unveiling Larson’s legislative proposal, the Connecticut congressman noted that Congress expanded Social Security during the past 50 years and it has been 38 years since lawmakers have taken any comprehensive action to strengthen the program.“ With 10,000 Baby Boomers a day becoming eligible, and with millennials needing Social Security more than any generation, the time for Congress to act is now,” he said.

Taking a Close look at H.R. 5723

According to the legislative fact sheet released at the news conference, H.R. 5723 gives a benefit bump for current and new Social Security beneficiaries. It provides an increase for all beneficiaries (receiving retirement, disability or dependent benefits) equivalent to an average of 2% of benefits to make up for inadequate Cost-of-Living Adjustments (COLA) since 1983.

Larson’s Social Security proposal also protects Social Security beneficiaries against inflation. It improves the annual COLA formula by adopting a Consumer Price Index for the Elderly (CPI-E), to better reflect the costs incurred by seniors who spend a greater portion of their income on health care and other necessities. Although the 2022 COLA 5.9%, the largest in years, the average for the past 10 years is roughly 1.5% and in 3 of the past 12 years, beneficiaries received no COLA at all.

It protects low-income works that provides a new minimum benefit stet at 25% above the poverty line and would be tied to wage levels to ensure that minimum benefits doe not fall behind. Currently, 5 million seniors live in poverty.

The Sacred Trust Act also contains other provisions that seniors and their advocates have sought for years, including:

  • Improving Social Security benefits for widows and widowers in two income households so they are  not penalized for having two incomes.
  • Ending five-month waiting period to receive disability benefits so those with ALS or other severe disabilities no longer have to wait.
  • Providing caregiver credits for Social Security wages to ensure that caregivers are not penalized in retirement for taking timeout of the workforce to care for children and other dependents.
  • Extending Social Security benefits for students to age 26 and for part-time students.
  • Increasing access to Social Security dependents for children who live with grandparents or other relatives.
  • Requiring Social Security Administration (SSA) to mail annual statements to all workers detailing the FICA contributions they make and projects of their benefits in the future. 
  • Preventing unwarranted closures of SSA offices to improve customer serve
  • Improving access to legal representation for people seeking long-term disability benefits.

H.R. 5723 would pay for strengthening the Social Security Trust Fund by having millionaires and billionaires pay the same rate as everyone else.Currently, payroll taxes are not collected on an individual wages over $142,800.The legislative proposal would apply payroll taxes to wages above $400,00.This provision would only impact the top 0.04% of wage earners.

Larson’s proposal would also extend the solvency of Social Security by making a significant contribution to the programs solvency, making up more than half of the shortfall in the Social Security Trust Funds.

Finally, H.R. 5723 would combine the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance with Disability Insurance into one Social Security Trust Fund, to ensure all benefits will be paid.

It’s Now Time to Fix Social Security 

Larson’s Social Security proposal would “take historic steps to expand Social Security — delivering for retirees, people with disabilities, and their families the first real boost in benefits in 50 years.  The Sacred Trust Act also would bring new revenue into Social Security amid projections that the trust fund will run dry in 2034 if Congress doesn’t take action,” says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

“To those who claim that no one in Washington has the courage to address Social Security’s challenges, or that the only solution is to cut benefits for future generations, Congressman Larson’s bill is a stunning refutation,” states Richtman, noting that he understands that beneficiaries need an increase in monthly checks to meet skyrocketing living expenses. “He knows that the fairest way to strengthen Social Security’s finances is for the wealthy to begin paying their fair share of payroll contributions.  For years, seniors and their advocates have demanded these improvements,” adds Richtman.   

“There is good news for everyone in this bill, which is only fitting, since Social Security touches almost every American’s life.  Beneficiaries have waited long enough for these vital improvements.  Congressman Larson now has nearly 200 cosponsorsin the House.  After seven long years, seniors and their advocates can finally see the finish line, says Richtman.  

With the Democrats controlling the White House, seniors have a good chance of seeing the expansion and strengthening of Social Security.  The proposal has many of President Biden’s promises made during his campaign.  But, like Larson’s previous Social Security Bill, the latest version has no Republican cosigners.

Over the years, poll after poll has shown that the American public strongly supports Social Security, across party and demographic lines.  Larson’s legislative proposal has the support in the House, but will it pass in the upper chamber with Senate Democrats holding a slim majority?  Will voter support influence Republican lawmakers to work across the aisle with Democrats to hammer out an acceptable bipartisan  proposal, as the 2022 mid-term elections get closer?  We’ll just have to wait and see.