Bankruptcy Is The New Retirement

image: happy retirement

Graying of U.S. Bankruptcy: Fallout from Life in a Risk Society

Deborah Thorne
University of Idaho

Pamela Foohey
Indiana University - Maurer School of Law

Robert M. Lawless
University of Illinois - College of Law

Katherine M. Porter
University of California - Irvine School of Law

August 5, 2018

The social safety net for older Americans has been SHRINKING for the past couple decades. The risks associated with aging, reduced income, and increased healthcare costs, have been off-loaded onto older individuals. At the same time, older Americans are increasingly likely to file consumer bankruptcy, and their representation among those in bankruptcy has never been higher. Using data from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, we find more than a two-fold increase in the rate at which older Americans (age 65 and over) file for bankruptcy and an almost five-fold increase in the percentage of older persons in the U.S. bankruptcy system. The magnitude of growth in older Americans in bankruptcy is so large that the broader trend of an aging U.S. population can explain only a small portion of the effect. In our data, older Americans report they are struggling with increased financial risks, namely inadequate income and unmanageable costs of healthcare, as they try to deal with reductions to their social safety net. As a RESULT of these increased financial burdens, the median senior bankruptcy filer enters bankruptcy with negative wealth of $17,390 as compared to more than $250,000 for their non-bankrupt peers. For an increasing number of older Americans, their golden years are fraught with economic risks, the result of which is often bankruptcy.

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Bankruptcy is hitting more older Americans, pointing to a retirement crisis in the making

By Michael Hiltzik
LA Times
Aug 6, 2018

Whether America is facing a retirement CRISIS in which seniors are making do with shrinking financial resources has been widely debated. But here’s a telling metric: Seniors are making a larger share of bankruptcy filings.

That’s the finding of a new paper by academic researchers affiliated with the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, which periodically samples personal bankruptcy filings from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. “Older Americans are increasingly likely to file consumer bankruptcy,” they write, “and their representation among those in bankruptcy has never been higher.”

The figures should worry advocates for SENIORS, because in terms of the overall financial health of the 65+ cohort, its likely to be the tip of the iceberg. “Only a small fraction of those who are having financial troubles file for bankruptcy, one of the authors, Robert Lawless of the University of Illinois law school, told me. “So this is part of a much bigger story about financial distress among the elderly.”

It’s true that the elderly have been the beneficiaries since the 1930s of America’s strongest and most successful social safety net. The system was born with Social Security in 1935, which aimed to reduce the scandalous poverty rate among seniors. It was followed by Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, which offered relief for healthcare, and culminated in the Medicare prescription drug program enacted in 2003.

During that same period, a sizable percentage of American workers were covered by corporate defined-benefit pensions, producing what retirement experts have called “a brief golden age” when many American workers could retire with confidence.

Over the last few decades, however, confidence in that safety net has ebbed. Defined-benefit plans have given way to defined contribution plans such as 401(k)s, which saddle workers with all the risk of investment market downturns - and in which wealthier workers are overrepresented, both in enrollment rates and balances.

Some older Americans may have more access to retirement income than their forebears, but theyre also carrying more debt. The share of Americans still carrying mortgage debt when they reach age 65 rose to 38% in 2013 from 22% in 1995, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard. Their mortgage balances also have risen over that period, to $73,000 from $27,300 in inflation-adjusted terms. Despite Medicare, medical expenses remain a large component of “seniors” financial burdens.

It’s also proper to keep in mind that the stagnation of wages for workers is certain to have an impact as today’s workers move into retirement. Jobs that once offered a stable middle-class income with benefits have morphed into low-wage jobs without job security, healthcare or pensions. Workers struggling to make ends meet in an economy in which corporate profits are approaching a post-recession record arent likely to become suddenly flush in their retirement years.

The bankruptcy paper has sustained some criticism from commentators who believe the retirement crisis has been exaggerated. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones observed, fairly enough, that the bankruptcy rate for the 65+ cohort hasn’t changed at all over the last 15 years, and the run-up in the rate during the decade 1991-2001 reflects a sharp increase in the rate among all Americans and that increase began in the mid-1980s.

But I would argue that more seems to be going on here. To begin with, the bankruptcy bulge seems to be moving up the age ladder. In 1991, 8.2% of all bankruptcy filings were made by households led by people 55 or older; by the 2013-2016 period, their share was 33.7%. According to the new paper, the bankruptcy rates among all age groups 54 and younger have fallen since 1991, but the rates for all groups 55 and older have risen.

This isn’t related to the general graying of the U.S. population. As Lawless observes, the over-65 population has risen by 16% since 1991. But bankruptcy filings in that cohort have increased by 2 times.

“This is not a trend, but something qualitatively different in what were seeing,” he says.

Lawless and his colleagues point out that while bankruptcy is a last resort for any debtor and nothing like the panacea its often depicted to be, itҒs an especially dire choice for seniors. Unlike younger debtors, seniors dont have years ahead of them to rebuild their household finances while their debts are held in abeyance. ғBy the time they file bankruptcy, the paper observes, ԓtheir wealth has vanished.

America has some serious policy choices to make, and pretending that seniors are living the high life on Social Security doesn’t clarify matters, especially as the claim is typically made by conservatives as a rationale to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits.

The figures on bankruptcy suggest that the opposite is necessary expanding Social Security and increasing benefits to shore up retiree resources against the decline of personal savings and pension income. The guaranteed retirement accounts advocated by a number of retirement experts - personal accounts funded by workers and employers during their working years, supported by a tax credit and a government guarantee against loss of principal - are a promising option. America has more than enough resources to make sure, as it did in the 1930s, that its seniors won’t be facing their last years fearing penury.

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Entering retirement broke and bankrupt

By Aimee Picchi
MoneyWatch
August 6, 2018

The “golden years” of retirement are significantly tarnished for some older Americans, whose ranks among the bankrupt have surged fivefold since 1991.

Even though the U.S. population is aging, the spike in older Americans entering bankruptcy far exceeds the demographic shift, according to new research from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, which analyzed data from bankruptcy court records and written questionnaires. About 100,000 of the 800,000 annual bankruptcy filings are from households headed by seniors, or about 12.2 percent of all filings.

The culprit appears to be cutbacks in the social safety net—such as raising the retirement age and requiring seniors to pay more out-of-pocket health care costs—as well as a shift in risk from government and corporations onto individuals. Americans are less likely today to retire with a private pension, given the growing popularity of 401(k)s, where workers are responsible for making their own investment and savings decisions, and more likely to be carrying mortgage and credit card debt into their 60s and 70s.

The full retirement age for Social Security, once 65, is inching up every year. And retirees are now paying 20 percent of their income on health care expenses even though they are covered by Medicare, compared with 12 percent for previous generations.

As a result, the rate of bankruptcy among Americans over age 65 has doubled over the period studied by the researchers. “For an increasing number of older Americans, their golden years are fraught with economic risks, the result of which is often bankruptcy,” their report noted.

Because one-quarter of the country will be older than 65 by 2050 compared with 15 percent now, the authors predict America will see a “coming storm of broke elderly.”

Older and poorer

The problem with these societal risk shifts, as the authors view it, is that seniors are the group least able to cope with such changes. Because of their age, they have fewer years to build or rebuild wealth, and it’s common for older Americans to have trouble finding jobs that pay as much as they earned when they were younger, they noted.

“Retirement is a particularly precarious time of life,” they wrote.

Bankruptcy is designed to provide a “fresh start” by wiping away debts or restructuring them in a way that makes it easier to pay them down, but bankrupt seniors don’t have enough time to regrow their financial wealth, they added.

Bankrupt seniors are in rough financial shape, the researchers found. They are shouldering more than $100,000 in debt, compared with $1,000 in debt for their non-bankrupt peers. Financially solvent senior citizens have about $251,000 in wealth, but bankrupt older Americans have negative net wealth of more than $17,000.

Older Americans who file for bankruptcy are less likely than their younger peers to have a college degree, although there’s no racial difference between older and younger debtors, the researchers found. But across the general population, Asian-Americans and Hispanics are less likely to file for bankruptcy than white or black Americans.
“All things went up in price”

Older Americans who file for bankruptcy told the researchers in survey responses that they were often hit by a double-whammy: inadequate retirement income and rising costs—especially health care costs.

“All things went up in price,” one unidentified respondent told the researchers. “Retirement never went up. Had a part time job that was helping to meet monthly payments. House payment kept going up. Was fired from my part time job that I had for over 10 years without any warning. Being 67 and having back problems, not many people will hire you even as part time worker.”

Others noted their health problems resulted in a loss of their job or income, while their insurance didn’t fully cover their health expenses.

“I got to the point I owed more than I was making on Social Security. To get out from under these medical bills I had to file bankruptcy,” another respondent told the researchers.

About 7 out of 10 respondents indicated that the combination of medical expenses and missing work contributed to their bankruptcies.

Asked what they were unable to afford in the year before going bankrupt, half of seniors said the most important thing they had to cut back on was medical care, such as surgeries, prescriptions and dental care.

“These responses continue to suggest that their health care coverage is inadequate,” the researchers wrote.

Taken together, the portrait of retirement in the U.S. is one of instability and risk, at least for some Americans. And bankruptcy, while designed to provide some relief, may be “too little too late.”

They added, “By the time they file, their wealth has vanished, and they simply do not have the enough years to get back on their feet.”

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