According to recently released Census data, poverty among older adults increased sharply again in 2022, after reaching an all-time low just two years before. One group of older Americans who’s especially struggling is older workers in physically demanding jobs. Contrary to the popular narrative that everyone’s living longer and work is getting easier, a recent task force convened by the National Academy of Social Insurance found that more than 10 million older workers are in jobs that are physically challenging and lack the resources to secure more viable jobs or retire. These workers are disproportionately low earners with lower educational attainment than the average American worker; they predominantly are workers of color and a growing share are women. For this week’s episode of Off-Kilter, we’re bringing you a panel discussion Rebecca moderated at a recent event hosted by the National Academy of Social Insurance about older workers in physically demanding jobs and the policy options the task force identified to strengthen social insurance supports to prevent poverty and hardship among this “invisible” group.
Links from this episode:
- Find the NASI task force report here and watch the full event here
- Learn more about the National Academy of Social Insurance at nasi.org
[bright theme music]
REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome back to Off-Kilter. I’m Rebecca Vallas. According to recently released census data, poverty among older adults in the U.S. increased sharply again in 2022 after reaching an all-time low just two years before. One group of older Americans who’s especially struggling is older workers in physically demanding jobs. Contrary to the popular narrative that everyone’s living longer and work is getting easier, a recent task force convened by the National Academy of Social Insurance found that more than 10 million older workers in the U.S. are in jobs that are physically challenging and lack the resources to secure more viable jobs or to retire. These workers are disproportionately workers of color, and a growing share are women.
So, for this week’s episode of Off-Kilter, we’re bringing you a panel discussion that I moderated at a recent event hosted by the National Academy of Social Insurance about older workers in physically demanding jobs and the policy options that that task force identified to strengthen social insurance supports to prevent poverty and hardship among this invisible group of workers. You can find the task force’s report in show notes and a link to watch the full event if you’re interested. And the sound that we’re gonna be sharing with you kicks off with a discussion of the task force report’s findings. Let’s take a listen. [upbeat music break]
ELAINE WEISS: So, the task force over the past two years produced a report that really has two parts to it. The first half of the report describes and documents who this quote-unquote “invisible group of older workers” is—and it’s really multiple invisible groups that overlap with each other—and the challenges that they face. And we thought that that was very important because it counters a sort of prevailing narrative that older workers are living longer and healthier, which while many are, way too many are not. And then the second part, in keeping with Academy history and tradition, identifies a broad range of policy options, in this case, most of them under the authority of SSA or DOL, to improve the financial stability and retirement security of this group. So, I wanna spend a few minutes describing and talking about this invisible or neglected target population. Could we see the next slide?
So, the task force focused on workers ages 50 through full retirement age because Social Security regulations make those years particularly relevant. Now, that is understanding that as workers age into their later 50s and early 60s, that becomes especially tough. Now, overall, there is limited data and evidence in this space. One study that we relied on quite a bit comes from the Center for Education Policy, Economic Policy Research, or CEPR, which used data from 2009 and then followed up in 2013 to describe older workers, in their case, workers ages 58 and older—so, older even than our target population—in difficult jobs. And by their quite conservative estimate, over 10 million older workers were in such jobs over a decade ago. BLS data from 2017 confirms that a substantial share of older workers, in their case ages 55 and up, are in physically challenging or otherwise non-sedentary jobs.
Now a couple of points worth noting. While the total share of workers in such jobs, older workers, stayed roughly the same between 2009, at the height of the Great Recession, stayed the same through 2014, the peak of economic recovery, what this indicated to us was that at a time when, for workers in general, many opportunities opened up to go to better jobs, that was not true of the most precarious older workers who are in this job. They did not see greater opportunities. Another point is that while overall, the top 15 most arduous jobs for these workers stayed mostly stable, home health aides increased dramatically over this time, which probably isn’t surprising. And then, of course, in the past few years, we’ve also seen quite large increases in warehouse work and in gig work, both especially among older workers. And while race plays a significant role across all of this, it turned out that educational attainment was the biggest driving factor with even high school diplomas providing a real advantage in getting away from these kind of jobs, and of course, any college really giving a further boost. Could we see the next slide?
These two charts really illustrate a couple of the points that I was just making. So, while overall, only about 40 percent of older workers are doing such jobs—and to us, 40 percent of older workers, workers who are 50+ in physically tough job seems actually pretty high to us—those numbers vary substantially. Roughly half of older Black workers, well over half of older Asian workers, and roughly 60 percent of older Latino workers are in such jobs versus just under 40 percent of white workers. Latinos in particular are doing the hardest jobs. About one in ten of older Latino workers are in jobs characterized as highly physically demanding. And again, while the share stayed about steady pre- and post-Great Recession, those with a high school degree or less fell even further behind as the economy recovered. Can we do the next slide?
So, the U.S. has in place a range of policies, mostly federal, but also some at the state level, that should, in theory, support these workers, in particular, as Bill pointed out, disability benefits and options to retire early. As our task force assessed, however, in reality, these policies generally are poorly structured to support our target populations, the folks that I just described. As a result, they are largely falling through the cracks, with many of them living near or even in poverty as they age. So, I’m going to now turn this over to Barbara to talk about options we identified for changing that and ensuring that that does not continue to be the case. Thanks, Barbara.
BARBARA BOVBJERG: Okay. Thank you, Elaine. Elaine did such a nice job on this report. I’m gonna talk about the options, the policy options, and we have almost 30 of them. But do not worry, I’m not gonna talk about all of them. I’m gonna talk about a few of them. And you can see we have a list of them in the report.
First, on the retirement side, at Social Security, I thought one of our most creative options actually came from the Academy Innovation Challenge that Bill mentioned earlier, which was to create a “bridge benefit,” so it’s Rebecca Vallas and Kirsten Weller’s proposal. And it would pay half the difference between early and full claiming if we follow current Social Security rules. So, one of the things the task force was most interested in is what if you made it available to people at even earlier ages who were in physically challenging jobs? And how might that work, and could that be done? So, that’s probably one of the most original options that we have.
Other ones in the Social Security space are really about raising benefits for lower earners that include our group but are not limited to them. Like, for example, increasing the minimum benefit, eliminating the earnings test, which is widely misunderstood and complete work disincentive. That we thought any or all of these would be a big help to our group who really don’t have retirement options before Social Security claiming age because they really don’t have the 401(k)s and the personal saving that others in higher economic strata do.
With regard to disability, we had quite a number of options, but here are just a couple. Eliminating the reconsideration stay to disability. So, if you get denied in the initial determination, you can ask for reconsideration. Well, no one gets a reversal at reconsideration. And that’s an exaggeration, but not many people do. And it just lengthens the time that people have to wait to go and appeal. And so, we thought if you could eliminate the reconsideration, that would help shorten the process for people.
We also thought that it’s really time to modernize vocational information, which is often what trips up older workers, is they’re told, “Well, you could do a job in the economy,” but is it a job that’s in today’s economy? Often not. Or it’s not anywhere near where they live. Social Security uses the Dictionary of Occupational Titles right now, which is completely obsolete. They have available to them, through the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a different and more modernized approach to data on occupations in the U.S.: the Occupational Requirements Survey. Yet it’s still not being used. Could it be used, or could some, if there’s something wrong there, could some modification of it be used? We think that would be a really good option for helping this group. We also thought about updating and simplifying the Medical-Vocational Profiles provision, which would help our group as well. I won’t go into that in a lot of detail, but it’s vocationally oriented.
We also had some options for SSA on communication. We felt that field office outreach could really be enhanced if they work closely with local organizations that have ties to disadvantaged workers. This would definitely supplement Social Security’s efforts to reach out and explain their programs and would certainly benefit those workers. We also, and something that’s been close to my heart for what, let’s say, 12 years, Social Security could start to or resume mailing its Social Security statements to all participating workers age 25 and above annually, which is required by law. And now particularly that that statement has been redesigned, we think it’s much, gonna be much more accessible to people who receive it. They just have to receive it.
We also turned to the Department of Labor for people who could work—and I’m sorry, I haven’t been asking Todd to move the slides. I’ve just been talking along! Yeah. Now we’re at Labor—who can continue to work, but maybe need to find another job ‘cause they, they’re not physically capable of doing this physically challenging work that they have been doing. And Labor has the Senior Community Service Employment Program, CSEP, which is focused on older workers. It’s funded by the Older Americans Act. But it really doesn’t provide enough for enough people. And while we thought it was a good program, we really thought it needed to be expanded, which of course takes more resources. But besides that, there isn’t a lot at Labor that really, we thought needed to be a more central focus on older workers. So, perhaps one option would be to have an Older Workers’ Bureau, much like they have a Women’s Bureau. They could coordinate different things that would help older workers in particular, like, for example, in unemployment insurance. Perhaps older workers could get benefits for more weeks than other workers because, as we all know, older workers take longer to find a new job than younger workers.
We also— And we can go on to the next. Yeah. [laughs] One of my favorite pictures, a geezer. We also call pretty broadly for improvements in the Workers’ Comp program, recognizing that this varies from state to state, so it’s much more difficult for the federal government to impose something there. We also call for better management and enforcement of age discrimination laws, hence the terms “geezer” and “fossil” up there. But overall, we were trying to provide options that would help this group because, as Bill says, they are invisible, and they shouldn’t remain that way. Here we are thinking about Social Security programs and financing for the future, and these are workers whose needs need to be explicitly considered as we do that, so at least they’re not made worse off. We would like to think that they could be made better off if some of these options came into being. So, I wanna thank the Academy, AARP, and the task force members, and Elaine Weiss for this important report and then turn the mic over to Rebecca Vallas of The Century Foundation. Rebecca is an Academy board member, and importantly, a task force member extraordinaire, and she’s gonna moderate our panel today. So, thank you for the time, and take it, Rebecca.
VALLAS: Thank you so much, Barbara, and thank you, Elaine. It’s a lot of fun to be here today, and I am totally honored to get to moderate the panel portion of today’s event. As Barbara mentioned, I’m Rebecca Vallas. I’m a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. I’m also one of the co-founders of the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative. And I have to say we have a pretty phenomenal panel lined up for today’s discussion. So, I’m gonna go ahead and invite them to join me on screen, which I’m gonna call the virtual dais, as I introduce them. Joel Eskovitz is director of Social Security and Savings at the AARP Policy Institute. Bethany Lilly is executive director of public policy at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Although little asterisk, she participated in this task force as a staffer at The Arc of the United States. Beth Truesdale is a research fellow at the Upjohn Institute. She’s also coeditor of Overtime: America’s Aging Workforce and the Future of Working Longer, which, as I understand it, is having its one-year anniversary of being released right now! So, our timing is pretty perfect for this discussion. We’re also thrilled to be joined by Keith Jones, who is the CEO of SoulTouchin’ Experiences. Keith, so glad to have you here with us today. Sharita Gruberg is vice president for economic justice at the National Partnership for Women and Families. And last but certainly not least, we have Helaine Olen with us, an opinion columnist at The Washington Post, who probably needs no introduction because we all love her pieces all the time on these issues. Thank you so much to all of you for being with us today. And without further ado, we’re gonna get into it.
But I just wanna note for our audience who’s participating virtually today, we are gonna be leaving time for questions at the end. You can ask those questions using the Zoom Q&A function, so feel free to throw them in while we’re talking, and we will be reserving time for questions at the end.
And Joel, I’m gonna go over to you first. I’m gonna put you on the spot first. So, part of why I’m gonna do that is because it was AARP that actually supported this task force as a follow-up to its 2019 Solutions Challenge or Innovations Challenge. And given that you were really one of the instigating factors behind this task force, I wanted to throw it to you first to ask why was AARP interested in focusing on how social insurance is doing for older workers in physically challenging jobs? One policy option that was identified by the task force and which Barbara mentioned was to create a “bridge benefit” in Social Security, something I have a real place in my heart for as an idea. And that’s something that I know AARP has a lot of interest in, in particular. So, if you would talk a little bit about maybe the story behind the task force and how we got here and why AARP wanted to explore this idea and the other pieces of this report.
JOEL ESKOVITZ: Sure. Thanks, Rebecca. And yes, this is a population that AARP has been very interested in supporting and has been circling around since this 2019 Challenge. I think there’s always been this call, in any kind of reform effort or even as the age increases today that, well, what do you do about this group of workers? So, identifying the workers as the first part of the report did and then coming up with feasible, practical solutions, that really was what we were looking at around the 2019 Challenge and then refining that here with this report. And so, the winner, one of the winners of that challenge was Rebecca and Kristin Weller. They have this bridge benefit. We’ve had a lot of interest around that. And so, I do wanna use some time today just to walk through how you would actually administer something like this, because I think a lot of people think that this would be, you know, it’s not feasible. We have run these concepts by SSA to make sure that we were not being pie in the sky. And so, this is what we came up with.
We’re still working to refine it, but the general idea behind this is that what we’re looking at here is not the worker but the work. So, it’s not an assessment of your health, like DI, your educational background, what jobs you could potentially do. We’re not looking for medical records or your particular health challenges. This is an assessment of the toll that you’ve put on your body and a recognition that no one should be expected to do physically demanding work deep into their 60s. So, we would leverage certain definitions from DI, like the type of work they have, you know, heavy, sedentary, etc. And one section from the DI application process that asks people to detail the type of work that they’ve done and for how long, that would be matched up with the pre-populated form that the IRS, you know, uses IRS data, payroll data to show that the person actually did those jobs. A formula would be applied. It would look both at the arduous work a person has done over their career, but also most recently.
We don’t have an exact algorithm, but we do note that other countries in the OECD do have standards here that SSA could borrow from. This would all be administered, though, not in the DI system, but through the retirement system. And we would expect that would make it a bit more efficient, and a person could be informed by, after the application whether they are eligible or how close they are. This would not prevent a person from applying for DI or attaining it later, but our hope is that maybe this would allow for folks that might be on the border— Apologies. The sun is going down, and that is my light. [laughs] And anyway, so, the idea here— Oh geez, it’s really dark. [laughs]
VALLAS: You need to jump up and down and wave your arms. [laughs]
ESKOVITZ: Yeah. So, anyways, the idea here, what this means in dollars and cents for an applicant is that if you applied at 62 and qualified for the benefit, you would see an annual recalculation of your benefits that would cut your early claiming penalty in half. So, I’ll quickly try to do some math and then wrap up, which is if your full benefit at age 67 is $1,000, under today’s rules, you’re only getting about $700 a month if you claimed at 62. Under the bridge benefit, that $300 benefit, or I’m sorry, $300 penalty would be cut in half, meaning that you would get about $850 at age 62. And every year until your full retirement age, this amount would be recalculated, so you would get the difference between the early claiming penalty at that age and your full retirement age, and that when you reach 67, you get your full benefit for life as though you claimed at 67. That’s, in essence, the bridge that brings you from a steep cut at 62 to a full benefit of 67. All right. And I’m glad that the sun returned at least so I could do my one visual there. And I will return back to Rebecca.
VALLAS: I’m in the same boat. I’m sitting at the Academy’s offices, and apparently, you have to wave your arms to keep the lights on.
VALLAS: So, we’re all gonna be in the same boat today! We appreciate saving electricity, and it can be challenging on webinars. So, thank you so much for that, Joel. And I suspect we may have folks ask more questions towards the end if they wanna learn more about the bridge benefit. There’s obviously more in the report. There’s also a lot still being fleshed out. So, excited at AARP’s interest in that idea and to see it lifted up in this report.
Beth, I wanna bring you in next, because you literally wrote the book [chuckles] when it comes to the future of our aging workforce and the inequality that we see between older workers with greater and less privilege, respectively. And in your book, you argue that it’s time to rethink the working longer ideal. “Precarious working conditions”—these are your words—“family caregiving responsibilities, poor health, and age discrimination all make it difficult or impossible for many to work longer, especially those who are in lower-wage jobs.” Would love to give you a chance to react to how this task force’s report fits with your research and what from your research you wanna add in to this conversation as we set the table.
BETH TRUESDALE: Yeah, thanks. First of all, I’m really excited to see this report come out. I think it’s addressing some of the themes that we also raised in the book and addressing questions that are often really left off the table when we’re talking about working longer, delayed retirement, these kinds of issues. So, it’s a hugely important topic, and I’m really so pleased to see this report come out. And congratulations to the task force on really good and hard work that’s gone into it.
There are two main points that the report makes that I want to highlight and echo ‘cause I think they’re really critical to this conversation and really often missing. The first one is, as you said in your intro there, understanding inequalities in opportunities for work and retirement is absolutely critical. It’s really not much of a consolation to know that on average, people are living longer. On average, people are healthier than they were 50 years ago. On average, work may be less demanding than it was in decades past. That’s not a lot of consolation if you’re one of the awful lot of people who are not in a situation where they’re gonna be able to work longer because they’ve had a health problem, because they’re working in a physically demanding job that no longer is something that they can do very well. So, understanding the inequalities and the disparities as well as the averages and bringing that into the conversation in a regular kind of way is something I think is just hugely important, and it has really important policy implications.
The minute you start to think about inequalities, you start to see that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to work and retirement. Some people are gonna be able to work well into their 60s, into their 70s, perhaps. Many are not. And so, you can either have— And I think the report does a really nice job of giving us some policy solutions that are targeted to that group, but also some policy solutions that are more universal, and by virtue of being universal, may have disproportionate benefits for people who are most disadvantaged, and I think that’s really critical. It’s not an either/or: should we target/should we have universal? It’s a both/and. So, that’s one thing I think the report does really, really well is the inequalities piece. I have a second one, but would you like me to do it now, or would you like to come back?
VALLAS: You’ve got time, Beth. You’ve got the floor. Keep it.
TRUESDALE: Super. So, the second thing that I think is really great about this report is this idea that working longer starts younger than we think. In so much of this conversation about delayed retirement, working longer, the conversation really tends to focus on what’s happening in people’s 60s. Can we get people to extend their working lives from 65 to 67? That’s where the full retirement age is going. Perhaps we can get people to extend from 67 to 70. Those are the ages that are kind of in people’s minds. But actually, I think what this report does a good job of pointing out, and what’s really critical for me as I think about this, is that we need to think about what’s happening to workers a decade or more before they hit those ages. If we want working in one’s mid-60s to be a realistic and good option for more Americans, we have to be looking at what’s happening to them in their 40s and their 50s, in their work and in their lives so the groundwork for working longer is laid long before you get to your 60s.
And that means in terms of policy implications, that we need to be not only focusing on what do you need if you’re 64, and you’re trying to stay in the labor force, and you’ve had physically demanding jobs that you can no longer do? We also need to be looking at things like job ladders. How do we look at the transitions that people could be making in their 40s and early 50s that set them up for that last decade of work? And to put some numbers on this, in our research, one of the things that we found is that only about half of Americans are consistently employed all the way through their 50s. And I think as you talk about this sort of invisible population, it’s really crucial to say how large are the section of people who may be struggling to stay employed, not to 65 or 67 or 70, but struggling to stay employed and productive throughout their 50s. So, for me, those are two things that the report, I think, kind of foundations for the report that I wanted to echo ‘cause I think they’re absolutely critical for this conversation.
VALLAS: Thank you so much for that, Beth, and for your research, which contributed significantly to the task force’s understanding of what is going on for this group of workers. So, thank you for being with us today, and we’ll come back to you for some more.
But, Keith, I wanna bring you in next, because there’s a ton of overlap between older workers and disabled workers. One particular statistic that always rings in my mind, which I think comes to us from Kathy Ruffing, who used to be at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities for a long time, is that you’re twice as likely to be disabled at age 50 as you are at 40, and you’re twice as likely to be disabled at 60 as you are at age 50. You and I talked for a podcast conversation actually not that long ago about how, for many disabled workers, in your words, “you have to work until you die” because of some pretty significant shortfalls in our social insurance system. Talk a little bit about why that’s the case and how our social insurance system is falling short, in particular not just for older workers, but for older workers with disabilities.
KEITH JONES: Well, thank you. And I wanted to commend, again, the task force for amazing work and for stating the obvious. One of the things that, to go to your question, is that we’ve known this for a while, but we’ve also known what the inequities are. And in order to get to good policy solutions, we have to understand the root of the policy. So, as a person with a disability who is a week away from being halfway through his 50s, you kind of look at this and say, “I don’t wanna be here until I’m 70.” So, what is the policy underlining from moving the retirement age when we understand that the cost of living has exploded over the last 40 years? [unclear] of the trickle-down theory.
When you talk to people with disabilities, there’s an assumption that if we want to enter into the labor force, that we won’t have a problem facing ableism, classism, sexism, racism. And so, if you’re talking about the disabled worker, most people, yes, [laughs] most people will then say, “I’m not a person with a disability.” Because if I’m a person with a disability trying to enter into the workforce, I know instantly that that restricts my ability to get past the process. This presumes that people who are able to get past that process and to be hired, even if they switch jobs, if you’re talking about Voc Rehab, I mean, just Voc Rehab does not see a career path in terms of shifting from your 30s to your 40s to your 50s going from a less arduous job or a more sedentary job that allows you to expand your ability to save. So here, as a person with a disability, and if I’m fortunate enough to not have to rely on the social insurance network, how can I save if SSA has the asset cap? How can I save if the reason, if once I become disabled, I need to then shift my medical coverage, and then that introduces a whole bunch of economic catastrophes in terms of how do I keep my home? Then we go into all of these things. So, even before we get to the ability to decide whether or not we want to continue to work—because I think the underlying premise is that working is the end all-be all. Working is a means to an end—but if we cannot, one, have students with disabilities graduate on par with their peers with the same educational attainment, by the time they get to their 50s, 60s, or 70s, that disparity is so wide, there’s no way to come back unless you are fortunate enough to hit the life lottery.
Secondarily is the overlap is you are having to make a choice about your survivability. I have to keep working ‘cause I like to eat. [chuckles] I have to keep working ‘cause shelter is a good thing. I have to keep working because if I don’t, I will not exist. So, the premise of work is a uniquely white American statement: the concept of you define yourself by your employment. So, if you talk about disability in the overlapping need, the social insurance network, the gaps are significant, but the gaps are not happenstance. The gaps were intentional. There’s a reason we’re moving the goalpost. There’s a reason between the ages of 18 and 30, I’ve seen my retirement age move at least four times. So, that’s my generations. So, if we’re talking about people who are senior citizens or people who are older, but what we also have to understand is that there’s a social fissure. Because I’m old, I’m not disabled, right? So, those are the kind of things that I think about when people are reaching 50.
If you can look into socioeconomic status, a study done by Dr. John Rich back in 2012, 2010 showed the correlation between your life expectancy and your income level. So, if you, if that’s your reality, looking at 55 is a miracle if you’re cursed with a disability. And now you introduce long COVID to the process. We are having policy issues where people come to the table with preconceived notions about your gender, your ethnicity, your skill set, and your ability, and then crafting policy off of that. So, the overlap is embedded barriers to access on purpose: embedded racism and classism on purpose and then couched as, “Well, we have policy solutions.” There’s a reason that there is a phrase called “disparities” in these places. So, I think the overlap really is significant, but the policy solutions are exactly the same. They are human-centered, understanding what it takes to live in the middle of the country versus on either coast. Your expenditures in L.A. at 55 and 60 are vastly different than they are in Oklahoma at 55 and 60. They’re vastly different in New York or Maine or Miami. So, those kind of realities are for the disability community and for most communities, if the smartest people at the table are still making bad decisions based on their own biases, we will never, ever have a solution. So, the overlap is not just devastating. It’s a little bit disheartening, but the policy solutions that were offered in the report are an excellent starting point.
VALLAS: Thank you for that, Keith. And Bethany, I wanna bring you in there to sort of further explore a little bit of the disability intersection. You were also a member of the task force and one of the folks who really contributed significantly to many of the policy options that impact Social Security Disability Insurance and SSI. Keith already mentioned one of them, right? The fact that we actually have prohibitions on saving any more than $2,000 if you’re someone who receives SSI. And Keith also mentioned long COVID, which has spurred the largest influx of new entrants to the disability community in modern history. A lot of folks will often say, “Oh, well, you know, if I end up with a disability, don’t I just get Social Security Disability benefits? Isn’t that how that works?” Talk a little bit about what the reality is and how you answer that question. Can everyone get disability benefits if they have health challenges that make it difficult to continue working? And what were some of the policy options that the task force aligned on to address that gap?
BETHANY LILLY: Yeah. I really wanna build on something you said, Vallas, and then something that Keith added around thinking about at 40 to 50, your risks change a lot. From 50 to 60, your risks change a lot. And if you’re thinking about it, taking an example from my new job, you’re someone who has been through leukemia treatment, and you had to take some time off work, so maybe you don’t have your work orders from that. And then you catch long COVID, or you catch COVID, and that results in long COVID. And so, you already had one health issue, and then there was a health shock that kind of followed up on that. And so, you turn to the disability system. And just as we say in the report, the U.S. has one of the strictest disability standards in the entire world. I’m a disabled person. I’m not eligible for SSDI. It would take a lot for me to get to that point because that’s just not the level of, you know, our standard is that, that strict. And so, if you think about, yeah, you can apply that, but you might not meet the standard.
On top of that, once you apply, especially right now— And I think the task force felt a lot of urgency about this because we saw the delays that people are experiencing trying to apply for SSDI right now keep getting longer and longer and longer as we were writing this report. And some of that is stemming out of the COVID pandemic and offices having been closed and a backlog of cases, but a lot of that is also having all those new cases, those COVID cases. And how those COVID cases are gonna play out with the new system, with the disability standard we have, I think will be a big question that I at least am tracking very closely. And I know many other people with disabilities are because this…disability standard doesn’t always work well with new conditions. I think back to the HIV pandemic and some of the issues we had getting those folks through that standard.
And you also have to have medical records. And so, talking about something that Keith just said about how people have to keep working to keep access to their health insurance. If you’ve had a health shock, if you’ve been in a situation where you might not have health insurance, you might not have the medical records to prove how sick you are because you didn’t have health insurance because you were too sick to work. And so, there’s this contradiction in how complicated the system is and all of the different pieces that make it a really complicated system, not just the standard, but the process and all of the different eligibility criteria you have to meet.
One other thing I wanted to mention here, and I think this, you know, thinking about this from the perspective of The Arc where I used to work, it’s people with disabilities who rely on this program, but it’s also their caregivers. So, if you have been a caregiver for somebody with a disability and you maybe have had to have a non-standard job, a job where you can take that time off when you need it, you know, a gig job in the new economy, you are not set up in the same way—and I really appreciate, and I’m very glad that the report calls this out specifically—you might not have the same access to the same safety net benefits that you need. You aren’t getting those employer contributions to your Social Security Disability fund. You’re not getting, you know, maybe you’re not getting health insurance, which plays back to that do you have the medical evidence to establish your disability? All of those factors interrelate.
And I really think about not only caregivers for people with disabilities, but those home health care workers who are the folks on the front lines helping out older adults, helping out people with disabilities, are they contract workers? Does that mean they’re getting slightly different benefits? They’re not seeing some of the social safety net benefits that we’re expecting. Home health care aides were the biggest increase, saw the biggest increase in the number of these types of workers over the past couple of years. And so, for me, I think about all of those different pieces, and I think this is not an easy system for anyone to navigate in any way, shape, or form. So, anything we can be doing to help, I mean, I really appreciated when Joel walked through the bridge benefit, how much he emphasized this is much less complicated than applying for SSDI. ‘Cause I think that’s one of the big pieces here. Like, folks spend years and often have to hire lawyers, and that plays directly into the final part of your question that I’ll touch on, which is around those policy solutions we had.
Barbara touched on this in her remarks, but like, the reconsideration level of review, that piece of this for me is kind of an exemplar. We know this level of review doesn’t really add much to disability cases. We also know it costs the Social Security Administration a lot of money to implement this and run through this. And if we were to simply not have that level of review, which doesn’t add anything to the cases, you’re saving the agency money that it could devote to other things that they need to be devoting time and energy to right now, and we’re not putting people through an even longer wait to access benefits that they’ve paid into the system for. So, I don’t know. Did I miss a part of your question, or did that get at most of what you were looking for?
VALLAS: No, it’s beautiful. And we’re not gonna have time to talk about every single one of the 30-something policy options in the report, but I love that we’re getting in a lot of the ones that really deserve to be called out. And if memory serves, I think it’s seven out of eight people are denied at that reconsideration stage, right? So, it’s pretty much a rubber stamp. And so, eliminating that reconsideration stage was, I know, something the task force felt very strongly would help to get people disability decisions much sooner rather than having to just wait for no particular reason.
Sharita, I wanna bring you in next because we’ve been hearing a lot about who these workers are that the task force really was exploring from a demographic perspective, but also from a perspective of how do we strengthen social insurance. And part of what we’ve heard is that of these 10 million older workers in physically challenging jobs, that disproportionately they are workers of color and that a growing share are female. What do we know about the women in this group? What unique challenges or shortfalls do older women workers face when it comes to social insurance, and are there any policy options you wanna call out that are especially important for this group?
SHARITA GRUBERG: Sure. As you said, and as the report notes, it is disproportionately women of color. And so, when you’re looking at older Hispanic women, where you’re looking at older Black women in these jobs, the percentages are more similar to the men of color also in those fields. As folks have pointed out, this is an across-the-lifetime issue that’s building over lifetimes. And for women of color, as we’re looking at the entire working lives of these women, it’s really apparent why these shares of women of color are also having to work for more years later in life and these strenuous jobs. We just published a study that unpaid caregiving costs women $626.57 billion a year. This is care work, care labor that is placed on women with very little assistance. We’re about to hit the childcare cliff where we’re gonna lose maybe 70,000 care centers. So, again, more caregiving time that is being placed on women, disproportionately women of color. This is, you know, and the costs are also very understated costs. That’s at the level that we pay caregivers. Because it’s mostly women of color in those jobs, these are jobs that are seriously underpaid and undervalued.
So, for across the lifespan, what do we do to make sure these women are in a better place? Raise the minimum wage. Also, that’s gonna help these older workers and younger workers be able to be in a better position. EPI estimated one in three Black women would benefit from raising the minimum wage to $17/hour. And that gives you a sense of the share of Black women workers in these low-wage jobs and being underpaid. These are jobs that don’t have benefits, don’t have leave, so you are not making enough money to make ends meet. And when something happens—because we all live in bodies [laughs] that are going to need care—you are not having access to time off to care for yourself or for others. And so, you are gonna have to leave the labor market in these situations ‘cause you don’t have access.
Bipartisan Policy Institute just did an amazing survey about who is out of the labor market and what paid leave would mean in terms of bringing folks back. And they found that 72 percent of prime-age adults not in the labor force said that the main reason was caregiving or personal health, 72 percent. And what they need to get back in? Paid leave with job protection. And so, if you’re underpaid, if you’re having to leave the workforce for long stretches of time—and as Bethany pointed out, also, this happens more than once ‘cause we have a lot of reasons why we would need to step away to care for ourselves and others—and you have no income coming in, don’t have a job to go back to after, women workers of color just keep getting set back and set back and set back. And by the time they hit 50, 60, and we’re seeing these issues, this is a lifetime of these setbacks. Haven’t even hit a wage gap.
We had the new estimates of the wage gap just come out today for certain populations and Tuesday for others. We estimate we’re talking about $1.6 trillion a year in lost wages because of pay discrimination that women are facing. Again, when we talk about women of color, disabled women, gets higher and higher. And so, you’re not making enough money to afford your retirement. You were not in a position where you could afford higher education or access to these jobs. And so, it’s not a one thing, it’s a lot of things. And I really appreciate in this report that acknowledgment of the whole range and the fact that it is over the course of the lifetime. Yes, we have these policies that there’s an immediate need for, but also, things that we need to be doing throughout to address it.
And I did wanna just point out one positive impact is we’re seeing states recognizing that this needs to be fixed, that they need to take action. California just passed some paid sick days. We’re hoping the governor signs it. And we now have 14 states, including the District of Columbia, that have comprehensive paid family and medical leave programs so that folks aren’t gonna have to completely leave the labor force and don’t have to make the impossible decision, which isn’t really a decision, between your livelihood and your ability to care for yourselves and others.
I didn’t even touch on how discrimination forces women out of jobs and out of sectors, and also is another one of these barriers that women, women of color, as Beth pointed out, older folks also, and the way that these compound are really continuing to force women workers of color to have to work longer in harder jobs. And these are policy choices. This report has amazing solutions and necessary solutions, and so we can fix it, but there’s a lot.
VALLAS: Thank you so much, Sharita. There’s so much in there. And my only regret about this panel is that we don’t have like 3 hours to just get into it and keep getting into it ‘cause every time one of you is getting fired up, I’m like, “We need more time!” But we are, unfortunately, time constrained.
Helaine, I’m gonna go next to you. So, I think folks are very familiar with you or your books, but also your opinion column at The Washington Post. You often write about Social Security and social insurance and other issues, but you’re also our resident member of the media on this panel. And it was not an accident that we wanted to have a member of the media on this panel and not as a moderator, but actually on the panel to offer some views and some expertise here. And that’s because, as we’ve heard a number of times already, we heard from Barbara and Elaine, we also heard Joel really reinforce this, the dominant narrative when it comes to mainstream media and mainstream discourse today in the United States is that everyone’s living longer, work is getting easier, everyone’s getting healthier, right? I mean, if you didn’t know anything in this report, and if you’d never read Beth’s book, you might believe that that is actually just the truth for everyone, right? And Beth was talking before about how averages can sound like a lot of things, but it really doesn’t tell the full picture for folks who are on the bottom component of what that average is meaning.
So, I wanna really bring you in next, Helaine, to talk a little bit about how and why the media narrative is so out of touch and why the reality for this group of workers is so missing. And I’m curious your thoughts on how we can shift that mainstream narrative to better reflect the reality for these often overlooked, or as they’ve been called today, invisible older workers? How do we get the media to do better and to tell these stories that are so often missing in that “everyone’s living longer, work is getting easier” narrative?
HELAINE OLEN: First, thank you for putting together this excellent panel. This has been great, and I think people can see I’ve been scrolling notes the entire time this has been going on because of course, it’s very hard for me to be on this side of the panel as opposed to your role normally. So, I wanna say first that there is, before I critique the media, I wanna say there is some really good work done. And I think, yeah, I can point to one story, particularly from earlier this week, was in The Wall Street Journal about the rise of homelessness in the older population, which is something that very clearly has an overlap with this issue that we’re talking about here of SSI. And in fact, one of the points in the article that was made was that this is a population that often had issues with chronic illness when they were younger or drug addiction or mental illness, right? Which were three things that filter into this. So, I do wanna say there is good work being done out there. But that being said, your broader point is correct. There is not enough of it being done. And I have a lot of different theories about why that is. And some of them are slightly contradictory and some of them overlap. So, just bear with me for a minute. And some of them might seem a little off the topic of what we’re specifically talking about.
The first is sort of a very general overview, which is we have been subjected to decades at this point of the idea that the Social Security system is on the verge of going bankrupt and that it is a problem, right? And while I think that’s not particularly the issue here, I think you have to understand it is the general overlay so that people are predisposed to thinking of it as something that needs to be either cut back in some way or disciplined in some way, right? And so, the initial response is not to see it as something that is not working properly in some way ‘cause that would presumably cost money. And of course, if you’re going bankrupt, you don’t wanna spend money, right? Everybody brings their biases into these things. So, I think that’s the first part you have to understand.
I think the second part is that journalists are generalists for the most part. We are 90+, 90 years, nine decades away now from the creation of the whole Social Security system. I think people don’t really realize why it was created anymore. I don’t think people truly, I mean, unless you went off and got a degree in history or you read a lot of history at some point, particularly of the Depression and poverty, don’t realize that prior to Social Security, most elderly people died in poverty. If people got disabled, if a spouse dies, children ended up in orphanages. Family abandonment was quite common, and that included elderly people, injured, middle-aged people, etc., right? We sort of have this idea—and now I’ll date myself—that it was all like The Waltons, you know. Everybody took care of their families. And so, this is just not true, right? So, and we know that. We all on this panel know this, and I suspect most of the people listening to this know this. But the fact is, is most people really don’t know this.
Then I would get into something else entirely, which is how journalism has changed over the past several decades. The forces in journalism have, there’ve been various forces, one which has basically been the semi-destruction of the profession, certainly the mass destruction of local journalism. This has sort of turned journalism into a fairly elite profession in many cases. If you look at the top papers, somebody did a study—and this is a few years back, so this might not be fully accurate anymore—of the New York Times, The L.A. Times, The Wall Street Journal, I believe The Washington Post—I don’t wanna sound like I’m exempting my employer here—but it was an astonishing number of Ivy League degrees. And the fact is, is this tells you that this is a pretty elite group. Most people go to the Ivy League, we know the stats. uou’re more likely to be part of the 1 percent than you are to be the bottom 40 percent at this point. So, you’ve got people coming in who are not necessarily experiencing a reality of just simply having friends and relatives who are on SSI. I will tell you I’m an exception. I had a mentally ill uncle growing up, and he was victimized by the Reagan cutbacks of the ‘80s. And my grandparents and parents spent no small amount of time getting him back on disability benefits because he was schizophrenic, and he couldn’t work. But the government disagreed with this assessment. So, that’s an issue.
And then I will point to something. I think it was Beth who pointed out the over-50-and-up issue. Newsrooms, as the industry has contracted, have become increasingly younger. So, you don’t have the experience of age, and you don’t have the experience of dealing with this stuff. So, it all becomes part of this general sense of, “This is not an issue I really think about/I don’t believe is a real issue because, of course, the older people I see around me, they’re still working. So where’s the problem,” right? And so, you just don’t see it as an issue the way it’s an issue.
And I would finally say that it can sometimes be a complicated issue to cover. And in an environment where you’re churning out stuff, it’s not something that’s necessarily going to get covered quite easy because this is extremely complicated. I find it complicated. And if you don’t have more than two or three hours to write something, you’re not gonna master this one. There’s no way. And so, I think that’s part of it, too. So, I think there’s a lot of different things coming into this. And it’s something that, you know, people try to combat their biases, but they don’t always do it very well, frankly. I can tell you that, conversely, whenever I actually write about something age discrimination-related the traffic goes bonkers. And I think it’s partly ‘cause it’s an underserved market. It’s an important issue, and it’s an issue that doesn’t get its due as often as it should.
VALLAS: Helaine, thank you so much for all of that and for your candor and for your insight. We’ve got some questions starting to come in from the audience, so I’m gonna go ahead and encourage folks who are listening to put your questions in using the Q&A function in Zoom. We don’t have the chat up, but we do have Q&A up, so go ahead and toss your questions in there.
Because he’s Steve Goss, the Chief Actuary of Social Security, I need to go ahead and read some words he put in here. He wants to just have a clarification about reconsideration, which Bethany and I spoke a little bit about and Barbara mentioned as well. He wants us to note that while the allowance rate at the initial determination stage has been in the range of 36 to 39 percent since 2020, the allowance rate at reconsideration for those initially denied who choose to appeal has been about 13 to 15 percent, and that the determination at reconsideration is also much faster and less demanding for claimants than subsequent appeals. I know there are a variety of different opinions about the value of the reconsideration stage, and no matter where you fall, it’s always helpful to have the numbers and the information. So, Steve, thank you so much for adding that in. Always a walking encyclopedia and always someone who has good dark chocolate on hand. Those are two things I know about Steve Goss.
One question that I’m gonna throw out there to Joel is—and this is actually regarding a policy option that you don’t see endorsed by this task force—you spoke earlier about the bridge benefit, but how would raising the retirement age further impact this group of workers? And why was that something the task force did not endorse?
ESKOVITZ: Sure. And I’m speaking as a task force member. And certainly, I think the raising of the age for most people that don’t really understand how the system works, and this is currently happening today. So, as the age creeps to 67, the further away you are from that age, it is in effect a cut of between six and eight percent. And so, if you raise that age further, and again, we see this group of people who are just limping to 62. It’s not like this is a real choice. And I think that that’s one of the things that this report does a really good job spelling out. It’s not Plan A, you know? And I think for a lot of people, the idea that people are just kicking back at 62 and living the good life for decades, is we have seen a movement away from 62, from some groups of people, which shows that that messaging is at least getting through that for people that do have the choice, they are recognizing, okay, maybe I can wait a little bit. But there’s still a significant number of folks and a lot of folks in rural areas, especially, that are claiming right at 62. And so, for those people, this higher age would certainly be a cut for them. And I think that was one of the impetuses behind this report, is if we are looking for a way to protect this group, how do we do that? Because as the age creeps up today, they are getting a larger and larger cut. And that’s not really fair because it’s not really a choice for a large segment of certainly this population.
VALLAS: And obviously, it has a lot to do with further eroding people’s already extremely precarious retirement security, right? So, that’s a big part of why you didn’t see this endorsed by this task force.
Tyler Bond has a question, which I think I’m gonna bring Elaine back on to screen to answer. It is my guess that she’ll be the one who wants to speak to this. Tyler says, “This might be in the report, but how many of the workers that we looked at are considered employees versus independent contractors who might be excluded from participation in some of these programs?” Elaine, am I guessing right that that’s something you might wanna speak to?
WEISS: Sure. So, we don’t know exactly how many of our target populations are there. A, there’s just not—and Tyler, you know this probably better than I do—there’s not as much good data out there on workers who are not formal employees or official employees versus who are, as we would like. When you dig into the data and try to just aggregate the data, it gets weaker and weaker as you go, so we will know less and less about how many of these are older workers, how many of them are in physical jobs, how many of them are workers of color, how many are immigrants, which, by the way, we didn’t really touch on here, but there’s a lot of overlap in those categories, especially with women workers of color and immigrants that I’d like to also point out.
But what we do know from this report—and this was actually some matter of debate, just kind of an insider baseball thing—we had several issues that came up in the task force where we had some surprises, and we had some discussions, and we said, “Oh, really? Is that the case?” And one of those was that, in fact, there’s a lot more older workers working part-time jobs, non-official employer jobs, jobs that do not provide benefits for a number of reasons. Again, some out of choice. This is, again, where we’re seeing really a split. There are those older workers that Rebecca and Joel talked about that are comfy, that are saying, “Hey, I’d like to still be here, but I could just do it on a gig basis. I don’t need to be working all the time,” blah, blah, blah. I like it. But for many of the workers, the ones we’re talking about, it’s because they got booted, and they couldn’t get back into a formal workforce. They couldn’t get into a job that paid benefits. They got laid off, and they never got another regular job. So, I think my answer would be we don’t know exactly, but it’s more than you think. It’s a bigger problem than you think. And thus, as a result, in answer to your first question, there’s a lot more workers that don’t have access to employer-sponsored plans. We don’t get to go into that much, but it certainly is something that came up for us and that we are certainly concerned about and that further contributes to the precarious situation that they’re in.
VALLAS: Great. Thank you so much, Elaine. So, I’m gonna encourage folks to keep putting questions in the Q&A function if you have questions for this panel. But I’ve got a few up my sleeve, so I’m gonna keep asking questions while we wait for them. Beth, I’m gonna bring it back to you and ask, were there any policy options in the report that you were especially excited to see? Based on your research, were there any policy options that you didn’t see in here in the social insurance realm but that you believe your research supports and you’d like to see in the mix?
TRUESDALE: Yeah, thanks. I thought the report really does a terrific job of going through a lot of the options for improving Social Security retirement and for improving Social Security disability and SSI as a safety net program alongside those social insurance programs. I thought those sections were really terrific. And one of the things I really like about them is that they get into what we might call boring but important, you know, things— I love boring but important, right? It’s things like taking Social Security Administration off the discretionary side of the federal budget where, like, I can practically feel people falling asleep, as I say that. But I think it’s—
VALLAS: Not this group.
WEISS: It’s, you know, and maybe this is a question for Helaine, but it’s hard to make that sell to a broader audience about what is this discretionary part of the budget, and why should we care? But the critical point that if you want the Social Security Administration to be able to respond to retirees, to be able to respond to people with disabilities, that you need to be able to fund the organization at an adequate level. And the pressure on the funding has continued to increase, as the report points out in recent decades, things like that, I really appreciate that in the report.
Something that’s not in the report—and I don’t in the sense fault the report for this, because some of this is outside the scope of a report that’s by a National Academy of Social Insurance—but it’s this need to connect work and retirement, to see the policies affecting work and policies affecting retirement as two sides of the same coin. And we did, you know, some of the other panelists have nodded towards this, but thinking especially about job quality and not only job quality for people who are in their 50s or in their 60s, but job quality across the board for people of all ages, thinking here in terms of pay, safety, schedules, family and medical leave, some control over the pace and intensity of work, job ladders. We talk a lot about the importance of job ladders for younger workers’ advancement, but how about for older workers being able to move out of jobs that are no longer a good fit for them? So, these kinds of fundamental questions about job quality, and I think the DOL initiatives currently on job quality are important in this area. And I would love to see us making more of a connection between policies that are talking about job quality and maybe aimed at prime-age workers, but are gonna be beneficial both for older workers now and also for the people who are now middle-aged workers who are the retirees of the future. So, making that connection, the worker retirement, two sides of the same coin is something that our research really found was important and I think is an important connection to this conversation.
VALLAS: Appreciate all of that, Beth. And I’ll just note, I just wanna underscore your point, because it really can’t be hit on hard enough in this context. And trust me, this group that’s listening, I’ve looked at the list of participants. They are the right group to be hearing a lot about this, boring but important though it might be. Funding the Social Security Administration appropriately to be able to administer its programs is so incredibly important. And we actually, a lot of the same folks who are here today were at the Harkin Institute symposium yesterday. And we heard Jeff Cruz speak a little bit about this, right? Just one tiny statistic that represents just the one aspect of the human toll that de-funding the Social Security Administration has taken, the Government Accountability Office finds that about 10,000 people die every single year waiting for disability determinations just because the agency is underfunded to keep up with what ends up being a huge backlog. I mean, those are just horrible, horrible numbers that are unconscionable. It doesn’t have to be that way. And yet we see Congress consistently disinvesting in the Social Security Administration because we need to see funding authorized, even though it’s largely coming from the trust fund, right, and yet has to be appropriated by Congress. So, that fix that you mentioned that the task force did lay out as one of the policy options of moving Social Security’s administrative budget out of that discretionary spending category, may be boring, but is super, super important when it comes to how these programs actually get implemented. I really appreciate you bringing that in.
So, we have just about five minutes left, so keep putting any last questions that you’ve got in the Q&A function, and we’ll do sort of just a little lightning round here.
Beth, I’m actually gonna stay with you for just a moment, because one of the questions I think a lot of folks probably have and one place that would be good to sort of have as part of our closeout from this really fantastic panel discussion is kind of where do things go from here, particularly when it comes to where should the research go from here? A companion resource that folks should absolutely go and check out, although I think everyone in this group is probably familiar with, is that wonderful chart book that the Economic Policy Institute did with the Schwartz Center. Has just tons and tons of really rich data. And yet, as many speakers have mentioned today, we need so much more work looking at who this group is, and the data and the research are critical to making good policy. Beth, do you have any marching orders for the Academy or for its membership when it comes to what the future of this research agenda should be?
TRUESDALE: Yeah, go forth and do more good research. That’s my marching orders. I think the fact that we’re all sitting here and talking about this is fantastic. My co-editor on the overtime book, Lisa Berkman, was for many years engaged in the Working Longer Initiative that was sponsored by the Sloan Foundation, as were many of the authors in our book. And I’m sure many people are familiar with some of the work that came out of that. And one of the things that Lisa likes to say is that it really wasn’t until close to the end of that ten-year run of that initiative that one of the members of the board that oversaw that said in a meeting, you know, “Yes, it’s all well and good to think about how do we encourage people to work longer, but who are we leaving out?” And then at the time, for Lisa, who is a top expert in this area, that was sort of like, wow! Yes, who are we leaving out?
And I think we have cracked that particular nut. We have figured out that, yes, once you begin to think about the large number of people who are not making it comfortably through work all the way through their 50s, and that those people, they’re missing in things like unemployment statistics by design because they’re out of the labor force. And so, we, you know, unemployment may be three, four percent, but the number, the percentage of people who are out of the labor force, especially in those older years, is so much larger. So, I think that’s, for me, that’s really critical. It enables us to begin to ask the other important questions about how are people navigating these years? How does that vary not only by race and education and gender, but also by geography, by immigration status? There’s a real lack of research on that in particular by all of the other things that we know matter to people, different occupations and things like this. And so, for me, thinking about physically demanding jobs is very much in line with the kind of breaking down what’s happening to people in their 50s, and how does that connect to their lives, both before and after this kind of life course approach? I think we’re on the way.
VALLAS: That’s wonderful. Thank you so much, Beth. And we don’t have any last questions. So, I’m actually gonna take moderator’s privilege and end us on a high note by lifting up and giving Bethany and Keith the last hurrah here to comment on one policy idea that actually is gaining some serious traction on the Hill right now. And actually, just this week, we saw bipartisan, bicameral legislation introduced for the first time in decades to update SSI’s asset limit for inflation. Not a radical idea by any stretch, something that we’re a little overdue in doing and which it seems that a sort of strange bedfellows coalition is coming together to support. We even saw the Chamber of Commerce endorse the idea, right, as well as others that are sort of academy standards like the Bipartisan Policy Center and corporate leaders like JPMorgan Chase and Microsoft and others. Bethany and Keith, just in maybe 30 seconds each or a minute each, if you’d like to react to why it’s so important to reform savings penalties in social insurance and public assistance programs like SSI and what you’re hoping for in terms of the future of that legislation as one actionable item that can come out of this discussion. And maybe, Bethany, you wanna go first, and Keith, you can bat cleanup.
LILLY: Sure. I was actually thinking about that the entire time Beth was giving her answer because for me, one of the populations that I think is still left out is people with disabilities who are on SSDI or are on SSI and are trying to work to the best of their ability ‘cause that’s something they want to be doing. And if they do that now, especially on SSI, they run into all sorts of problems. One of the first of which is these asset limits that were set when SSI was first passed and really just, we have not seen the kind of index for inflation that I think anyone who is drafting legislation nowadays would just be like, “Oh, of course we have to do that. That’s a natural part of this.” And if those limits were adjusted for inflation now, we’d be looking at $10,000, which is considerably more and more accurately reflects what folks might need for an emergency situation. Like, for instance, will that work? Buying a wheelchair-accessible van, that’s a big thing. You’re not gonna be able to do that for $2,000. And so, fixing the asset limits, increasing them like the bill that’s been proposed, the bipartisan bill from Senators Brown and Cassidy, I would love to see that across the finish line. I know The Arc, that’s one of their top priorities. And if you guys do wanna get involved, I can drop the how to email your senators little link in the chat, and I’m sure they’d appreciate the shoutout. But I’ll kick it to Keith.
JONES: Yeah. So, Imma be a little contrarian ‘cause that’s what I do. No, I think it’s great that people are finally saying, “Oh, we’re gonna do our job and not screw the rest of the country.” Thank you for catching up to the rest of the world. I think the policies that people were talking about in terms of asset limits, again, this is a 30-year march. Again, I think everything we’re talking about in terms of the policy barriers, removing of the [unclear], skipped over and said this is about power and control that is gained politically, so the people who are being impacted by these decisions, particularly if you’re a person of color, if you’re like me, if you’re a person with a disability, in order for you to shift the course of the tide, of the ship, you have to be able to have your hands on the wheel. But if you don’t have access to it, to that on-ramp to even do that, then if I have to make an emotional appeal to my senator to do their job while they’re guaranteed a life income and a pension, it seems a little disingenuous for them to come to us and say, “Oh my God. We are looking out for you.” So, yes, the legislation is absolutely needed. Yes, we need to index it to inflation and the cost of living. Yes, we need to raise the asset limit. But again, when you say words like “penalty” or “you’re being penalized,” somebody in their room, you’re saying, we don’t want humans to have the ability to exist at a level in which they can feel safe and secure. So, with that being said, absolutely get it over the line. Call your senators. Don’t make an emotional appeal, make a real appeal. And let’s get it done.
VALLAS: And otherwise, people have to work until they die, as Keith said.
JONES: There you go.
VALLAS: So, a very important note to end on.
I wanna thank all of our panelists for joining us for this wonderful discussion. Joel Eskovitz, director of Social Security and Savings at AARP Public Policy Institute. Bethany Lilly, the executive director of public policy at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, though she participated in this task force as a member of The Arc. Beth Truesdale, research fellow at the Upjohn Institute. And go check out her now one-year old book, Overtime: America’s Aging Workforce and the Future of Working Longer. Keith Jones is the CEO of SoulTouchin’ Experiences, and he touches my soul every time he speaks. Sharita Gruberg is the vice president for economic justice at the National Partnership for Women and Families. And Helaine Olen is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post. I wanna also thank Barbara Bovbjerg, our fearless chair of this task force, and Elaine Weiss, the PI of this task force, and Bill Arnone for convening the task force, and AARP for its support. And with that, thanks to everyone for joining us today, and we really appreciate you for being with us for this event. And we’re gonna close it out and send you back on your day and say thanks for spending some of your time today with the Academy. Thanks, everyone. [theme music returns]
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