The Center on Aging at AIR, directed by Institute Fellow and Center director Marilyn Moon, held a kick-off conference on May 5, 2014. The event, which focused on how researchers can engage in the policymaking process, encouraged participants to think creatively, constructively, and in concert.
For many researchers, work is done when the report and its executive summary are completed and perhaps published in a professional journal. But since applied research, by definition, should speak to real-world issues and situations, shouldn’t it also be shared with as broad an audience as possible?
What themes emerged from these presentations?
- Lower-income workers face tough challenges. Private pensions aren’t helping them, and research in progress suggests that they also have less leisure time in retirement.
- Though Medicare spending is slowing down, it is still an essential source of both benefits for seniors and high out-of-pocket burdens.
- Both the distribution of the impacts of various policies and the behavioral challenges of creating and offering appropriate incentives and protections are critical to helping retired lower-income workers.
As for capturing policymakers’ attention, the four presenters demonstrated the contribution that clear and convincing data can make and the importance of individual researchers’ passion and commitment.
Judy Feder’s keynote on what policy engagement means and how to engage more effectively was informed by her deep expertise in health and long term care issues, as well as her experience as a political appointee in the Clinton Administration and executive director of the Pepper Commission, a Congressionally mandated body that examined how to achieve health and long term care reform. Using concrete examples from long term care, she offered key lessons:
- Focus research where there is much disagreement so as to narrow uncertainties. Research is more powerful when we agree on the fundamentals than when we are at odds and muddying the waters. Stronger data forces politicians and the media to distinguish fact from fiction.
- Recognize that your work matters and take it very seriously. If you don’t, others will take your work and use it in ways that that you will likely find invalid. Interpreting your own research gives you greater control over it.
- Mind the fine line between policy and propaganda. While research is uncertain and suggestive, policymakers want certainty. It’s tempting to give them what they want, but if we want to speak truth to power, preserving our integrity is essential. We have to be careful to not oversell in the guise of education.
Our panelists strategized on how their own recent research could inform discussions of aging. How might Social Security and Medicare be changed and what should we expect from these programs in the future? Melinda Buntin from Vanderbilt University addressed why spending on Medicare has slowed and whether we could expect it to continue, drawing on her path-breaking research at RAND and her public service as chief economist at HHS, where she coordinated the expansion of electronic health records and other health IT, and at the Congressional Budget Office, where she and her colleagues produced a key study on Medicare spending. Her comments, reflecting her own views, were as follows:
- The slowdown in Medicare spending growth is pervasive and is seen across all beneficiary types, services types, and regions.
- The recession explains very little of the slowdown in Medicare spending growth, although the period of study included the recession.
- The slowdown persists even though overall economic conditions have improved.
- Most likely, no single factor accounts for the unexplained portion of the slowdown. No single factor stood out as a major causal element.
Monique Morrissey from the Economic Policy Institute presented findings on the inequality of resources that people bring to retirement, drawing on a chartbook that she produced on retirement resources, her research on retirement age and retirement-related tax incentives, and her work at the AFL-CIO and the Financial Markets Center. She emphasized the inequality of savings in such vehicles as 401Ks and the ways tax policy contributes to the problem:
- Lower-income workers are less likely to get jobs with employers who sponsor retirement plans.
- Lower-income workers are less likely to work for employers who provide generous contributions or any at all.
- As a consequence, the distribution of retirement savings is heavily skewed to those with higher incomes.
- A concern now is that lower-income workers have little incentive to participate in these private programs. The tax breaks in the current system are heavily skewed to those with high incomes.
Teresa Ghilarducci from the New School is a seasoned academic researcher who also serves on boards and advisory panels for unions, state governments, and others on a range of retirement issues, and promotes proposals for improving pensions through the creation of Guaranteed Retirement Accounts. She spoke about her new research on time spent in retirement, pointing out that in the past 30 years, the lifespan of high-income, highly educated older white males has increased the most, and that men have more retirement time than women.
- Average time spent in retirement is actually 13 years, not the commonly expected one-third of one’s life.
- People who are living longer are not working longer. People who are dying sooner are in the workforce longer.
- Wealthier people retire early and live longer.