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Five Hot Topics in 2011

Roth conversions, mortgages, and health-care reform were a few of the most talked about topics in 2010. Here's a look at five topics you're bound to hear about in 2011.

Social Security: saving the system

How to strengthen Social Security has been a political hot potato for many years, but calls for reform are growing louder as the time when program costs will permanently exceed tax revenues draws closer. The most recent annual report from the Social Security Board of Trustees projects that this will occur in 2015 (one year earlier than last year's report predicted) and notes that trust funds will be exhausted in 2037. Social Security is the most common source of income for retirees, and debate over how to save it will rage in 2011.

Microlending: small loans count

Microlending--the practice of extending small loans to individuals and businesses who otherwise could not borrow money--has traditionally targeted entrepreneurs in developing countries. But as the credit crunch prevents many Americans from borrowing money through traditional channels, more are turning to microlending sites and companies to obtain funds. And more investors are offering to make microloans in return for the potential to earn somewhat higher returns than a savings account can offer. Until the economy improves, look for this trend to continue.

Microlending recently got a boost from the Small Business Jobs Act, passed in September, that expanded the Small Business Administration's microlending program. Funding for the program was increased, and business owners may now be able to borrow up to $50,000 (previously, the limit was $35,000) to use for working capital or other needs.

Education: expanding opportunities

Education-related debates will certainly heat up in 2011. The current administration is committed to reforming primary and secondary education and has drawn up a blueprint for overhauling the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This Act (currently known as No Child Left Behind) is long overdue for reauthorization, and Congress will likely be debating it in 2011.

In addition, much attention is being focused on ways to make college more accessible and affordable. One initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awards grants to nonprofit and governmental institutions to develop effective online education opportunities. Currently the focus is on developing online courses and tools that can help more Americans attend college and prepare for careers, while saving students and schools money.

Energy: greener days ahead

"Going green" is a catchphrase that's likely to get even more press in 2011. One important green initiative currently pending in the Senate is the Homestar Act. This Act provides substantial rebates to homeowners who purchase and install energy-saving equipment or goods or who complete whole home retrofits.

Even the lowly lightbulb finally gets a makeover in 2011. The Federal Trade Commission is requiring that lightbulb packages carry labels that estimate yearly energy costs, the bulb's life span and light appearance, and brightness measured in lumens so that consumers can better compare new energy-efficient bulbs.

Wellness: saving lives and money

Look for employers to roll out, or expand, employee wellness programs this year in an effort to promote healthier living and curtail health insurance costs. The Health-Care Reform Act passed last year included funding for new wellness programs established by small employers, and makes it easier for all employers to offer substantial incentives to employees for participating. Also, new health insurance plans and many existing plans (including Medicare) must now fully cover preventive care services such as immunizations and screenings for certain health conditions.