Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

The beginning of the end for middle-class retirement in America?

Every year, retirement seems out of reach for more Americans. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 66% of Americans say their biggest financial concern is being unable to save enough money to retire – up from 53% in 2011. For the first time since the Great Depression, elderly poverty rates will likely increase and even middle-class workers will be living at or near the poverty level in their old age.

With U.S. worker confidence in their ability retire comfortably at a near-20 year low, not surprisingly, many seniors are postponing retirement. In 2010, 32% of Americans age 65-69 were still in the workforce in 2010, compared with only 21% in 1990. Among 70-74 year-olds, 18% were in the workforce in 2010 – up from 11% in 1990.

This isn’t just a problem for low-income workers, either. Less than half of participants in last year’s Wells Fargo/Gallup survey were confident they could retire comfortably without working through their retirement years. Interestingly, the survey participants ranked in the top one-third of Americans in terms of investable assets.

In the past, pensions ensured secure retirement for workers, but today barely half of private sector workers have retirement savings plans. This, combined with rising health care costs, leaves even solidly middle-upper class seniors struggling to save for a comfortable retirement.

Lawmakers can improve retirement security for working Americans by protecting what works – including Social Security, the most effective anti-poverty program in American history.

Fully two-thirds of Americans rely on Social Security as their main source of retirement. Though the average Social Security benefit is only $14,200, many Americans have no pension or savings to add to that. Without Social Security, half of women in America 65 and older would live in poverty.

Preserving Social Security so it can continue to keep the elderly out of poverty is just the first step. Lawmakers should also consider ways to expand and improve Social Security benefits.

First, they should increase the benefit formula. In 2010, Social Security benefits provided beneficiaries 90% income replacement on the first $761 of average monthly earnings. Between $761 and $4,586, beneficiaries received 32% of earnings. These benefit formulas should be increased to 100% and 40%, respectively. Elderly survivors’ benefits are also too low – currently just one- half to two-thirds as much as they received before the death of their spouses. This should be increased to 75%.

The second step lawmakers can take to improve retirement security is to simply make it easier to save at work. RISE accounts would establish a retirement savings program similar to successful federal and state employees’ deferred compensation plans for all private sector employees and small businesses that choose to participate. RISE Accounts minimize costs via economies of scale by offering a few basic, easy-to-understand investment options for all workers.

These two steps would help ensure that Americans can enjoy their golden years in dignity and security, rather than falling into poverty. It’s the least we can do for people who have worked hard their entire lives.

~By Pete Stewart, EOI Intern

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