Easy retirement? Only for a privileged few

NEW YORK (AP) — The American dream of a blissful retirement, free of financial worries, is dying.

Most U.S. households are heading for a worse lifestyle in retirement than they had while they were working, because they simply aren’t saving enough, experts say. Thirty-five percent of households in their prime earning years or later have nothing saved in a retirement account and no access to a traditional pension, according to an AP analysis of savings data from the Federal Reserve.

Among households that do have some savings, the typical amount is just $73,200. That’s about 15 months of the median household’s income.

One group doesn’t have to worry as much: the richest 10 percent of households. They typically have more than $413,000 in a retirement account, according to the analysis of the Fed’s latest savings data, which is from 2013.

The rest of us look a lot more like Nancy Harvey, a 54-year-old child-care center owner in Oakland, California, who has less than $2,000 saved despite her decades of work. Her plan for retirement, as of now, is to continue with real-estate classes in hopes that it can provide a second job.

“I have to work and pray and hope my health continues to remain good so that I can continue to work,” she says. “I still have a mortgage and all the insurance that goes along with that, and I have to pay payroll for my employees, which is really important to me. I can honestly say I’m frightened about the future.”

Harvey isn’t alone, as the gap widens between the few households who don’t have to worry about a comfortable retirement and everyone else. The anxiety stretches not only across the country but also across political affiliations. Nearly equivalent percentages of Democrats and Republicans say they’re not managing very well in retirement planning, a recent survey from Lincoln Financial found.

The looming crisis is the result of a system that’s increasingly put workers in charge of saving for and managing their own retirement. Because the U.S. households at the top have reaped most of the income gains over the last decade — and because they have disproportionately more access to retirement plans to begin with — experts say the gap in retirement savings is only growing wider. They’re expecting to see more elderly Americans working longer, moving in with their kids and tapping assistance programs.

“Only the privileged have access to a secure retirement,” says Teresa Ghilarducci, a labor economist at the New School for Social Research.

The income divide

It’s much easier to save for retirement when you’re making more money, and the vast majority of the income gains have gone only to the top in recent years.

The top 10 percent of U.S. households made more than $162,180 last year. That’s up 6 percent from a decade earlier, after adjusting for inflation.

For middle-income Americans, meanwhile, incomes have only barely stayed ahead of inflation. The typical U.S. household saw just a 0.5 percent increase from 2005 through 2015, to $56,516. Lower-income households are making less than a decade ago.

The benefit of making more money goes beyond having more to save. Higher-income households also get a bigger after-tax benefit from putting money into a 401(k) or another tax-advantaged account, because their contributions would have been taxed at a higher rate than lower-income households’.

And with traditional pensions increasingly becoming extinct, it’s grown even more important for Americans to save. Decades ago, workers could depend on getting a set, monthly check into their golden years. In 1979, 38 percent of private-sector workers were participating in a traditional pension plan.

In ensuing years, employers have shifted instead to the 401(k) and similar plans, where workers make their own contributions and handle the investments themselves. Such plans mean lower costs for employers.

By 2013, only 13 percent of private-sector workers were participating in a traditional pension, and most of those workers were participating in both a pension and a 401(k) or similar program. Nearly all employer-sponsored retirement plans — 94 percent — are 401(k)-style programs instead of traditional pensions.

Meanwhile, Social Security — the last line of defense for many retirement plans — is under pressure. With Baby Boomers increasingly tapping the system, Social Security’s trust funds are projected to run dry by 2034. After that, the system will be pulling in enough revenue to pay out only 79 percent of scheduled benefits, unless Washington makes some changes.

It’s a similar challenge for government pension systems around the world. Many countries have moved their retirement ages up to 67 from 65, and some are looking to move closer to 70, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.


The low retirement balances mean the majority of households — 52 percent — are at risk of having to cut their spending by more than 10 percent after entering retirement, according to the Center for Retirement Research. That’s even if everyone works to age 65 and turns all of their assets into retirement income, such as by reverse-mortgaging their homes and annuitizing their savings.

“For an upper-middle class person, not being able to maintain their standard of living means fewer trips,” says Munnell. “But for lower-income people, it can really mean depriving themselves.”

In 1992, the percentage of U.S. households at risk was much lower: 37 percent.

Christian Weller, a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, paints a bleak picture of retirement for more than a third of the country.

Because of their low savings and lack of a traditional pension, this group of Americans will rely mostly on Social Security for their retirement. He says many will require Meals On Wheels or heating assistance, and they will work into their 60s or 70s even if they have mental or physical ailments.

This group of workers has always existed, and they include many lower-educated and single Americans. But their ranks are growing, as a result of the widening retirement gap. “People who 20 or 30 years ago would have been in the middle, nowadays, they are much more likely to be in the bottom,” Weller says.

Possible solutions

To help close the gap in worker access to 401(k) and similar plans, states are trying their own measures. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation two months ago requiring employers to automatically enroll their workers in a state-run program and deduct money from each paycheck, for example. Workers can opt out of the program.

Experts say they would prefer a broader fix from the federal government but call the state programs an encouraging step. It’s natural for state and local governments to take the lead, because they’re under more pressure.

“When the retirement crisis really hits, local and state government will be on the front lines,” says Weller. “They provide some of the money, but they also provide the services.”

In the meantime, many workers are simply working longer.

David Tucker, for example, is 74 and still waking at 1:15 each morning to get to his job as a skycap at Reagan National Airport outside Washington, D.C. He’s worked there 54 years, and he makes $3.77 per hour, plus tips.

He and his wife have saved between $50,000 and $100,000. He also gets $235 monthly from a pension, a benefit earned from one of his first jobs. His wife wants him to retire, but he’s worried about having enough to pay the bills, and he doesn’t want to take help from his seven children.

He says he’s going to keep working, at least until February. Then, he’ll consider cutting down to a few days per week or retiring.

And what would he look forward to in retirement? Trips? The beach?

“I would like to feel what it’s like to wake up and not go to work,” he says. “For a while, that’s all I would like to do. I wouldn’t worry about anything else.”

By Patricia Older

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