Maybe it's because I turned 50 this year.
Maybe it's because I'm looking to eat into my retirement savings over the next few months until I -- trying to be optimistic here -- find a new job.
Or maybe it's because the story just stands on its own importance.
Regardless, this story from Alternet landed in my inbox earlier this week and kicked my ass all over the place.
I'll just cite the permissible three paragraph limit from the story and move on.
"One out of three working Americans does not have retirement savings beyond Social Security, and about 35% of those over 65 rely almost totally on Social Security alone," Dallas Salisbury, president of the Alliance for Investor Education and the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) , explained to AlterNet. "Of the remaining two-thirds of working Americans that have some retirement savings, 27 percent report less than $1,000, 16 percent between $1,000 and $9,999, 11 percent between $10,000 and $24,999, 12 percent between $25,000-$49,999, and 36 percent $50,000 or more." Perhaps the most shocking number is that half of Americans have $2,000 or less saved for retirement.
Now, admittedly, of that 1/2 of working Americans with $2000 or less saved for retirement, many of them are in their 20s or early 30s, with more time to recoup. I wish them the best of luck; I hope that we have a working economy in time for it to do them some good. On the other hand, many people in their late 40s, 50s, and 60s are finding that in a recession, the only thing they have to raid is their retirement fund. (Losing the 10% of what is withdrawn to the federal government and sometimes more to the state is just the icing on the cake, of course.) So those figures as to who has how much saved for retirement will be changing this year -- for the worse.
I have had occasion this past month to talk a bit to people from the places where I have my retirement funds. Calling up and saying "I'd like to know about the procedure for taking money out of my account" feels like wearing a large sign saying "Hello, I am an irresponsible citizen!", but for the most part they have been pretty nice. It turns out that I have a lot of company in contemplating raiding this particular cookie jar. (Note, before people ask: this is not to fund a profligate lifestyle -- I just sold my Netroots Nation registration, which is something I truly wanted to avoid. It's for things like rent, as well as "luxuries" like Internet and phone service.) This particular request, I'm told, is something that they're hearing all the time now.
Of course there will be consequences down the line.
But what can we do about it? Nothing, if we don't accept the fact that we're quickly turning into a world of freelancers in search of our next check. Which, of course, we'd all like to divide accordingly to live comparatively well and invest in a nest-egg for a more convenient future. But in an economic environment that is alternately unable to provide job growth or security, and is infested by market-makers armed with supercomputers and math and Ph.Ds, that's unlikely and illogical.
"I think Americans will no longer have retirements that demand no additional work," Sara Horowitz, executive director of the nonprofit Freelancers Union, explained to AlterNet. "They will lessen work in old age. In other words, retirement will increasingly mean becoming an independent worker."
Yeah, right -- OK, I'm willing to work until 80, or whatever, except for one problem: what makes people think that there will be enough work around for those who at one time would have retired? There isn't now, and this country has the look of a company where our "business partners" are in the process of absconding with the loot -- which won't help things.
So, quite seriously: how will people be expected to survive in their 60s and beyond on Social Security alone? Should the answer to that question have any bearing on the "catfood commission" proposals to raise the Social Security retirement age?
I hope that the economic low in my life turns out to be temporary, but experiencing it has in some ways been like getting a new pair of glasses that allow one to see many things more clearly. One such thing is the message that the government is sending to those who reach the end of their lives without retirement savings, whether through profligacy or by virtue of being swept up in an economic maelstrom.
That message is:
"Our retirement system only works if a lot more of you die a lot earlier."
Of course, after those people contemplating a future in poverty die off strangely earlier than they used to, due to disease or violent ends, the elderly who remain will be those who did have the good fortune to keep their savings. The pundits and media will interview them, hear how generally satisfied they are with their golden years, and wonder why people are so exercised about the issue. In survey methodology, this is called a "selection" effect -- you have to be careful about what factors lead different sorts of people to be available to be interviewed. People you can interview at 75 are not a representative sample of those who had once hoped to live that long.
Given how people who are staying afloat in this economy move away from preparation for retirement, we're seeing that selection effect now. People who are wiped out in the 2010s will not be around to complain in the 2030s. The government adopts the proverbial motto of pirates throughout history: "Dead Men Tell No Tales."
It's not the sort of motto one can campaign on, but it's a social policy nevertheless. In its horrific way, it will do what a conservative government economic policy -- opposing unemployment benefits except under conditions they know will not be met; obstructing government works programs during a major recession (or Depression), dedicated to turning Social Security into a profit center for wealthy entrepreneurs rather than a safety net for those in need; using the stories of a few (mostly wealthy and powerful) public pensioners to justify attempts to abrogate contractual obligations to middle- and working-class public employees; rejecting, as some Republicans will occasionally admit, even the principle of a minimum wage -- is intended to accomplish. It will make people so fearful of an impoverished old age that they will do anything to prevent it: take any physical risks, suffer any abuse, perhaps even break any laws in the service of their masters.
Squeezing us is one piece of a larger design. When Americans aren't working, the Republican plan is.