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Your Terrifying Retirement Future: Why Millions Risk Sliding Into Poverty As They Age

Low wages, low or no savings, and low Social Security benefits. The future is not bright, especially for women and minorities.

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(Editor’s note: This AlterNet interview is part of our expanded focus on modernizing Social Security, which, to us means increasing benefits where needed and ensuring its long-term funding. Dr. Maya Rockeymoore is a longtime advocate for racial justice. She is chair of the National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare and president and CEO of Global Policy Solutions. She spoke to AlterNet’s Steven Rosenfeld about how America’s retirement crisis affects communties of color and women.)

AlterNet: There’s a lot about America’s growing retirement security crisis that’s not fully appreciated by the public, especially when it comes to the harmful impacts on communities of color and women. Tell us how unless we as a country have an honest discussion about this, and expand Social Security, that tens of millions of people will literally slide into poverty as they age.

Maya Rockeymoore: There is no way we cannot have this discussion given the nation’s changing demographics. The rising majority will be primarily Asian-American, African-American and Latino-American. The fact of the matter is those people are already here. Of all the babies born today, a majority are children of color. By 2019, a majority of all children under the age of 18 will be from these racial and ethnic, quote-unquote, minority groups. And by the by 2043, the nation will be majority minority.

The benefit cuts that austerity proponents are talking about today will be fully shouldered, if they ever were to pass, by a nation that looks very different than it does today. And so when you’re talking about cutting Social Security now, most proposals are not talking about cutting it for current retirees. They’re talking about implementing changes that would affect today’s youth. You should understand that you are primarily cutting benefits for a generation of young people who the odds are stacked against them having any type of retirement security.

AlterNet: And that’s on top of what’s shaping up as a retirement crisis for baby boomers.

Maya Rockeymoore: We’re already a nation experiencing a retirement crisis. The private sector mostly does not have defined benefit pensions anymore. And 401Ks have been a failure. What many people fail to appreciate is that communities of color have less access to retirement savings vehicles on the job than do white Americans. And unfortunately, even when they do have access, they are either more likely not to take advantage of it, or more likely to take loans out of it. So what we have is a population, that by virtue of their inconsistent relationship with the labor market, which is rooted in historical inequities, are already disadvantaged when it comes to retirement security.

That insecurity is most clearly represented by the racial wealth gap. For every $1 in wealth owned by the typical white family, the typical African-American family has five cents, and the typical Latino family has six cents. And layered on top of that are the effects of the Great Recession, and the effect of the housing crisis that stripped many households of color of any wealth that they may have accumulated through real estate.               

AlterNet: I know those figures and trends. They’re really shocking. And because as women tend to live longer than men, they’ll be taking the largest hit.

Maya Rockeymoore: That’s another feature of the story, because when you look at women of color, they actually earn less than white women. So when you often hear about the pay gap between women and men—and that about 77 cents earned by women for every dollar that a man makes—it’s actually lower for African-American and Latino women. They get paid less. And they have less wealth. In fact, many households headed by women have negative wealth—debt. That research has actually been conducted by Mariko Chang, and I urge you to read about the lack of wealth of women of color.