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


(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.

So when you’re talking about retirement insecurity, it’s a triple threat for women of color, who are discriminated against in the labor market, have lower rates of pay, come from households with low to no wealth, and negative wealth in many instances, and often do not have access to private retirement benefits. And then, of course, shoulder the burden of children, and that having a wealth-depleting effect on their personal economic security. So heading into retirement, many women of color, Social Security is all they’ve got. So when you’re talking about cutting benefits, you’re talking about further eroding any kind of economic security for households that are already extremely vulnerable. And have been exploited and vulnerable over a lifetime of work.

We like to think that some of these decisions are deracialized, and that maybe that the policy makers who are opposing these things are not thinking in terms of race. But I think we do ourselves a great disservice when we do not consider race and ethnicity or class. Because when we ignore the impact of proposed policy changes on differently situated groups, we can often make things like poverty much worse. And that undermines and erodes our democracy and we can’t afford to do that.

AlterNet: I completely agree. I wrote a piece on the Senate Finance subcommittee’s recent hearing on Social Security. What I didn’t put in it was how a Democratic senator said, ‘My gosh! What’s a family that’s making $150,000 a year to do?’ I thought, ‘Wow, $150,000 a year is the family you’re concerned about? And this is from a Democrat?’ What do you think is needed to reframe this discussion, so the debate can be forced to talk about solutions that affect people with real needs?

Maya Rockeymoore: I think there are two things that we need to say. The first is there is an economic argument to be made. For most of the 20th century, America did well. If we expect to do well in the 21st century, then we can’t erode and undercut the economic prosperity of the nation. And regardless of race and ethnicity, average Americans are pretty bad off. But when you layer on the fact that we have more people coming from households with low to no wealth, becoming a majority of the population—and we expect to still be a superpower? Can we expect to still be a superpower? I would argue no. The fact of the matter is we’re all in this boat together. And if we’re committed to national economic prosperity, and the growing productivity of the nation, we need to consider how we actually produce systems that can support the productivity of workers. Social Security has proven its value and its worth for reducing poverty, and providing insurance benefits for families throughout the 20th century. It can continue to do so for the 21st century if policy makers remain committed to the value of social insurance.

The second thing is the democratic argument. Our democracy cannot stand with gross wealth inequality. There may come a time, if we let these trends and trajectories continue, that the institutions that were created will not be able to stand under the weight of the despair that will be created by policies that undercut the economic security of the vast majorities of Americans. But especially those who are already vulnerable. We cannot expect that our democratic institutions will be considered valid; that they will continue to be relevant when the vast majority of our population lives in squalor and poor circumstances. And so, if we care about prepetuating this great democratic experience we call the United States of America, we should care about making sure that we are producing policies that are in the best benefit for the majority of the nation—but especially those who have been vunerable traditionally.

And there’s a moral argument. And that argument is that we should and can do better than what’s being proposed. And that we are better as a nation when we pull together to move forward to define progress for the world. The fact of the matter is Social Security of one of our great pillars of progress. We created it and we had the foresight to realize that workers could come together to contribute to their own security. And we need to continue to perpetuate it, because that’s what we do as Americans. We are problem solvers and we know how to put together systems that work. And some policy makers have forgotten that.

AlterNet: There’s one more thing I wanted to ask about. One under-appreciated piece of this is how immigration reform would contribute to solving this crisis. Isn’t that right?

Maya Rockeymoore: Yes, that’s correct. First of all, immigrants already contribute a whole heck of a lot of money to Social Security. It’s through undocumented labor and using fake Social Security numbers that do not match. These individuals are paying taxes and they are paying Social Security taxes. And they are primarily Latino in origin and coming from various Latin American countries. And these are individuals who tend to have larger families. We have been talking for the past several decades about the growing imbalance between the number of workers to retirees, and the fact of the matter is we have a nationwide solution staring us straight in the face. We’ve got a population that’s already contributing and eager to contribute more to the American economy. And this is a population that certainly tends to value family. And have larger families. And if we simply recognize this population and do right by them with regards to honoring their contribution to our economy, we can go a significant want toward addressing the issue of Social Security solvency.

And, of course, the other part of that is scrapping the cap [where only the first $117,300 of income is taxed for Social Security] will get us all the way there.

AlterNet: Yes, I’m well aware of that. And as pollster Celinda Lake pointed out, most people are not even aware there’s a cap because they do not earn above six-figures.

Maya Rockeymoore: That’s right. You may have heard me use the term fiscal racism. But it’s also fiscal sexism. And how is it—and I say this tongue-in-cheek—that the policy makers coming up with these austerity proposals, who tend to be overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly white, would come up with policies that would just happen to stick it to women and people of color? And low-income people? These are overwhelmingly well-to-do people who think that a family making $150,000 is struggling, and they are just out of touch with the reality of how Americans are living, especially Americans who have come from traditionally disadvantaged populations.

I think that we have to drive home that there are racialized, and gendered, and class implications to the policies that they are proosing and it’s simply unacceptable. What they are proposing will actually exacerbate income inequality in this country.

AlterNet: I noticed that. I wrote a piece that talked about George W. Bush’s former policy director at the Social Security Administration spoke at a Senate hearing and said that we should have a floor—nobody gets less money than the federal poverty level—and the price for that is cutting benefits in the middle. That idea was seen as great progress as it wasn’t just cut-cut-cut. But all of this is so far from what really needs to happen.

Maya Rockeymoore: That’s the whole point. Even Democrats that take that stand are actually protecting the benefits of the privileged. They are unwilling to acknowledge that their policies are perpetuating the advantages of the 1 percent. They are unwilling to explain to the American people, that they represent, that are actually not representing them. They are actually sticking up for the big guy and sticking it to the little guy and girl… Nobody blinks because they don’t realize their own bias.

It’s like the bias of the Washington Post editorial board, who seems to care greatly that the wealthy have limited resources. Well, gee—what about the average Joe? What about the average worker who’s struggling to make ends meet? The wealthy have quite a bit of resources that can go to solving our problems. And not only that, they’re deserving of being hit up on this, because of the fact of the growth of unearned income. Those are resources that have skirted the system. Social Security taxes payrolls. Basically, they’ve found a way to get away with not paying their contribution to Social Security. That has exacerbated the Social Security solvency and finaning issue. And yet the nature of their solution is not about recouping lost wages, it’s about cutting benefits for people who have been faithfully making their contributions. It’s just backwards and it needs to stop.

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