It's Time We Talk About Senior Poverty

The well-educated who find themselves in financial distress after 50 or 60 are acutely aware of the question, “Shouldn’t I be doing better by now?”

“Shouldn’t you be doing better by now?”

It is a question that many of the tens of millions of older people who have little or no money are asking themselves.

And occasionally, being asked by others their own age and younger.

It is embarrassing and maybe a little unseemly to be over 55 or 60 and asking people to hire you. Or to let you stay in their spare room. Or to pick through the wreckage of your once lofty dreams in search of enough money to pay for rent or food or medicine.

Shouldn’t you be doing better by now? By 60? 65?

What bad decisions did you make to be the presumptive age of retirement only to know you will never retire, that if you are lucky, you will die while still working, and if not so lucky, die while trying to keep body and soul afloat?

Senior poverty isn’t talked about very much. That is partly because it is an unpleasant topic, and partly because remarkably few people are even aware of the magnitude of the problem.

When I tell people that as many as half the 100 million Americans over 50 have no money saved, they react either in amazement, or – less often – by saying, yes, they know someone old and poor.

SANDERS: Do you believe that health care is a right of all Americans, whether they’re rich or they’re poor? Should all people, because they are Americans, be able to go to the doctor when they need to, be able to go to the hospital, because they are Americans?

PRICE: Yes. We are a compassionate society…

SANDERS: No, we are not a compassionate society. In terms of our relationship to poor and working people, our record is worse than virtually any other country on Earth. We have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any other major country on Earth. And half of our senior older workers have nothing set aside for retirement. So I don’t think, compared to other countries, we are particularly compassionate.

“Half of our senior older workers have nothing set aside for retirement.”

It was the kind of statement that should have set the room buzzing. Instead, it didn’t even prompt a follow up.

Is that because we don’t care? I hope not. Is it because the problem is too big that we can’t wrap our arms around it? Maybe.

Is it because these poor seniors aren’t camping out in our backyards – yet?

Or is it because many of us believe that these 50 million fellow Americans have planned poorly, squandered their finances, not understood the way the world, the economy, work?

That’s certainly part of it. But I have written before, and will continue to write, that the paths these people have taken to their current dire financial predicaments are numerous and diverse.

Divorce. Single parenthood. Illness. Lack of education. Careers that became obsolete. Were those “bad decisions”? Perhaps. More likely, bad luck.

Did a coal miner or an automobile assembly worker make a bad decision? Possibly. But what other decisions were available?

What about the newspaper reporter who at 25 thought hers was the most noble calling there was, not knowing that 30 years later her industry would barely exist?

The well-educated who find themselves in financial distress after 50 or 60 are acutely aware of the question, “Shouldn’t I be doing better by now?”

Because they know they should be. They don’t want to send their resumes out to compete against armies of better qualified 30 year olds. They don’t want to “network” with their peers who divide their time between winter homes in Florida and summer homes in Europe. But that is what they have to do. Because at 60 with no money, they may well live another 25, 30, 35 years. With no money.

How these tens of millions of people got to where they are is an important question, one that has not been even remotely addressed adequately. Much research needs to be done about that.

But what will happen to them going forward is an even more important question, one that a “compassionate society” can no longer ignore.

Shouldn’t they be doing better by now? Yes. But they aren’t.

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