The Sad Reality of Retirement in America
If we can, let’s begin this conversation by settling one of the simplest and most tragic misconceptions of the modern age:
Social Security was, in fact, explicitly imagined and implemented to provide a dignified retirement for all Americans.
The Social Security administration dates back to the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, which makes it roughly 84 years old. When it was being framed, conversations centered on addressing the “universal risks” — economic ones in particular — that all persons on earth are subjected to, merely by having been born, and afterward while attempting to scrape together a life. You can find this and many of the facts that follow in Nancy J. Altman’s “The Truth About Social Security: The Founders’ Words Refute Revisionist History, Zombie Lies, and Common Misunderstandings.”
Here are a couple more remedies for these “zombie lies,” before we move on:
- All of us will grow old. All of us deserve an independent, unencumbered, enjoyable and dignified retirement.
- A “dignified retirement” requires a guaranteed source of income, independent of employment status, to insulate us against illness and other hardships we can’t always plan for.
- More than 170 countries across the globe have implemented some kind of social safety net program that resembles Social Security.
- In 1936, when the program was still quite new, 68 percent of participants said they approved of the program and its implementation. By 1944, a similar survey indicated the approval rating had risen to 96 percent.
- The program’s effectiveness and popularity have remained consistent across the last eight decades.
- When Senators like Alan Simpson (R) and others emit phrases such as, “Social Security was never intended as a retirement program. It was set up in ’37 and ’38 to take care of people who were in distress — ditch diggers, wage earners…” they are lying.
If you had trouble, above, believing what the original mission of Social Security was, it is because the truth about the program has nearly been lost to propaganda. Republicans have been using derogatory words to describe Social Security for almost a century — longer than you or I have been alive — up to and including “slavery.” They used similar rhetoric when they began feeling threatened by Obamacare.
All of this and more means retirement in America is in an incredibly sad and precarious state right now. Decades of State and corporate propaganda has convinced a significant portion of America’s electorate that Social Security — and, therefore, a dignified retirement — is “unearned” and unconstitutional.
Orwellian doublespeak is just one reason why more Americans than ever are having trouble retiring comfortably.
Can Americans Count On Social Security — Or Even Retiring?
Should Americans be forced to work into their 70s, 80s or even later just to survive? For a start, the average lifespan of an American is 78 years, and Spain’s is 83. It’s not as though Americans are spoilt with time to spare, anyway.
The annual Social Security Trustees’ report from 2018 says the program will run out of funds by 2034 if present trends continue. But what are the present trends, and who’s driving them?
One trend is that one in three Americans have no retirement savings whatever. The general stagnation of wages over the past few decades is a significant part of the problem, and the generally higher cost of living is another.
Another problem? Instead of telling the truth about Social Security, corporate-owned “news media” outlets are publishing articles encouraging young people today to not bother counting on — or fighting for — Social Security. There’s a Big Bank Product waiting for you instead.
This isn’t how it was supposed to be.
Who Is Sabotaging Social Security and Future Retirees?
If trends continue, future retirees will receive Social Security payments that are 21 percent less than what current retirees can count on.
What should be happening instead? Social Security is supposed to provide a post-retirement income of 40 percent of what we earned before retiring at the age of 62 (for partial benefits) or 66 (for full benefits).
So, who’s sabotaging Social Security?
The situation is roughly this: The — for lack of a better word — “pot” of money we all pay into, through payroll taxes, is being imperiled not by “runaway government spending” as the GOP would have us believe, but instead by the GOP’s own plans to turn over the Social Security “spigot” to Wall Street and reckless, antisocial speculation. In other words, they want to trust “market forces” with our retirement nest eggs.
Has this idea generally played out well in the past?
Another GOP strategy involves forcing working-class people to borrow from their own future Social Security payouts to “pay for” time off from work. Even when they’re attempting to address shortcomings in our social contract, they’re using it as a cover for sabotage.
It would seem that the entire Social Security “funding crisis” was a manufactured one. And now, the people who decided to break it in the first place — thanks to their ties to Wall Street, remember — are providing all sorts of fixes.
Some Republicans want to “solve” the potential Social Security “crisis” by forcing people to gradually retire later and later in life while also slashing benefits. These are benefits, remember, which we know already don’t go as far today as they used to.
In opposition, Bernie Sanders and other progressives, including some Democrats, would have us eliminate the cap on payroll taxes — the mechanism that funds Social Security — and guarantee the survival of the program that way. Taxes on the wealthiest Americans are lower today than they used to be, as well, which has contributed to faltering revenue streams over the years for the social safety net in general.
What Can You Do If You Want the Best Shot at a Dignified Retirement?
We don’t have to like it, but a couple of those Big Bank Products — mostly employer-sponsored 401(k)s and Roth IRAs — can serve as fairly reliable sources of income into our golden years, provided we begin saving early and do so consistently and aggressively. The Stanford Center on Longevity says we should be saving 10 to 17 percent of our income to achieve retirement at 65 years of age. But most are only saving around six to eight percent instead.
The next several elections will also go a long way toward ensuring all Americans can retire with dignity when the time comes. Pay very close attention to who’s saying what, when it comes to Social Security — and use all of the tools at your disposal to find out who’s compromised enough by their own greed to endanger this critical, popular and successful social program. Although Republicans are more prone to extravagant lies about Social Security, they’re far from alone in being beholden to interests that would like nothing more than to see it disappear forever.