I Am My Family's Social Security

By Martha Sanchez

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Martha Sanchez is an undergraduate student at American University studying Communications, Legal Institutions, Economics, and Government. Her goal is to advocate for policies that better communities and further social justice. This summer Martha is a policy fellow at Young Invincibles.

Retirement prospects seem grim for Millennials, but they're especially tough for first-generation Latinos from mixed immigrant status families. Yet as a young Latina, I'm more worried about my family's retirement prospects than my own.

The people who are sacrificing their lives for my education now, will need to retire by the time I pay the bulk of my student loans. Yet, I doubt I'll have the financial security to take care of them, possibly start a new family, and save enough for my own retirement.

By the time I was a teenager, the contract of the American dream was clear: be a good student, go to college, get a job, and make a return on the investment your parents made for you by being able to take care of them in their old age -- simple.

However, since 2008 it has become clear that going to college doesn't guarantee a decent job and increased purchasing power for, say, a new home or a car. Instead, the high cost of college is becoming a big barrier to making important long-term investments. The average student borrower leaves college with $30,000 in debt and as a nation, borrowers owe $1.2 trillion in college loans.

While Latinos have made great strides in educational attainment, only 14.5% of Latinos receive a bachelor degree, compared to 51% of Asians, 34.5% of whites, and 21.2% of blacks. On top of that, Latinos have the second highest unemployment rate among adults overall -- 9.3%, compared to 5.3%.

Some of the big questions that loom over young Latinos are: With loan debt and unemployment rates so high among Latinos, when can we start thinking about retirement? And what if our parents don't have a life insurance plan or a 401k plan?

What if our parent is one of the 11 million undocumented immigrants who pay taxes but cannot access Social Security or affordable health care? Recently I spoke to a young man who said, "I am my parent's Social Security." Are we prepared for family health emergencies on top of our college loan debt? 16.6 million families in the U.S. are mixed-status families where at least one family member is vulnerable to lacking healthcare and any kind of emergency safety net.

I am one of those people. My mother, a legal U.S. permanent resident, died in 2007 of stomach cancer; and my father, also a legal U.S. permanent resident, died in 2011 of leukemia. My teenage brother, a U.S. born citizen, is now under the legal guardianship of our aunt -- an undocumented self-sacrificing woman who also in a mixed-status family.

Her husband has a work-permit, and her daughter is a DACA college student who last summer had no idea about what to do with a $100,000 hospital bill. What would happen to my family, to my teenage brother, if our uninsured aunt got sick?

Unlike many of our peers, we are expected to take care of our parents before we even take care of ourselves. Yet, the immigration debate in D.C. centers around the act of 'illegal immigration' rather than the reality that current Americans are suffering and feeling hopeless when a family member by law cannot access life-saving measures.

Economically, my generation that hails from immigrant families is at a major disadvantage when it comes to building wealth and planning for retirement. Increasing financial literacy among parents and students would go a long way towards building a stronger economy that everyone could readily contribute to.

Only 35% of Latino workers have access to 401 k plans and even fewer choose to contribute to them. Some of our family relatives may say, "Just send me back to my country when I'm too old to work."

But we know that realistically, separation from our relatives when they need us the most is not a solution. Retirement should be a conversation in all households and access to purchasing health care through the marketplace should be made available now to everyone.

I'd like to see lawmakers and my peers take steps to tackle this problem. Right now, my generation has a negative savings rate of 2 percent, according to Moody's Analytics. We can take steps to raise awareness about student loan repayment options, and work to boost understanding about special enrollment options to access affordable healthcare.

What else do you think would help? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section!