White House Conference on Aging: Exercise in Benign Neglect of Retirement Income Crisis?

Co-authored by Eric Kingson and Molly Checksfield

Next week's White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA) seems destined to be little more than an exercise in benign neglect of the growing economic problems of today's and tomorrow's seniors.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Conference delegates could turn this around by:

  • Rejecting the "entitlement problem" frame and language

  • Highlighting the real economic insecurity among today's seniors
  • Sounding the alarm on the retirement income crisis facing working Americans
  • Calling for benefit increases in Social Security
  • Reject "Entitlement"

    Once a neutral budget term, "entitlement" has taken on new meaning in policy, media and even everyday discourse -- one that diminishes the dignity of seniors and mis-frames policy discussions about the economic consequences of the aging of America.

    The subtext of describing Social Security and related protections as "entitlements" is that they are neither deserved nor appreciated. Such language chips away at self-esteem by advancing and reinforcing a narrative that somehow the old--like spoiled, overly entitled children--are demanding and taking more than they deserve, that they did not earn their benefits (Altman & Kingson, 2015).

    "[S]mug elites of Wall Street have peddled "entitlement reform" as a sly euphemism for cutting Social Security. And Washington's political elites, including President Obama, bought into the propaganda." Think tank analysts, political commenters and others, too, have embraced this "big lie and promoted it as indisputable truth" (Greider, 2014). Whatever the problem, this frame leads to calls for and justifies cutting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

    Conference delegates would do great service by urging politicians and the press to avoid characterizations of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and related protections as "entitlements."

    Highlight Economic Insecurity Among Today's Seniors

    Annual Social Security benefits average just $16,000 in 2015. A small percentage of seniors is wealthy, but many more live in poverty or near the margin of economic insufficiency. Nearly half (48%) of seniors are economically vulnerable when 200% of the New Supplemental Poverty Measure is used as the standard. Others--including many among the one out of four senior households with annual incomes in excess of $50,000--are comfortable but often only one shock away from serious financial problems (Altman & Kingson, 2015).

    While the struggle to make ends meet is a burden many seniors face, this stress is more pronounced among Latinos, African Americans, unmarried women, and the oldest old. Further, older workers with health and employment limitations often have no choice but to take permanently reduced retired worker benefits at an early age (e.g., 62).

    The WHCOA delegates should highlight the precarious economic circumstances of today's seniors; that most seniors are not living on easy street.

    Sound Retirement Income Crisis Alarm

    Most American workers face a personal retirement income crisis. Absent expanding Social Security, they will be unable to maintain their standards of living when they grow old.

    The economic crash furthered the deterioration of retirement prospects for countless individuals. Since 2008, many people in their 40s and 50s have been balancing substantial losses of 401(k), IRA and other savings, pension protection, housing equity, and job security with the rising cost of health care and college tuitions. The National Institute on Retirement Security estimates that 38.3 million working-age households (45%) do not have any retirement savings. Even among working households with retirement savings, "Four out of five working households have ... less than one times their annual income" (National Institute on Retirement Security, 2013, 11).

    Thus, it is not surprising that post-crash in 2013--after the stock market increased and housing prices improved--52% of households were on a glide path to an inadequate retirement income (Munnell, Hou, & Webb, 2014); as much as two thirds of health and long-term-care costs were included in this risk assessment (Altman & Kingson, 2015).

    WHCOA delegates should sound the alarm on the nation's retirement income crisis.

    Expand Social Security

    A poll by the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) indicates that our Social Security system is supported across all political groups. Self-reported Democrats, Republicans, and Tea-Partiers alike agree that Social Security benefits should be expanded (Tucker, Reno, & Bethell, 2013). Americans also favor having millionaires and billionaires pay the same rate by raising the payroll contribution cap, currently set at $118,500 for 2015 and are open to other revenue options if used to strengthen and expand Social Security.

    WHCOA delegates should support the growing number of Representatives and Senators calling for the expansion of Social Security, including but not limited to:

    • Modest across the board increase in monthly benefits (e.g., 50 to 100),

  • Larger minimum benefit payments for low wage-workers,
  • Caregiver credits to offset some of the cost of caring for children, ill or family members with disabilities,
  • Use of the more accurate Consumer Price Index for the Elderly (CPI-E) to calculate COLAs.
  • If the goal is to strengthen economic security, WHCOA delegates should make clear that the richest nation at the richest time in the world's history should make a down payment to provide greater retirement income security for today's and tomorrow's seniors.

    Addressing the retirement income crisis and significant income problems of today's retirees in a way that supports the expansion of the nation's most successful and popular domestic policy will resonate most effectively with the American people.

    Excerpted from Eric R. Kingson and Molly W. Checksfield, Advancing a Retirement Income Security Agenda for All Generations, (2015) 25 (2): 43-46. Public Policy & Aging Report (PPAR) is a publication of The Gerontological Society of American. The article is available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License.

    Eric Kingson, Professor of Social Work at Syracuse University, is founding co-director of Social Security Works and co-chairs the Strengthen Social Security Coalition. His new book (co-authored with Nancy J. Altman) Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn't Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All (The New Press, 2015), explains why the American public and a growing number of their elected representatives support expanding Social Security. M. Checksfield, formerly legislative director of Social Security Works and the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, is a Masters of Public Administration student at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.