“When I retire, I hope…”
California is facing a retirement crisis, prompting labor, senior, and community groups to gather in Sacramento Oct. 15 to define the problem, analyze its details and seek solutions.
The sponsors of the day-long forum, dubbed “California’s Tomorrow: New Visions for Retirement Security,” released a new study — “Aging California’s Retirement Crisis” — which found disturbing statistics and trends in the demographic, income, and housing challenges facing the state’s senior population. Its authors, Nina Ebner of the University of British Columbia and Nari Rhee of the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, presented their findings at the forum.
In California’s future: a rapidly growing and increasingly vulnerable senior population, comprising more than a quarter of the state’s population by 2035. The oldest group of seniors, age 80 and up, are the fastest growing group. People of color will make up a majority (55%) of seniors by then, with the biggest growth coming in the Asian and Latino populations. Unsurprisingly, women make up the majority of seniors.
Households of color reach retirement with significantly less wealth than white households due to lower access to workplace retirement plans, less secure employment, and lower Social Security coverage, especially among immigrants. So they will face even greater challenges covering their basic needs in retirement. Women, who have dealt with lower incomes and time out of the workforce, will have similar issues.
At this time nearly one third of all seniors cannot cover their basic needs, and under current conditions the situation will only get worse.
With the issues and challenges laid out, the gathering’s participants, activists all, moved onto various aspects of a solution.
Yvonne Walker, president of SEIU Local 1000 that represents state workers in California, delivered the forum’s keynote address. Walker decried the lack of overall economic security, noting that this country has shifted from one where groups take risks together to one where individuals take their risks in isolation.
“The only message Americans hear is that they alone are responsible for their successes and their failures,” said Walker. “We’re supposed to find this acceptable. I just don’t.”
Walker also spearheads California’s proposal to create a new retirement savings program for the state’s 6.3 million private-sector employees who currently lack access to employer-sponsored retirement plans. Called “The California Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program” or simply “Secure Choice,” it aims to provide a voluntary, low-risk, low-cost, portable retirement savings plan that encourages participation through automatic enrollment and facilitates it through payroll deduction.
Established by legislation in 2012, it created a savings trust to receive, invest and pay out retirement benefits. It will be administered by the nine-member California Secure Choice board, of which Walker is a member. Currently the board is conducting a legal and market analysis to figure out how to implement the plan. The analysis should be completed later this year. Next year the California legislature will vote on implementing it.
Alysabeth Alexander, SEIU 1021’s vice president for politics, presented the case for defined benefit pensions, especially in contrast to the expanding 401(k)-style of personal savings. The way pensions combine employer and employee contributions and invest as a group spreads the risk and leads to stability and a predictable steady income, she said, echoing a recurring theme of the forum that retirement needs to be a social program, not an individual adventure. And with that steady if modest income, retirees contribute to the economic activity and prosperity of their local communities.
Alexander went on to discuss the latest “pension reform” proposal, a direct assault on the retirement security of public employees. She pointed out how the initiative, authored by former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and former San Diego City Council member (and now right-wing talk radio host) Carl DeMaio, would actually destroy retirement security for both future and current public employees, and seriously damage the state’s economy.
Alex Lawson, Executive Director of Social Security Works, made one of the most important points of the day. He started by asking attendees if they believed Social Security would still be capable of paying benefits when their time came. The vast majority indicated they did not.
That, Lawson said, is not just wrong, it is what Wall Street wants you to believe. Social Security is currently completely solvent up to 2037, and with a simple fix — making the rich pay their fair share — could remain solvent until 2075 and even afford to expand benefits.
Wall Street doesn’t make money off Social Security because it’s a government program where only 1% of its funds go towards administration. But Wall Street makes a killing on 401(k) plans. So they want you to accept cuts in Social Security and believe that’s better than nothing, then push you to invest more in individual 401(k) and IRA accounts, where their profits are.
Hopes and power
The day ended with participants breaking down into small groups to discuss what their vision of what retirement security looks like, and brainstorming strategies and tactics to get there.
The participants’ aspirations found expression in the foyer just outside the meeting hall. There a camera was set up in front of a green screen and off to the side were posters and markers. On the top of the posters was printed: “When I retire, I hope…” with the rest a blank white space to be filled in. From the poignant to the pointed, the somber to the silly, people had their photos taken offering an array of perspectives on retirement (in)security.
Perhaps the most promising development of the day was the recognition that the groups represented by the attendees can build a powerful network to steer public discussion and policy to address all aspects of economic inequality — including the retirement crisis — facing California.
“We have the collective power in this room to work together to come up with solutions for retirement security and economic security,” Walker said. “This is the beginning for us to collectively wield our power to take on retirement security throughout California.”
SEIU 1021 members can get involved in the local’s Retirement Security Committee by contacting:
Cynthia Landry, Retirement Security Committee Chair (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Pete Albert, SEIU 1021 Retiree Council Chair (email@example.com)
David Williams, West Bay Retirees Council President (firstname.lastname@example.org)