Retirement insecurity

The "silver tsunami" predicted for Maryland, where more than 1 million workers have no retirement savings, is one that will sweep the rest of the country, too. As a matter of fact, the Employee Benefit Research Institute says the percentage of Marylanders with little or no savings is about average for the nation.

More than a third of those within 10 years of retirement have saved less than $10,000 — a quarter have saved less than $1,000. The numbers are slightly higher for those aged 45 to 55.


The problem isn't necessarily that these workers are undisciplined. It is that there is no easy, automatic way for them to save. Their employers, usually small businesses, don't offer retirement plans.

"This does not depend on how responsible an individual is, it depends on where they work," said Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. The former lieutenant governor chaired the state's task force on retirement security, which released its findings this month, and is founder of Georgetown University's Center for Retirement Initiatives.


"If you work for a large company, you have help. If you work in a small company, you don't."

According to AARP, 80 percent of companies with fewer than 10 workers offer no retirement plan; 65 percent with under 50 employees don't offer a retirement plan, and more than half of companies with fewer than 100 workers offer no retirement plan.

The task force report coincided with hearings on Maryland legislation that would require such small businesses to provide workers with a way to deduct savings to put toward retirement but would also create a state non-profit program for any worker to save.

The task force also suggested that the state help small companies with ways to pool retirement savings and manage their investment, something that can be challenging and expensive.

"We are trying to make it easier for people to save," said Ms. Townsend.

And make it harder for them not to save.

One way to do that is to require companies to automatically enroll employees in a retirement savings plan. If the employee did not want to participate, he or she would have to opt out. But the fact is, they don't opt out.

"When you have an opt-out provision, 90 percent of people save," said Ms. Townsend.

The task force also suggested that these accounts provide not lump sum distributions at retirement, but a monthly source of income. Most of us don't have the math skills to figure out how to make our money last.

It has become clear that a frightening number of older Americans are not prepared for the financial consequences of retirement.

Private sector pension programs are gone, and Social Security pays only an average of $1,300 a month. The future is particularly bleak for single women, who often earn less and will reap less from Social Security.

Without substantial personal savings — eight times your salary is one recommendation — retirees will find themselves living near or below poverty levels. Especially if they live long enough to require assisted living or long-term care. And the government will find itself picking up the slack with Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and the like.


It is a fact that we are more worried about outliving our savings than we are about our health or about losing our jobs. These prospects are so daunting that it is no wonder we find them hard to face. Few workers are saving enough for retirement, and few can afford the financial advice needed to figure out how.

We tell ourselves all sorts of fairy tales to keep the night terrors away. That we will catch up on our saving after the kids are launched. That we will live more simply in retirement. That these are just scare tactics from investment houses that want our money.

That everything will be just fine.

None of those things are true.

Employers, big and small, who have done away with pension programs have a responsibility to create an easy and automatic way for workers to save. And Maryland has a responsibility to enforce this — or help with the mechanics — or it will find itself burdened with a population of aging poor.

There is no time left for fairy tales.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at sreimer@baltsun.com and @Susan Reimer on Twitter.com.

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