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The View From Unretirement: Can we close the retirement security gaps in America?

The American Society on Aging’s (ASA) massive annual conference typically focuses on themes like the health or vitality of older adults. But this year’s On Aging meeting in New Orleans (the group’s first in-person confab in three years) had a far different, gripping focus: Advancing Economic Security.

“Economic security in America, especially for older Americans, is an illusion,” said keynote speaker Raymond Jetson, president and CEO of MetroMorphosis, a Baton Rouge, La. nonprofit working to transform urban communities from within.

Who’s suffering most from economic insecurity

Although one in three older adults are economically insecure, the problem is worse for people of color and women, ASA Chief Executive Peter Kaldes told the 1,500 attendees.

Said Jetson: “By the time they reach retirement age, 83% of African-American senior households and 90% of Latino households are expected to have insufficient funds to live out their remaining years.”

And Social Security is virtually the only source of income for 27% of women age 65 or older who receive its retirement benefits (36% of women 80 or older), according to the National Women’s Law Center.

“So, what do we do,” asked Jetson, an AARP Purpose Prize winner and a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging, “when we find ourselves in this storm of dysfunction and harm and challenge to the well-being of people?”

The pandemic and racial wealth gaps

Racial wealth gaps in America have grown since 1980, Jetson said.

Lamelle McMorris, policy director for the Edward Jones brokerage firm, told On Aging attendees: “The pandemic has been particularly hard on Black and Hispanic communities and women, accelerating the wealth gap that existed for years and pushing the dream of a safe, comfortable retirement further out of reach.”

Many older Blacks and Hispanics were forced to stop making retirement contributions due to economic uncertainties, he added.

And soaring inflation — now running at 8.5% — has been increasing the financial fragility of older adults on fixed incomes, said Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of the AARP Foundation.

The medical debt problem

Medical debt is now a painful financial problem for many older Americans. A recent U.S. Census study found that, in 2017, 22% of U.S. households aged 55 to 64 carried medical debt.

“Medical debt falls disproportionately on Black and brown people,” noted Emily Stewart, executive director of Community Catalyst, a healthcare advocacy nonprofit.

Last week, the Biden administration announced a series of federal agency initiatives to mitigate the effects of medical debt.

Jetson said the combative, partisan federal government is a key driver of the illusion of economic security for older Americans today. “How can we have the confidence of having stable income when there is such dysfunction in our national government?” he asked.

How to lessen economic insecurity in America

To help address the economic insecurity of older Americans, Jetson and several other speakers called for an increase in the earned-income tax credit. It’s a tax break for low- and moderate-income people of up to $1,502 on 2021 tax returns. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 increased this credit, which is now nearly triple its $538 size in 2020.

Jetson also called for a higher minimum wage and “to strategically address residential segregation,” since homeownership is a major component of wealth in America.

Tracey Gronniger, the directing attorney for the nonprofit Justice in Aging’s Economic Security team noted that “housing for older adults is a growing crisis.” Currently, two million low-income older adult households are “severely rent burdened” she said — meaning they spend 50% or more of their income on rent.

Jetson also urged older Americans to organize locally and to become vocal advocates and subject matter experts, to help lessen economic insecurity in the nation.

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