No Ho Ho: Will Amazon’s warehouse workers benefit from the holiday shopping rush?

Now that the holiday shopping season is moving into full swing, a lot of folks will be clicking and shipping through their gift lists by way of Amazon. As someone who does not enjoy in-store shopping, I understand the appeal. However, I doubt that Amazon’s warehouse workers will be the main beneficiaries of the company’s holiday sales intake, and that should give us pause as we make our shopping choices.

Back in February I explained why I cancelled my Amazon Prime account, citing concerns over how the company treats its warehouse workers:

I cancelled my Amazon Prime account earlier this week, and until working conditions for their employees improve, I won’t be shopping there nearly as often as I have previously.

Amazon Prime is a premium membership service that guarantees two-day shipping on almost every item ordered. For frequent customers such as myself, Prime offers easy, dependable, click-and-ship ordering, with hardly any waiting time for delivery.

However, revelations about Amazon’s labor practices have become increasingly disturbing, more specifically the working conditions in its vast merchandise warehouses. For me, the final straw was a recent Salon investigative piece by Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” detailing how the situation is much worse than I imagined….

I’ve cut down on my Amazon orders during 2014, and I’ve resisted the temptation to rejoin Prime. I’ve searched around in vain for evidence that Amazon is making any major effort to treat its warehouse workers better.

To be sure, Amazon’s delivery systems are what Wired called a “Massive Wish-Fulfilling Machine.” Marcus Wohlsen concludes his detailed look at Amazon’s warehouse and delivery operations this way:

Amazon’s warehouses are designed to be wish-fulfillment machines, calibrated to feed our consumer wants with aggressive speed and precision at a scale that has yet to find its limit. We keep supplying more wishes to Amazon, and Amazon keeps turning them into more stuff.

However, Amazon’s systems continue to exact a human toll on warehouse workers. For example, Dave Jamieson, writing for the Huffington Post in May, detailed a lawsuit filed by South Carolina employees:

A new batch of Amazon warehouse workers sued the online retailer in federal court last week, claiming the company’s workplace policies don’t leave them with reasonable time to eat their lunches.

In the lawsuit filed in South Carolina, seven warehouse workers say they were required to continue working and complete their tasks even after their unpaid half-hour breaks began. Once they were done, they would have to wait in line to go through a security screening, then take a six-minute walk across the massive warehouse to get some fresh air and eat.

All told, the holdups typically left them with “less than 18 minutes” to enjoy their lunches….

In addition, here’s how Jason Del Rey, writing for re/code in June, previewed a CNBC documentary on Amazon’s working conditions:

While CNBC found warehouse employees who were thankful for the pay and benefits that come with a job at an Amazon fulfillment center, several spoke out about against the unrelenting pace of work and unreasonable expectations that take a physical and mental toll on employees.

“I felt like Amazon was a prison,” one former female worker said in the documentary. She and others interviewed reported tough working conditions that include being timed on just about any action imaginable, from bathroom breaks to packing boxes to picking products off of shelves.

Amazon is among the companies that seek out older workers who roam the country in search of short-time and part-time employment, especially on a seasonal basis. Journalist Jessica Bruder was interviewed by public radio’s Here and Now program on the phenomenon of “workampers”:

A story in Harper’s Magazine opens a window into some of these people. They’re called “workampers” (a contraction of working and camping) and they travel across the country in their RVs, often performing seasonal work, selling fireworks, pumpkins, Christmas trees. They even work part-time in huge Amazon warehouses.

Jessica Bruder is author of the story, “The End Of Retirement: When You Can’t Afford To Stop Working,” in the August issue of Harper’s. She told Here & Now’s Robin Young that this movable work force is a great thing for companies like Amazon.

As you might guess, many workampers are doing what they do because more secure, higher paying jobs have eluded their grasp, especially during this ongoing economic crisis. They probably won’t be enjoying a lot of holiday cheer as they nurse their tired bodies after long, demanding shifts. 

 

Hard looks at joblessness, retirement funding, and Generation Jones

Many members of “Generation Jones,” that span of late Boomers and early Gen Xers who are in their middle years, face tough times right now. This cohort has been hit especially hard by the ongoing economic crisis, with many losing jobs in mid-career and finding it difficult to obtain new employment and to save for retirement.

Decades ago, many Gen Jonesers confronted a rough economy while launching their work lives. During the late 70s and early 80s, the economy was in severe recession, inflation ran very high, and employers were cutting back or eliminating pension plans. Academic studies indicate that graduating into a recessionary economy can impair earning power for years. So this group has been unlucky in terms of both entry-level and mid-life labor markets.

I concede my bias on this topic. I’m a member of Generation Jones, and these realities are hitting many among my age group. As the following pieces indicate, we’ve got a lot of work to do in order to rebuild both opportunity and a safety net. Here goes:

Ann Brenoff, blogging for the Huffington Post, says that she’s bombarded by advertising appeals from retirement planners, but the real problem is that most people lack sufficient funds to invest for retirement, period:

My inbox is bombarded daily with pitches from retirement planners who claim to hold the secret to my “dream retirement.”

…Here’s the problem I have with them: They ignore the elephant in the room, which is, it’s too late for most boomers to join their party. Spending less and saving more — if even possible — won’t close the gap between what we have and what we will likely need.

…What I don’t understand is why everyone isn’t talking about the crazy awfulness that awaits us — and by us I mean the vast majority of people who are woefully unprepared for retirement.

How much money do we need to save for retirement? Paul B. Brown, writing for the New York Times, discusses a new book by finance professor and investment expert Richard C. Marston, Investing for a Lifetime:

Although Fidelity Investments garnered a lot of attention two years ago when it declared that you would need eight times your current salary to “meet basic income needs in retirement,” Mr. Marston disagrees. “Despite the fact that it is very difficult to save eight times income, the goal the company proposed seemed too low to me,” he says.

If you thought eight times current income was daunting, Mr. Marston’s default position will stun you. He says it can easily come to 15 times what you are earning now.

Okay, so Prof. Marston recommends saving fifteen times one’s current income?! Only the tiniest percentage of U.S. workers have retirement portfolios on track for that. The gap between the realities facing most Americans and the numbers being recommended by personal finance experts is bonkers, simply mind blowing.

Kevin Kusinitz is a 58-year-old writer who has been unemployed for nearly two years. In this piece for Next Avenue, he reflects upon being part of an age group being passed over for jobs but too young (and broke) to retire:

Like a lot of people around my age, I really didn’t pay close attention to the unemployment situation until I was in the thick of it myself. It was only then that I started reading the heartbreaking stories of perfectly good workers in their 50s who, like me, were shown the door by middle managers all apparently sharing the title: Executive Vice President of Keeping My Own Job by Any Means Necessary.

After decades as a right-of-center kind of guy, I was shocked to wake up one day thinking, “Oh my God, now I know what Michael Moore has been talking about all this time.”

…I’m no sociologist but I predict if this trend keeps up (and, frankly, why shouldn’t it?), the next decade is going to see a spike in older people moving in with their adult children, becoming homeless or even committing suicide because they will have no other options.

Jessica Bruder, writing for Harper‘s, explores the subculture of older American workers who have lost steadier jobs and who now roam the country in vans and camping vehicles in search of extended part-time work such as seasonal tourist sites and warehouse gigs. You’ll have to get a copy of the August issue or subscribe to access the online edition, but here’s the lede from her story:

On Thanksgiving Day of 2010, Linda May sat alone in a trailer in New River, Arizona. At sixty, the silver-haired grandmother lacked electricity and running water. She couldn’t find work. Her unemployment benefits had run out, and her daughter’s family, with whom she had lived for many years while holding a series of low-wage jobs, had recently downsized to a smaller apartment. There wasn’t enough room to move back in with them.

“I’m going to drink all the booze. I’m going to turn on the propane. I’m going to pass out and that’ll be it,” she told herself. “And if I wake up, I’m going to light a cigarette and blow us all to hell.”

Her two small dogs were staring at her. May hesitated — could she really envision blowing them up as well? That wasn’t an option. So instead she accepted an invitation to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving dinner.

Tom Raum, writing for the Associated Press, examines the flattened “workforce-participation rate”, i.e., the total number of employed + job seekers, and reports that many of the long-term unemployed are simply dropping out of the labor market after efforts to obtain jobs have been repeatedly unsuccessful:

But perhaps the most significant factor is unemployed workers “who just drop out of the job market after one, two or three years of looking for work and not being successful,” said Carl Van Horn, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University who studies workplace dynamics and employment trends.

Recent surveys suggest more and more long-time unemployed workers are abandoning the search for another job and leaving the nation’s workforce.

“And they are disproportionately older workers,” Van Horn said. “We have a large number of older (unemployed) workers who are not old enough to retire, yet they are facing discrimination in the workplace and have found it nearly impossible to get another job.”

Is the Social Security system about to go under? You might believe so if you listen to hard right pundits who demonize anything to do with a government safety net, but in reality Social Security is doing much better than many private and public pension and savings plans. This article in YES! magazine offers a more sensible look at the situation. In an excellent set of infographics, managing editor Doug Pibel explains that the Social Security Trust Fund has sufficient funds to pay out expected benefits for the next two decades and that relatively manageable tax fixes can ensure its longer term viability:

Social Security will never “go broke.” As long as people are working, Social Security will have money. . . . There is now $2.8 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which will fully cover expenses for about the next two decades. To make it work after that is pretty painless — we just have to decide who pays.

So far, Congress has refused to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, a policy choice that disproportionately affects older individuals who have been experiencing severe difficulties re-entering the workforce. In a piece for FiveThirtyEight.com, Ben Casselman explains that arguments against such an extension aren’t panning out:

The case against extending unemployment benefits essentially boils down to two arguments. First, the economy has improved, so the unemployed should no longer need extra time to find a new job. Second, extended benefits could lead job seekers either to not search as hard or to become choosier about the kind of job they will accept, ultimately delaying their return to the workforce.

But the evidence doesn’t support either of those arguments. The economy has indeed improved, but not for the long-term unemployed, whose odds of finding a job are barely higher today than when the recession ended nearly five years ago. And the end of extended benefits hasn’t spurred the unemployed back to work; if anything, it has pushed them out of the labor force altogether.

The so-called economic recovery isn’t that for millions of Americans. Long-time populist political commentator Jim Hightower takes issue with, among other things, the positive spin being applied to new jobs created since the worst of the meltdown:

So, it’s interesting that the recent news of job market “improvement” doesn’t mention that of the 10 occupation categories projecting the greatest growth in the next eight years, only one pays a middle-class wage. Four pay barely above poverty level and five pay beneath it, including fast-food workers, retail sales staff, health aids and janitors. The job expected to have the highest number of openings is “personal care aide” — taking care of aging baby boomers in their houses or in nursing homes. The median salary of an aid is under $20,000. They enjoy no benefits, and about 40 percent of them must rely on food stamps and Medicaid to make ends meet, plus many are in the “shadow economy,” vulnerable to being cheated on the already miserly wages.

MIT’s Institute for Career Transitions conducted a pilot project to coach and advise the long-term unemployed, with hopeful results. In order to measure the potential benefits of providing this assistance, the three-month project included a group who received help and a control group who did not. WBUR’s Benjamin Swasey reports:

Long-term unemployment — which, according to [MIT professor and Institute director Ofer] Sharone, disproportionately affects older workers — is at 2.3 percent of the nation’s workforce, a historically high level. More than 38 percent of America’s unemployed job seekers have been out of work six months or more.

. . . “We have a ton of studies showing that once you hit the six-month [jobless] point, by so many indicators it becomes a real crisis,” he says. “It’s a financial crisis. It’s an emotional crisis. And then when you get to this scale of numbers, it’s a social crisis. We’re losing out on a whole cohort of workers.”

. . .Of the group that got support, 30 percent obtained a full-time job or contract work of at least four months. That compares to just 18 percent from the group that received no aid.

“It clearly shows that the job market is very, very tough, even for someone in an ideal situation,” as “most people did not get jobs,” Sharone says. “On the other hand, I think we can say that there’s a meaningful difference to getting support.”

How do the challenges specially facing this age group connect to other social and economic policy issues? Here’s one article that helps us to grasp the bigger picture: In an op-ed piece for the Boston Globe, writer Neal Gabler predicts how historians of the future will regard the current American era, and his assessment is not a positive one. Here are a few snippets:

Historians will wonder…how the gains of social and economic equality that were a century in the making were reversed, and, above all, how the country actually became less democratic, often with the acquiescence of many ordinary Americans.

The first thing historians are likely to fasten on is the historic economic inequality in America today.

…They will look at the nation’s…reluctance to embrace health reform that would provide insurance to those who cannot otherwise afford it, its willingness to cut benefits, like food stamps, that primarily help the young and the elderly, its grudging extension of unemployment benefits to people afflicted by the economic downturn.

…I suspect that historians will view this as a terribly bleak period — another Gilded Age but worse.

…And they will wonder: Why there was so little resistance?

What to do???

If any of these articles offered clear-cut, comprehensive solutions to the crisis, I would be highlighting them. Unfortunately it appears that we’re flying without radar here. Furthermore, as Neal Gabler’s Boston Globe piece suggests, I don’t think the American public is sufficiently aware of the systemic nature of this crisis to be able to connect the dots in ways that lead to political consensus. Right now, employment and retirement remain individual challenges rather than shared priorities, reflecting the social and political ethos in which Gen Joners have spent their adult lives.

I do think that reorienting our views on community and society is an important, necessary start toward addressing the situation. Last week I wrote about competing visions of the future, one being a “technological, top-down, service society,” the other being a world of “useful work, peace, self-fulfillment, and appropriate technology leading to harmony with the environment.” We need this latter view to take hold if we are to reverse the rampant individualism and selfishness that soon may resemble passengers on a sinking ship fighting over too few spaces on the lifeboats (with a small few already having reserved seats). Either our better natures will rise to the occasion, or history will judge us harshly, and deservedly so.

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Related posts

I’ve been writing about the burgeoning retirement funding crisis since the first year of this blog. Go here to start scrolling through those articles. In addition, here are three pieces especially relevant to this post:

The three-pronged political attack on the very notion of retirement (except for a few) (2013) — “In America, the very notion of a relatively safe and secure retirement is under relentless attack…. This is not by accident. Only when you connect the dots do you see a unifying force, and it’s very, very political. We haven’t been comprehending how the pieces come together….”

My Labor Day 2013 wish: Good, stable, bully-free jobs for Generation Jones (2013) — An extended commentary, echoing many themes raised here, covering topics such as age discrimination, workplace bullying, and mental health impacts relevant to Gen Jonesers, as well as potential public policy responses.

Suicide and the Great Recession: Will we heed the tragic warnings? (2013) — “In this era of the Great Recession, suicide has become a leading cause of death in America, especially among the middle-aged, and it is to our shame as a society that this reality is not an ongoing, dominant focus of our attention.”

Blog subscriptions

Did you know that you can subscribe to either or both of my WordPress blogs for free? That’s right, every time I publish a post, it’ll land in your inbox. Sign up by going to “Follow this blog” at the top right of Minding the Workplace and/or my personal blog, Musings of a Gen Joneser, and enter your e-mail address.

Worth watching: Robert Reich’s “Inequality for All”

How much inequality can we tolerate and still have an economy that’s working for everyone and still have a democracy that’s functioning? Of all developed nations today, the United States has the most unequal distribution of income and wealth by far, and we’re surging toward even greater inequality.

-Robert Reich, from “Inequality for All”

If you’re looking for an informative, insightful, and lively take on the challenging question of how the American economy threw the middle class under the bus, Robert Reich’s 90-minute documentary, “Inequality for All,” fits the bill.

Reich is now at UC-Berkeley, teaching courses in economics and public affairs, after many years at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a term as Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton. A prodigious author, he turns to the documentary form to deftly blend economic data, income trends, political changes, tax policy, and personal stories & interviews. It’s not pure wonkishness; the film also tells us something of Reich’s interesting life story, too, and several segments exhibit his sharp wit and self-deprecating sense of humor.

As is the skill of a gifted lecturer, Reich packs a lot into the documentary in a way that doesn’t overwhelm. You’ll learn about the impact of globalization and technology on American jobs, how lower tax rates on the wealthy have had a negative correlation with overall economic health, and how the U.S. economy in 1928 (the year before the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression) looked eerily similar to that in 2007 (the year before the Great Recession). You’ll also hear a wealthy CEO talk about the destructive aspects of extreme wealth concentration, and you’ll listen to stories of people trying desperately to stay in the nation’s middle class.

I have a few quarrels with the film. For example, I think Reich was a little soft on the reasons behind the virulent anti-union tactics of some American companies during the past few decades. I also believe that he needed to spell out the fuller implications of globalization for workers everywhere.  But I recognize that choices must be made to keep a documentary within a watchable length, and overall it makes very good use of our time.

“Inequality for All” opened in theaters last year, and it is now widely available in various DVD, on demand, and streaming formats. I just watched it this week, and I am happy to recommend it.

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One of the extras in the DVD is deleted footage about Reich’s 2002 campaign for Governor of Massachusetts, in which he made it onto the Democratic primary ballot but did not win the nomination. Reich uses a chunk of the segment to explain how personally difficult it was for him to spend so much of his time chasing down people for campaign contributions.

I volunteered for Reich’s campaign the day I read an announcement of his candidacy, and I served as a Reich delegate at the Democratic state nominating convention. The deleted documentary segment doesn’t fully convey the way in which he attracted a lot of supporters who had felt alienated from party politics in Massachusetts, not to mention the fact that he ran a very respectable campaign despite getting in the race late and operating with a shoestring budget.

The dignity of a living wage

Across America, labor activists and other progressives are calling for a higher federal minimum wage, often citing the personal financial challenges that confront low-paid retail and fast food workers. The current minimum wage is $7.25/hour, though some states have adopted a slightly higher one. Advocates are calling for a new minimum wage ranging from $10.00 to $15.00 an hour.

Whenever a minimum wage hike is proposed or debated, opponents claim that doing so will reduce jobs. At the far end of that spectrum, virulent opponents of any minimum wage law claim that such government mandates are “job killers.”

Yes, I suppose if you got rid of the princely $7.25/hour minimum wage, you could take the same hourly rate and pay three people $2.00/hour and still have a $1.25/hour as a bonus for the CEO. But that’s not “job creation,” it’s exploitation. Take away the minimum wage and you get a labor situation like that in Bangladesh, where wealthy corporations pay factory workers a pittance and subject them to dangerous working conditions. (After all, American factory jobs moved overseas to avoid paying workers good wages and benefits!)

Current minimum wage and low-wage earners often find themselves having to access public benefits such as food stamps to get by. The low minimum wage means, in effect, that American taxpayers are indirectly subsidizing corporations such as Walmart and McDonald’s and their shareholders by supporting living expenses for workers who can’t afford to live on their paltry paychecks alone.

Above all, we need to frame this debate in terms of human dignity. Okay, so maybe that high school senior from an upper middle class family who works part-time to earn spare cash can get by on $7.25/hour. But for those supporting themselves and others, a full-time job at least should pay for the basics. In fact, let’s remember that Congress’s intent behind enacting the federal minimum wage law during the heart of the Great Depression of the 1930s was to provide a living wage. It’s a shame that we have to invoke the hardship of our last systemic economic meltdown to remind ourselves of that.

Google: Awesome and not-so-awesome

Very few individuals have either all good or all bad qualities. Hopefully we have more of the former and less of the latter.

The same goes for companies, and few capture these extremes more than Google.

On the one hand…

I am not a Google power user, so I haven’t even started to tap its many features. But I am continually blown away by its capabilities as a search engine. In my experience it ranks multiple levels above its competitors.

I can type in bits of phrases and find exactly what I’m looking for. I can go on fishing expeditions and discover incredibly useful and interesting things. The other day I typed in an airport location to a home address, and up popped super accurate driving directions to help direct a cab.

In sum, Google has redefined how we obtain information. Its programmed “intuition” is brilliant.

Google also appears regularly on lists of the best employers, especially among high tech companies. It ranked no. 1 on the 2013 Fortune list of the 100 best employers. It topped a 2012 LinkedIn survey of most desired global employers. If you have the right skill sets, then this is a destination of choice.

Indeed, even Google interns make a fantastic salary. As reported by Glassdoor.com, software engineering interns are paid an average of over $6,000/month. This is a far cry from mega-gobs of unpaid internships offered by so many other employers that could surely afford to pay their interns.

On the other hand…

If you don’t have those high demand skills, however, your compensation prospects at Google may not be so great. For example, Laura Sydell reports for National Public Radio on how wealthy Bay Area companies like Google contract with firms that pay low wages to provide basic services:

Santa Clara County, Calif., is home to Google, Apple and eBay. So it’s no surprise that the median household income was $91,000 a year in 2012, one of the highest in the country. Yet one-third of the households in the county don’t earn enough for basic living expenses, even when they work at some of those big tech companies.

Take Manny Cardenas, a security guard at Google who lives in low-income housing in San Jose and commutes regularly to Google’s sprawling corporate campus in Mountain View. Cardenas, a stocky, soft-spoken 25-year-old, has been working as a part-time security guard at the search giant for the past year and a half. . . .

. . . Cardenas earns $16 an hour, has no benefits and never gets more than 30 hours a week. In a good month, he brings home about $1,400. If Cardenas didn’t live with his mother, he says, he probably wouldn’t have a roof over his head.

Granted, $16 an hour would be a living wage in other parts of the country. But it doesn’t go far in northern California. Because of the contracting arrangement, those wages will never be factored into Google’s average compensation figures. Google could, if it wished, exercise its economic clout and work only with contractors that pay living wages and benefits.

Unfortunately, Google also is using its abundant monies to advance a policy agenda furthering the interests of the wealthy and powerful. As reported by Nick Surgey for BillMoyers.com, Google funds a bevy of far right think tanks and advocacy groups:

Google, the tech giant supposedly guided by its “don’t be evil” motto, has been funding a growing list of groups advancing the agenda of the Koch brothers.

Organizations that received “substantial” funding from Google for the first time over the past year include Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, the Federalist Society, the American Conservative Union (best known for its CPAC conference) and the political arm of the Heritage Foundation that led the charge to shut down the government over the Affordable Care Act: Heritage Action.

In 2013, Google also funded the corporate lobby group, the American Legislative Exchange Council, although that group is not listed as receiving “substantial” funding in the list published by Google.

Assessing

Are remarkable high tech innovations incompatible with a public policy agenda that embraces the common good? Can attractive salaries and model work environments for highly skilled workers co-exist with a living wage and benefits for all?

Socially responsible capitalism means taking the moral high road, even when there’s no government regulator forcing you to do so. When private companies enjoy great success, they can opt to share their bounties and support a rising tide that lifts all boats. Google has immense economic and, hence, political power. Wouldn’t it be great if the company opted to become a standard bearer for ethical, inclusive business practices?

Looking ahead with a giving spirit

(Photo: DY)

(Photo: DY)

I start this post with a confession: I’m not fully walking the talk on this one. When it comes to charitable giving, there are some transcendant souls out there who set rare examples. I’m not one of them.

But lately I’ve been wrestling with this question: How can we best make a difference with our charitable contributions?

Given the frequent subject matter of this blog, I know there are many readers who are not in a position to contribute money to charities. But I know that others have that capacity, and I hope they’ll join me in thinking about this.

Lately I’ve been reckoning with my own giving, which has strongly favored charities that benefit those in the U.S. For a variety of reasons, I realize that I should also be contributing more to organizations and initiatives that are tackling extreme poverty around the world. I’ve been spending good chunks of time on the websites of two entities, The Life You Can Save and Giving What We Can, both of which offer powerful moral and ethical arguments that we should be donating more to reverse extreme poverty.

Moral philosopher Peter Singer’s project, The Life You Can Save, asks people to pledge 5 percent or more of their income to charities that are effectively addressing global poverty. Here’s a short description from the website:

The Life You Can Save is a movement of people fighting extreme poverty. We spread knowledge of what we can all do to reduce poverty and the suffering it causes. We encourage people to support highly effective aid organizations, and to inspire others by joining our community of over 16,000 people who have publicly pledged their commitment to help make the world a better place.

A British-based initiative, Giving What We Can, raises the bar higher, asking people to pledge 10 percent or more of their income to global charities fighting poverty in the world’s poorest nations. From its website:

The members of Giving What We Can each pledge to donate 10% of their income to the most effective causes. Giving more is easier than most people expect, and easier still when you’re part of a global community of givers, united by the vision of a world without poverty. Learn more about our members, the pledge to give, and what you can achieve by joining Giving What We Can.

(Many of the Giving What We Can leaders also are moral philosophers. Interesting!)

If you need to be persuaded of the worthiness of such giving, consider this: Your money can literally save lives. Again: You can save lives.

Helping “our own” first?

In the U.S., some will counter that we should help “our own” before making donations to help the poor in other countries. Certainly I believe we need to continue giving to charities that help those in need here. However, we also must keep in mind that even the poorest Americans, with the significant exception of homeless persons, have better living conditions than countless millions of others who battle dire poverty, sickness, and hunger on a daily basis.

So let’s not ignore “our own.” But let’s remember that we inhabit this planet with many others who are struggling merely to stay alive.

Put it in the will

Also, some will urge that monies should be saved and donated via one’s estate, rather than given away now. First, they say, interest can compound and increase the eventual gift. Yes, that’s true, but people are starving and dying now.

Second, some say that we shouldn’t be too quick to donate money that we may need in the event of a job loss, some other major financial setback, or retirement.

I confess to having those fears, and they trace back to much younger days growing up, when at times our family relied primarily on Mom’s meager salary as a kindergarten teacher as the primary source of income. Today I’m making a very good salary as a tenured professor, but the financial instability of higher education triggers those anxieties, and not without justification.

Nevertheless, such worries do not compare with going hungry for days or wondering whether your kid can obtain treatment for malaria. Not even close.

The amount

Many live frugally yet struggle to make it to the end of the month or to the next paycheck. This post is especially for those who don’t face such difficult financial burdens.

Yes, it’s about giving what we can.

Personally, my main 2014 financial resolution is to meet the 5 percent benchmark of The Life You Can Save. I’m hoping that by publicly saying so, I’ll both increase the likelihood of honoring my own commitment and encourage others to join me.

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The photo above is an enhanced version of an original I took in Colorado in 2012.

Bookends of a coming mega-meltdown

Twenty or so years from now, Americans will look back and ask: Why didn’t we do more? Why didn’t we accept some modest sacrifice to avoid the extreme suffering of today? Why did we ignore what was so perfectly clear back then?

No, I’m not talking about climate change, though you can add that one too. Rather, I’m looking at the scary, jolting confluence of sky high student loan repayment burdens concentrated on one end of the adult age spectrum, and woeful shortfalls in retirement funding for a majority of Americans on the other. I’ve written on both of these topics before (especially America’s retirement readiness), but let me add one excellent investigative piece and one important study to the mix.

Student loan debt

If you’re in college or grad school, or you’re a parent of someone who is, you likely know the score. Gone are the days when a few thousand dollars saved from the family budget covered a big chunk of a child’s tuition and expenses. Income levels have stagnated for most in the U.S., but tuition costs have soared. And the lion’s share of people seeking post-secondary education must borrow money, often gobs of it, to pay those bills.

If you want more detail, the Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi has written a superb investigative article — Ripping Off Young America: The College-Loan Scandal — that is must reading for anyone affected by the financing of higher education. Here’s a snippet:

How is this happening? It’s complicated. But throw off the mystery and what you’ll uncover is a shameful and oppressive outrage that for years now has been systematically perpetrated against a generation of young adults. For this story, I interviewed people who developed crippling mental and physical conditions, who considered suicide, who had to give up hope of having children, who were forced to leave the country, or who even entered a life of crime because of their student debts.

…[T]he underlying cause of all that later-life distress and heartache – the reason they carry such crushing, life-alteringly huge college debt – is that our university-tuition system really is exploitative and unfair, designed primarily to benefit two major actors.

First in line are the colleges and universities, and the contractors who build their extravagant athletic complexes, hotel-like dormitories and God knows what other campus embellishments….

…Next up is the government itself. While it’s not commonly discussed on the Hill, the government actually stands to make an enormous profit on the president’s new federal student-loan system….

The crisis is compounded by a horrible entry-level job market for recent graduates. It’s hard to pay off those loans and save a bit of money when you’re doing your 5th or 6th unpaid internship.

Retirement funding

In the meantime, at the older end of the population, the nation’s largest generation is hurtling towards the traditional retirement years. The only problem is that many Boomers will be in no position to retire, even if Social Security remains intact. Their numbers just don’t add up.

Recent confirmation of the dire situation comes from the National Institute on Retirement Security, a non-profit, non-partisan research and education center. Its 28-page study, The Retirement Savings Crisis: Is It Worse Than We Think?, by labor economist Nari Rhee, is clearly laid out and alarming to read. Here are the major findings:

New NIRS research finds retirement savings are dangerously low, and the U.S. retirement savings deficit is between $6.8 and $14.0 trillion.

…The average working household has virtually no retirement savings. When all households are included— not just households with retirement accounts—the median retirement account balance is $3,000 for all working-age households and $12,000 for near-retirement households.  

The findings confirm that the American Dream of retiring comfortably after a lifetime of work will be impossible for many. Based on 401(k)–type account and IRA balances alone, some 92 percent of working households do not meet conservative retirement savings targets for their age and income. Even when counting their entire net worth, 65 percent still fall short.

Where the twain meet

Let us fast forward 20 years and assume we’ve done nothing besides making some minor tweaks to Social Security and lowering the interest rate a tad on student loans.

It’s 2033, and millions of Boomers are working into their 70s and 80s, not by choice, but rather by necessity. The Social Security Trust Fund is running dry, and older Americans who didn’t have, or already burned through, retirement savings are faced with a 25 percent cut to Social Security benefits, funded now on a pay-as-we-go basis by payroll taxes on aging Gen Xers and Millennials.

These younger folks, by the way, are struggling to pay off student loans that are not dischargeable in a bankruptcy proceeding. For many, their finances have required them to make some hard decisions, such as having fewer or no kids.

Of course, this means they’re less likely to be in the market to buy the big suburban houses put on sale by older Boomers looking to downsize their living spaces and reduce living expenses. (It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, as their credit ratings are blown from their student loans and the credit card debt they’ve taken on to make ends meet.)

In the year 2033, many of the Gen Xers and Millennials are hoping to pay off their student loans and modest mortgages (that’s all the house they could afford) by their late 50s. Some of their retirement prospects, by the way, are even dimmer than that of the average Boomer.

In 2033, what we could’ve done now will seem so obvious…

Obvious, but not easy. It will require belt-tightening by institutions and individuals who can afford it, higher taxes on some (including raising the payroll tax cap to beef up Social Security), creative public policies to recreate the retirement system, an all-out war on the student loan racket, more emphasis on community needs, and less tolerance for extravagance, waste, and corruption. Some kindness will go a long way, too.

It may sound like I’m preaching the meme of austerity. No, to the contrary. I’m suggesting that we strive to live comfortable, healthy, safe, and enriching lives rather than be in a state of want. But we’ll need a values adjustment to get there.

(By the way, much of this will help to address global climate change. Less mad, privatized consumption will have a cooling effect on our planet, literally and figuratively.)

Call me Chicken Little, Cassandra, whatever

The sky is falling. But this begs the philosophical question: If the sky falls on Washington D.C. and Wall Street, but no one there heard or felt it, did it really fall?

Seriously, at a time when dramatic measures are needed to avoid terrible societal and individual pain later, our leaders in the private, public, and non-profit sectors aren’t exactly sounding the alarm bells. And much of America is oblivious to, or willfully ignoring, this coming mega-meltdown.

We do have choices, but time is running out.

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