Poor, aging, and on the road in America

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A photo essay by John Glionna and Francine Orr for the Los Angeles Times profiles the life of Dolores Westfall, age 79, who travels the country in her rickety recreational vehicle in search of work:

Westfall — 5 feet 1 tall, with a graceful dancer’s body she honed as a tap-dancing teenager — is as stubborn as she is high-spirited. But she finds herself these days in a precarious place: Her savings long gone, and having never done much long-term financial planning, Westfall left her home in California to live in an aging RV she calls Big Foot, driving from one temporary job to the next.

She endures what is for many aging Americans an unforgiving economy. Nearly one-third of U.S. heads of households ages 55 and older have no pension or retirement savings and a median annual income of about $19,000.

. . . Many rely on Social Security and minimal pensions, in part because half of all workers have no employer-backed retirement plans. Eight in 10 Americans say they will work well into their 60s or skip retirement entirely.

The piece notes that while more fortunate retirees may pack up their RVs to cross the country sightseeing, Westfall (whose fall from the middle class was precipitated by the Great Recession) and others are traversing America in search of work. Most of these jobs are of limited duration and pay poorly. In Westfall’s case:

Her seven-year journey has taken Westfall to 33 states and counting. She’s worked as a cavern tour guide, resort receptionist, crowd control officer, hustling clerk at an Amazon warehouse. Others like her have cleaned toilets, picked beets, plucked chickens.

Her monthly income consists of $1,200 in Social Security and a $190 pension, plus pay from her seasonal jobs. She owes $50,000 on her credit cards. There’s also a $268 monthly loan payment for her aging rig.

Westfall embodies what journalist Jessica Bruder, interviewed two years ago by NPR’s’s Here and Now program, has called the phenomenon of “workampers.” Here’s the intro:

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.

Even if workamping does not become a dominant option for cash-strapped seniors, a growing retirement funding crisis awaits us. A huge cohort of late Boomers and early Gen Xers — a group that just missed out on the golden era of employer-provided pensions — is hurdling into middle age and beyond with scant retirement savings. For example, a 2015 study by the non-profit National Institute on Retirement Security concluded, among other things:

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 $2,500 for all working-age households and $14,500 for near-retirement households. Furthermore, 62 percent of working households age 55-64 have retirement savings less than one times their annual income, which is far below what they will need to maintain their standard of living in retirement.

Beefing up Social Security payments and strengthening Medicare are two obvious options to help close the financial gaps facing many seniors now and in the future. Unfortunately, we heard very little discussion about America’s retirement readiness during the awful, just concluded presidential campaign. If early assessments are correct, the Trump Administration will be looking to cut Social Security and Medicare payments for seniors, which will only worsen the human impacts of the burgeoning crisis.

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