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.

Crowdfunding as privatized, casino-style public assistance

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Crowdfunding started as a way of raising capital for entrepreneurial projects, and then it also became a fundraising tool for non-profit initiatives. Now, fueled by a growing wealth divide and the lingering effects of the Great Recession, crowdfunding is turning into a popular medium for individuals to launch pleas for money to meet unexpected and sometimes dire personal expenses. Some campaigns are started by people who are trying to help friends and family members in need.

Many such requests are posted to Facebook. Using sites such as GoFundMe, they request individual donations to cover medical bills, rent, burial costs, educational expenses, and the like. The funding goals usually are in the four and five figures. I’ve seen a few for six-figure amounts. Because the crowdfunding campaign is almost always posted by an individual, donations are rarely tax-deductible as charitable gifts.

I have no idea what percentage of crowdfunding appeals for individual expenses are successful, but my guess is that there are many more misses than hits. Many, if not most of them, carry a voice of desperation. Those launching these campaigns feel like they have run out of options, and so they are asking others for support to keep them afloat.

Welcome to today’s privatized, casino-style form of “public” assistance. As the bottom continues to fall out of America’s middle class, and our safety net increasingly shows its holes, we’re going to see more and more crowdfunding campaigns on behalf of those who are trying to make ends meet. 

The successful appeals will be compelling in voice and substance and supported by a network of friends. The unsuccessful appeals will be unpersuasive, sound questionable, or naively assume that lots of strangers are waiting for reasons to give away their money. In other words, something of a twisted “meritocracy” will develop between those who are successful and unsuccessful at pitching for money to help them survive.

Perhaps this is a logical, unsurprising result of a society that has bought into the notion that the “free market” is a panacea and the solution to all of our problems. A reality TV show pitting those in need against each other cannot be far off.

Related posts

“Should I support that Kickstarter, GoFundMe, or Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign?” (2015)

More to come: The experience of everyday wealth differences

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A guest contributor to The Guardian‘s “What I’m really thinking” column — apparently a female student — writes about the awkwardness of making social plans with friends who have a lot more money than she does:

“I’ll meet you there,” I say. “I’ve got something to do first.” That’s a lie. I just don’t want to take an hour-long taxi with you; the fare for that is outrageous. No, better to take public transport and spend an extra hour and half to save the money.

. . . Make no mistake, I am by no means poor, but by your standards I might as well be. When we go out for dinner, I scream inside at the cost. Often I don’t eat, saying I’ve had something already or I’m not hungry. Some people ask if I’m anorexic, because they never see me eat a proper meal outside school.

Iceberg ahead…and we’re steaming into it, full throttle

Of course, the socially awkward dilemmas confronting a younger person with less disposable cash than her friends are one thing, while deep inequalities in income and wealth are quite another. At least here in the U.S., I believe those inequalities have been, and continue to be, intentionally baked into our economic and political infrastructure. And they are becoming evident across the generations.

For example, here’s a piece of writer Sarah Kendzior’s insightful take on the “post-employment economy” that confronts many recent graduates:

A lawyer. A computer scientist. A military analyst. A teacher.

What do these people have in common? They are trained professionals who cannot find full-time jobs. Since 2008, they have been tenuously employed – working one-year contracts, consulting on the side, hustling to survive. They spent thousands on undergraduate and graduate training to avoid that hustle. They eschewed dreams – journalism, art, entertainment – for safer bets, only to discover that the safest bet is that your job will be contingent and disposable.

On the other end of the generational spectrum, you have late Boomers and early Gen Xers — a cohort that just missed out on the golden era of employer-provided pensions — 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.

My prediction? Without significant changes, we are going to see more and more instances of everyday inequality staring us straight in the face. For some, this will mean quietly bowing out of pricier social activities due to a money crunch. For others, it will mean trying to maintain appearances of “middle class” status while opting for a dinner of macaroni & cheese from a box. And these will be among the folks who actually have “choices.”

I haven’t yet said a word here about climate change.

Saving ourselves from a dystopian future

Yes, I know I’m sounding overwrought. But too many indicators are suggesting that (1) we have yet to pay the full price for our inequalities and excesses, especially during the past thirty-five or so years; and (2) we have not come to a reckoning about the mess we’ve made.

For those who can afford it, there are things that can be done on an individual level: Be generous. Give to good charities. Pick up the check. Leave a nice tip. To help someone dear who is in a financial bind, give, don’t loan, and do it without fanfare. Instead, be grateful that you can afford it. (I try to hold myself to these standards, while confessing that I sometimes fall short.)

More broadly, all of us, regardless of financial status, must grasp how our economic, political, and social systems have stoked massive inequality, nationally and globally, and then help to do something about it. 

I’m not sure of all the answers, but I believe they will be a combination of changing how we live, building a more robust yet inclusive economy, and repairing our social safety net. We will have to be smarter and kinder in creating a society that places greater value on human dignity and the common good.

Is America “On the Beach” about its retirement funding crisis?

Is America simply waiting for the huge, coming crisis in retirement funding to overtake us? What happens then?

The situation reminds me of the 1959 movie, On the Beach, starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. In the film, Australians are attempting to carry on with their everyday lives, while knowing that massive, deadly nuclear fallout, which already has wiped out most of the rest of humanity, is heading their way. When that occurs, they, too, will have no hope for survival.

For years I’ve been writing here about the emerging retirement funding crisis, and I’ve seen little evidence that things are getting any better. In fact, a major new research report by the non-profit, non-partisan National Institute for Retirement Security (NIRS) concludes “that the U.S. retirement savings crisis continues to worsen, and that the typical working household still has virtually no retirement savings.”

The new report, The Continuing Retirement Savings Crisis (authored by Dr. Nari Rhee and Ilana Bouvie) is a thorough update of a 2013 NIRS report, The Retirement Savings Crisis: Is It Worse Than We Think? NIRS concludes that the situation remains very dire. Here are some key points drawn from the 2015 report:

  • “When all households are included— not just households with retirement accounts—the median retirement account balance is $2,500. The median retirement account balance was $3,000 for all working-age households as reported in a previous 2013 report.”
  • “For near-retirement households, the new analysis finds that the median retirement account balance is $14,500.”
  • “(S)ome 62 percent of working households age 55-64 have retirement savings less than one times their annual income, which is far below what Americans need to be self-sufficient in retirement.”
  • “Even after counting households’ entire net worth—a generous measure of retirement savings—two thirds (66 percent) of working families fall short of conservative retirement savings targets for their age and income based on working until age 67.”

Personal and public policy responses

For those in a position to do so, this means paying close attention to retirement funding and engaging in steady, informed saving and investing. However, the realities behind the numbers are that many Americans will not be in a position to make up large shortfalls in expected retirement funding needs.

Clearly, we need to respond on a public scale simply to provide the means for a minimally secure, dignified retirement. The NIRS report agrees, observing that “(p)ublic policy can play a critical role in putting all Americans on a path toward a secure retirement by strengthening Social Security, expanding access to low cost, high quality retirement plans, and helping low income workers and families save.”

Now we get it, sort of

A recent NIRS public opinion survey “revealed that an overwhelming majority of Americans – 86 percent – believe that the nation faces a retirement crisis” and “that 75 percent of Americans are concerned about their ability to achieve a secure retirement.”  

In other words, America now understands that this is a crisis. 

It’s why I invoked On the Beach: We seem to know what’s coming, but we’re basically conducting business as usual. I guess it’s easier than imagining the specter of millions of people heading into their senior years with little or no retirement savings and a frayed safety net beneath them. Many around my age (50-somethings) are bravely saying, “I’ll just have to work forever,” but for a whole lot of reasons, that choice won’t be available to everyone.  

This is not a fun topic; it is a source of anxiety and stress for many, especially among my age cohort. However, unlike the Australian denizens in the movie, we are not necessarily doomed. We can undertake measures to soften this crisis — like shoring up the Social Security system, which is eminently do-able —  especially if we can summon more collective concern, caring, and kindness than what now dominates our political dialogue.

Instead of feeding on the usual nastiness that pervades typical cable news programs, let’s wrap our attention around these more significant concerns with some genuine heart quality and determination. The stakes are too high not to do so.

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Related posts

Hard looks at joblessness, retirement funding, and Generation Jones (2014)

Suicide and the Great Recession: Will we heed the tragic warnings? (2013)

Retirement party (2013)

Retirement expert: “Most middle-class Americans will become poor or near-poor retirees” (2012)

The press discovers the coming Boomer retirement crisis (2011)

When Boomers retire (or try to): America’s coming train wreck (2010)

Not-so-random acts of kindness for the non-saintly among us

Maybe some of the course rubbed off on me.

Maybe some of the course rubbed off on me.

Last November, I was crossing the street near Boston’s Faneuil Hall when I saw a man huddled in a blanket, shuffling past me in the opposite direction. I caught a glimpse of his eyes for only a second, but I could see a lot of sadness in them. When I got to the other side, I turned around and watched him make his way to a public bench, where he sat and seemed to just stare down.

I decided to go back across the street, and then I walked over to the man. I pulled some money from my wallet and offered it to him, saying that it looked like he could use something to eat. He appeared to be in very bad health, but when he saw that I was giving him twenty dollars and we began talking, his face lit up. He was very grateful for the money, and I believe he was appreciative that someone took a few minutes to converse with him.

What some might call a random act of kindness actually wasn’t all that random. Last fall I completed a non-credit, online adult education course, “The Science of Happiness,” led by psychology professors associated with UC-Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. It was a substantial course on emerging scientific discoveries about what makes people happy, with weekly readings, video lectures, and quizzes, as well as mid-term and final exams. Among our optional assignments was to engage in random acts of kindness, drawing on psychological literature indicating that giving promotes happiness in both the giver and the receiver.

Indeed, a little voice from that course was speaking to me when I walked up to that man and gave him money, and I found myself feeling very emotional afterward. Since then, I’ve repeated this act maybe a half dozen times, approaching people who appear to be very down on their luck, saying hello and giving them a twenty dollar bill. Over the weekend it was a man sitting on a subway bench with all of his worldly belongings stuffed into a grocery cart. Earlier this month it was a woman digging through a trash receptacle in search of food, a few feet away from where I was enjoying my lunch.

A couple of times the recipients didn’t say much to me, but on other occasions they expressed surprise and deep gratitude. One man even hugged me. When you see someone’s facial expression go from weariness and despair to a big smile in a matter of seconds, then you know you’ve made someone’s day a little better.

I have hesitated to put this in a blog post because I don’t wish to portray myself as being someone I’m not. I walk by most people I see panhandling on the street, and I’ve never volunteered at a homeless shelter. And let’s be honest: Twenty bucks isn’t exactly a huge sacrifice for a single guy earning a professional salary. But I thought I’d offer this story as just one example of how the non-saintly among us can make a modest difference in the world. No, it’s not “social change” in the grander way that I’d like to see, but if enough of us engage in these acts, then maybe the good stuff starts to add up to something substantial.

Your not-so-random acts of kindness need not be the same as mine. But I can pretty much guarantee that whatever you decide to do, both you and the recipient(s) will feel better because of it.

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This piece has been cross-posted on my personal blog, Musings of a Gen Joneser.

In addition to rethinking abundance, let’s spread it around a little better

Economist Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, suggests in an op-ed piece for the New York Times that we embrace abundance without excessive attachment to material things:

In other words, if we are lucky enough to achieve abundance, we should be thankful for it and work to share the means to create it with others around the world. The real trick is the second part of the formula: avoiding attachment.

In Tibetan, the word “attachment” is translated as “do chag,” which literally means “sticky desire.” It signifies a desperate grasping at something, motivated by fear of separation from the object. One can find such attachment in many dysfunctional corners of life, from jealous relationships to paranoia about reputation and professional standing.

In the realm of material things, attachment results in envy and avarice. Getting beyond these snares is critical to life satisfaction.

I think it’s great advice for people who are blessed with sufficient disposable income to have spending options. As I wrote here back in 2012, research suggests that the correlation between happiness and income levels tends to peak at somewhere around $75,000, subject to obvious variables such as cost of living differentials. Furthermore, studies indicate that giving to others can increase our personal happiness and that money spent on creating memorable experiences rather than on accumulating more stuff tends to be more satisfying. (Brooks acknowledges the latter point in his article.)

Abundance for some

However, at least here in the U.S., we’re living in an age of a widening wealth gap, with that $75,000 mark looking like an illusion to a majority of its citizens. Millions are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and still more are doing worse than that.

Don Lee reports for the Los Angeles Times on a new Pew Research Center study showing that the “wealth gap between middle- and upper-income households has widened to the highest level on record.” He continues:

…(T)he typical wealth of the nation’s upper-income households last year was nearly seven times that of middle-class ones. By Pew’s calculations, that is the biggest gap in the 30 years that the Fed has been collecting statistics from its Survey of Consumer Finances.

“The latest data reinforces the larger story of America’s middle-class household wealth stagnation over the past three decades,” Pew said. “The Great Recession destroyed a significant amount of middle-income and lower-income families’ wealth, and the economic ‘recovery’ has yet to be felt for them.”

An economic system that provides selective abundance

Brooks engages in some rhetorical sleight-of-hand when he says that “we should be thankful for [abundance] and work to share the means to create it with others around the world.” In other words, he’s not suggesting that we share big chunks of our own abundance with others. Rather, if you read the rest of his article, you’ll pick up an implicit defense of a market-based economic system that supposedly can provide others with abundance as well.

There’s a problem with that, of course. The economic system that has produced so much inequity over the past three decades isn’t exactly creating an abundance of opportunity these days. Steady jobs with good pay and benefits are in increasingly short supply. Around the world, the same corporate entities that took millions of those jobs out of the U.S. are now putting their manufacturing plants in countries where they can pay workers a fraction of what their American predecessors once earned.

Toward something better

If you’ve read this blog for any stretch of time, you know that I’m not going to call for a socialist utopia to replace the big, bad capitalist system. I’m way past the point of pitching any rigid economic ideology as the answer to our wealth gap. But I’ll happily repeat my belief that a robust private sector must be complemented by strong public and non-profit sectors, as well as an ethic of giving that asks more of the most fortunate. On balance we need a healthier mix of economic opportunities, regulatory safeguards for the public good, and a social safety net.

In his New York Times piece, Brooks writes that his inspiration for rethinking abundance was a travel encounter in India with “a penniless Hindu swami,” a “son of Indian petroleum engineers” in America who had traded in his MBA and the fast track for a more contemplative, austere life. That certainly provides grist for a curious narrative (well-paid think tank executive takes life lesson from ex-pat living in self-imposed poverty), but the deeper truth is that austerity and detachment from material goods are much easier to opt for voluntarily than finding yourself with no other choice.

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. 

 

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