If 40 million Americans were suffering from the same severe problem, you might think it would be the subject of considerable media attention, a host of government programs, infusions of business capital and a hot topic of national conversation.
That is certainly what I thought several years ago when I began researching the reality that nearly half of all people of over 55 — one in seven Americans—had no money saved and risked heading into poverty or certainly into dire conditions that would make their lives desperate for decades to come.
Well, of course, attention and resources of all kinds were being focused on this, weren’t they? No, they were not. I was shocked, because this is truly an enormous problem yet very little was being done to address it. And that’s still the case.
Many of these older Americans in, or near, poverty, are likely to live another 20, 30 or 40 years, but will have few prospects to earn meaningful income or the skills suited to the economy of the 21st century. Sadly, they will become less, not more, able to function in the economic marketplace as they age.
Why the problem of senior poverty should scare you
If this doesn’t scare you, it should. Not only because of the size of the problem, but because you shouldn’t assume you are immune.
If you think otherwise, you aren’t familiar with how many of these people got where they are. You might think — wrongly — they frittered away their money on bad decisions or poor planning. That’s not so in most cases.
When I started my nonprofit, the Senior Poverty Prevention Project , a few years ago, nearly every one of the hundreds of people I spoke with was unaware of the scope of this problem, and was stunned by its magnitude. But nearly everyone knew of someone over 50 in financial distress.
Our goals of the Senior Poverty Prevention Project are to raise awareness of this issue, forge partnerships with key leaders in business, media, government and academia and begin to create programs to solve the problem.
I became aware of this problem because I had been in this population, even before I reached its “official” age. Though I had a good education and a pretty good career, I went through a difficult multiyear, multi-state child custody battle (which I “won”), receiving sole custody of my then very young children. This completely drained my finances and derailed my career — a trade-off I was happy to make.
The millions over 55 without money or reasonable prospects to earn it are being ignored and overlooked, in large part I fear, because in a society driven by youth, older people don’t seem to matter all that much.
As Professor Howie Good wrote on Next Avenue, “Discrimination on the basis of age seems to be viewed as somehow less toxic than discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.”
What makes me optimistic
Still, I am optimistic. Overlooked people don’t, and can’t, remain overlooked forever.
I often compare this problem to the civil rights and women’s movements of the late ’60s and early ’70s which I witnessed up close and which also affected tens of millions of previously overlooked and ignored people who weren’t part of the national conversation.
It took articulate, persistent and loud voices to say: “This is a problem, these are people who need to be listened to and are not going away.”
Eventually, they did become part of the national conversation. And eventually, I truly believe, senior poverty will as well.
Because millions of older people with no money will not just disappear or die. If anything, they will be joined by others.
The New School for Social Research has found that unemployed Americans age 55 and older have been taking longer to find work than midcareer workers for the first time since 1973.
Teresa Ghilarducci, a widely respected economist, director of the New School’s Retirement Equity Lab and a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging, said recently, “With almost two million more people forced into unplanned retirement during the pandemic, vulnerable workers are forced out of the labor market at earlier ages…These few years can make or break an individual’s retirement. With fewer job prospects, and less savings, unplanned retirements can mean downward mobility or even poverty for vulnerable workers retiring before 65.”
The average Social Security check is a meager $1,543 a month and about 40% of older Americans rely entirely on Social Security for their income.
But statistics aren’t stories, or the pathways that have gotten millions where they are. A few examples of people I know:
True, and sad, stories
The brother of one of my closest friends who is in his 60s and has a Ph.D from a top university. For years, he has been unable to find work. He moved in with his mother. His finances have improved a bit lately, but only after two decades of poverty.
A business school classmate of mine, who is a successful financial adviser with an Ivy League MBA. He lost his health insurance after being diagnosed with a nearly-always fatal heart disease and has had to rely on the goodwill and housing of friends for years. Some of them started a GoFundMe campaign for him, which he says left him “mortified…but grateful.”