The American national deficit is the equivalent of the bogeyman we thought was hiding under our beds as children. It’s dark, we’re scared, it may or may not be real and we have no idea when it’s going to attack us.
Okay, so that’s not entirely true. Make no mistake: The deficit is real. In fact, the Obama administration announced this week that the deficit for fiscal year 2009, which ended Sept. 30, came in at a record $1.42 trillion. That breaks the record set last year—in fact it triples the total last year. What’s more, the deficit is projected to reach $9.1 trillion the coming decade. Pretty scary stuff, right?
Well, yes and no. Sure, the deficit is massive. Yes, it’s probably best that we deal with it in some capacity. But the deficit has become so cloaked in political posturing that anyone with even a trace amount of cynicism about the political system in this country—and how could you not be cynical at this point?—comes away feeling empty about the whole thing. Here are two different politicians, from two different parties, with two very different takes on the deficit, as quoted in USA Today:
"No more spending money we don't have," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, in an effort to rally opposition against Obama’s healthcare reform and other government spending projects. Meanwhile, Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., not surprisingly sees it differently. "Today's figures are a result of the policies of the Bush administration, along with the cost of actions needed to address the recession and prevent even deeper economic problems,” he said.
Very well. I suppose we’ll get around to fixing that deficit as soon as the people charged with fixing the deficit decide who’s to blame for causing it. That should take another few decades or so.
In the meantime, there is another deficit, a scarier deficit that we might want to concern ourselves with. It is one that perhaps holds particular importance for baby boomers. Last month, a coalition of workers’ groups calling itself Retirement USA, published a study that found the deficit between what Americans need for retirement and the amount they have actually saved is $6.6 trillion. That is, to say the least, a daunting gap that must be addressed.
So what are the solutions to fixing this deficit? Retirement USA has laid out what it calls “Principles for a New Retirement System.” These guideposts include universal retirement coverage—in other words, every worker should have a retirement plan. Another principle is that workers should be able to count on a steady stream of lifetime income to supplement Social Security. Workers should also be able to have an adequate retirement income after a lifetime of work, combined with Social Security.
Some of the other suggestions by Retirement USA are where things become a bit trickier—and maybe a bit harder to push through. These include a required contribution from bother employers and employees to a retirement plan, with the government subsidizing the contributions of lower-income workers. Payouts would only be allowed at retirement, with no withdrawals permitted except for permanent disability. Workers and any surviving spouses, domestic spouses and former spouses should also get lifetime payouts of benefits. The group also wants to see a single government regulator dedicated solely to promoting retirement security.
There will obviously not be universal support for these suggested solutions—not from Congress, the financial services community or from everyday workers. But by now there should be a shared agreement that the retirement system in this country needs help. Too many Americans are going to be heading into retirement with too little money saved up. Karen Friedman, executive vice president and policy director of the Pension Rights Center, has noted that only about half of full-time workers in the private sector have access to a retirement plan at work. This needs to change.
The fixes won’t be easy. And truth be told, they will likely not come around in time to help baby boomers. But boomers, like their parents before them, will probably tell you that they are most concerned with creating a better life for their children. And right now, as their children struggle to find work in one of the worst job markets we’ve seen in recent memory, and with so many of their children starting out already buried in debt, there is an urgency to retirement planning even if retirement for them is 40 or 50 years away.
This is one of the big challenges that boomers face: Although many are concerned with making certain their own retirement is on track, they are also consumed with the future of their children. It makes me think of something that Ross Levin, founding principal and president of Accredited Investors in Edina, Minn., said to me last month.
“We’re seeing a lot of [boomers] who are concerned about what their kids’ future looks like,” he said. “When you think about these kids that are starting out while we’re in this period of recession or high unemployment, that means their lifetime earning potential is going to be less than their parents and that could be the first generation where that’s the case. So they have to look at the consequences of that and think about the appropriate way to help their children.”
And at this point it is critical that we all look at the consequences of a broken retirement system and think about how to fix it.