By Norma Mullen and Kristin Teigen
There has been no shortage of debate over PERS in Salem this session. But with Oregon’s senior population (only a fraction of whom are public employees) expected to double in the next 20 years, it’s time for a bigger conversation about retirement — with a focus on those Oregonians for whom a secure retirement is simply out of reach.
Not too long ago, the American dream included the notion that we’d all be able to spend our retirement comfortably, relying on savings accumulated during our working years. Today, that dream is in grave doubt.
Working-age adults are now the poorest they’ve been in about 50 years, and more than half of Oregonians don’t have enough money to retire. Not surprisingly, the picture is bleakest for women and people of color, as pay inequities and insufficient access to workplace retirement programs snowball into the retirement years.
Fewer than half of African American, Latino and low-income workers have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan. After a lifetime of lower pay or long periods out of work, African Americans and Latinos receive 26 percent less in average annual benefits from Social Security than do most seniors. And African American and Latino seniors are twice as likely as the senior population as a whole to be living in poverty.
Women face disproportionate challenges in retirement. Not only do they have lower lifetime average earnings (Oregon women earn just 78 cents for every dollar men earn, plus a motherhood penalty), they are also more likely to work in part-time jobs that don’t qualify for a retirement plan and to spend more time out of the workforce caring for loved ones. As a result, 80 percent of the poorest 25 percent of Oregonians in retirement are women.
The majority of the older adults served by the Urban League of Portland’s senior center are women who have lost their spouse. With most of these women relying on Social Security for more than 90 percent of their retirement income, they depend on a fixed income of between $649 and $1,100 per month to pay rent, buy food and fill prescriptions. For these women (and many others) the things we look forward to in retirement, such as traveling to visit grandchildren, are simply out of reach.
We can do better for all Oregonians. No one should have to decide whether they will eat, pay the utility bill or skimp on a birthday present for their grandkids.
House Bill 3436, currently under consideration in Salem, is the first step toward making a secure retirement possible for all Oregonians. It brings together the key players to study the issue of retirement security and develop a doable, effective solution to present to the 2015 Legislature.
When people can’t afford to retire or they retire in poverty, we all pay the price — through our families, our communities and the state. We must find solutions that serve Oregonians and protect state resources.
Together, we urge the Legislature to pass HB3436 and restore the American dream of a secure retirement for all working Oregonians.