By Zoe Li
The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), in collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation, recently completed a survey of economic security. Retirement on the Edge: Women, Men, and Economic Insecurity After the Great Recession (download the report and other resources from the IWPR/Rockefeller Survey of Economic Security on our website) compiled data from over 2,700 adults to provide a national snapshot of how Americans view retirement and Social Security. The survey, that collected data from over 2,500 respondents in the fall of 2010, revealed that the recent domestic recession has strongly impacted the current financial situations, and prospective financial futures, of many Americans.
In particular, the widespread loss of employment, salaries, and pensions felt across many sectors of the economy has heightened the importance of Social Security to many Americans. In 2010, only 25 percent of women and 35 percent of men not yet retired felt that they were saving enough money for retirement, compared to 34 percent of women and 45 percent of men not yet retired in 2007. This effect is due in no small part to financial losses during the recession: nearly 50 percent of both men and women reported losing money within the last two years, with similar numbers of men and women experiencing some form of unemployment in their households during that same period. Indeed, the predominant reason given for not saving more money for retirement was “I cannot afford to save more for retirement” (69 percent of women, 53 percent of men).
With many American families feeling the pressures of the Great Recession, the study suggests that the very notion of retirement has morphed; no longer regarded as the “golden years” when one could completely stop working, retirement is now considered by many as a change in income streams, not work demands. Seventy-two percent of women and seventy percent of men not yet retired believe they will keep working even after retirement, while 26 percent of women and 37 percent of men over the age of 60 predicted that they wouldn’t retired until after the age of 70 or that they will never retire at all.
However, this change in the definition of retirement does not reflect a waning of support for Social Security among the American people. Rather, 74 percent of women and 69 percent of men supported paying Social Security taxes to receive benefits from the program upon retirement. An even higher percentage of respondents (88 percent of women and 82 percent of men) said they did not mind paying Social Security taxes to support retired, disabled, orphaned, and widowed Americans. A majority of both men and women surveyed by the study (54 percent and 61 percent, respectively), endorsed increasing Social Security benefits to help Americans who had lost their savings and pensions in the recession. Despite economic hardships experienced within many families, a majority of Americans support Social Security spending not only for their own sakes, but for the wellbeing of others.
And yet the need and support for Social Security found in this study are not well reflected in congressional plans. Congress continues to discuss cutting funding for Social Security without regard to the long-term health of the program. Without strong congressional support for Social Security, the substantial portion of Americans who do not think they have enough money to support themselves in retirement may find themselves in a difficult situation as they age and lose the capacity to work. The will and the hope to ensure Social Security’s survival seems demonstrated in this large-scale survey of the American people—it is up to Congress to translate those sentiments into policy.
Zoe Li is a Research Intern with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.