Lack of retirement savings makes entitlements sacrosanct

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The survey found that more than 60 percent of boomers are behind schedule in saving for retirement and nearly 70 percent are worried about outliving their retirement savings and not having enough money to cover medical costs in old age.

Younger generations have mimicked their parents’ procrastination about savings.

Nearly two-thirds in every age group expect to have to work full time or part time to make ends meet after they reach retirement age.

“It’s distressing that this many workers are relying heavily on Social Security,” said Pamela Villarreal, a senior analyst at the National Center for Policy Analysis.

While many Americans think of Social Security as a kind of giant trust fund that has set aside years of their Social Security contributions for retirement, Ms. Villarreal said, it is really more like a “Ponzi scheme.”

Contributions have been spent by the federal government, and the benefits provided to retirees are paid out of current workers’ payroll taxes, not the retirees’ earlier contributions.

While not saving adequately has become a trademark of the American lifestyle, the housing crisis made matters worse, especially for baby boomers approaching retirement age.

Many people loaded up on debt through various creative mortgage financing schemes and now many live in houses with huge mortgages that are worth more than their house.

“At a time when they should be free of significant financial burdens such as mortgages, many pre-retirement households still have high levels of debt,” Mr. Wyss said.

A recent survey by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants found that 40 percent of Americans believe they will never be able to afford to retire — “and they’re probably right,” said Mr. Wyss, who just announced his own retirement from S&P and plans to teach college courses for a while before full retirement.

Another reason Americans have come to depend so heavily on Social Security is that only about half of the nation’s workers even participate in a retirement plan where they work, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.

People working for large businesses are more likely to have a corporate pension than the majority of Americans who work for small businesses or are self-employed.

Only one-third of firms with fewer than 25 employees sponsor retirement plans, compared with about 80 percent of firms with 100 or more employees.

Moreover, the generous tax incentives Congress has provided for workers who participate in 401(k) plans — the most common corporate pension benefit named after the section of the tax code that make contributions tax-exempt — are skewed toward higher-income workers who are in higher tax brackets and “do relatively little to help lower income workers save for retirement,” the GAO found.

The financial outlook is fragile even for those who have joined company plans and managed to accumulate some retirement savings.

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