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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

Precarious Pensions And Not Enough Savings: How Retirement Looks In America


Many American families are staring down retirement with hardly any money set aside.

In fact, sociology professor and author Katherine S. Newman says about half of Americans have no savings at all. Many others haven't saved enough.

Newman spoke with host Krys Boyd on a recent episode of Thinkabout now rare pensions are — only about 7 percent of people have them — and how even those aren't guaranteed. 

On why it's legal for pensions to be cut or eliminated

“If pension funds start to go belly up, which they did dramatically during the great recession, they can be pulled out without much protection at all. We are not shareholders, those of us who are employees receiving pensions. Actual shareholders can stand in line if a company is going bankrupt and receive some compensation for their troubles. But if you are a retiree, you are not among those happily located people. 

"And as a result, it's entirely possible for pension funds to go bankrupt."

On how Americans are using 401K plans

"If you are reliant on 401K plans, and other forms of self-subsidy — in a sense, self-savings — you need to be sure that you haven't taken money out of those plans along the way, as millions of Americans did when the Great Recession struck.

"401K plans are there traditionally as a supplement to retirement, not as a full retirement program. But for many people, that's all there is, and if they raid those funds because of a hard time, which is very understandable, the money isn't there when they come to retirement.

"So, there's a much more fragile structure underneath American retirees, with the exception of the very small proportion of the population that still has a true, defined benefit pension, but that number is shrinking daily."

On whether pensions are a go-to for company cuts

"It is one of the places they can go because technically, they are the owners of these funds. Especially when pension funds in the run-up of the stock market began to become pretty impressive kitties, many companies did turn to those funds and start raiding them. And as long as the stock market was producing higher and higher revenues, they could get away with that. And then it stopped.

"And when that merry-go-round stopped those pension funds were underfunded."

Newman's book is called Downhill from Here: Retirement Insecurity in the Age of Inequality.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.