This Is What Life Without Retirement Savings Looks Like

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The recession and economic trends in the years since have also worsened the finances of millions of seniors. Some bought homes during the housing boom and then found they owed more on their homes than they were worth, and had to walk away. Others invested in the stock market and saw their investments shrink dramatically. Jackie Matthews, now 76, lost her investments during the recession, and then had to sell her Arizona home in a short sale, netting only $3,000. She now lives near her family in Southern California, renting a room in a friend’s apartment, and budgets her finances carefully, skimping on meat and never buying anything new.

But even people who emerged from the recession relatively unscathed may have a hard time saving, according to a 2017 report from Government Accountability Office. Average wages, when adjusted for inflation, have remained near where they were in the 1970s, which makes it hard for workers to increase their savings. This has had a significant impact on the bottom 80 percent of workers, for whom average wages have remained relatively constant, even as income increased for the top 20 percent of households in the past three decades.

For many seniors, the answer to this lack of savings has meant working longer and longer, as Roberta Gordon is doing. Today, about 12.4 percent of the population aged 65 or older is still in the workforce, up from 3 percent in 2000, according to Oakley. I met a woman named Deborah Belleau who is 67 and works as a manager at a mobile-home park in Palm Springs, California. She worked as a waitress for 30 years, and often relied on government assistance as she raised her two children as a single mother. “You just don’t think about tomorrow” when you’re more worried about getting food on the table, she said. That means that today, though she receives money through Social Security, she can’t afford a cellphone or a TV. Her rent is $600 a month. She works full-time at the mobile-home park, despite aches and pains in her back and feet. Sometimes, when she wakes up, she can’t walk. But, she says, “I can’t quit. There’s no way I can live on $778 a month,” the amount she receives from Social Security.