Are the elderly to blame for this?

In my work and elsewhere, I’ve so often come across elderly people who are pitifully destitute: they have no money for medicine, food, clothing, rent. These poor people cry out, “I only make $600 per month in social security. My rent is $300. That only leaves me $300 to buy food and medicine and to pay my utilities!” They have to eat, so they buy a little food; they have to have utilities, so they pay those bills. After that, there is nothing left over for medicine or anything else.

Then there’s the commercial that warns: “When you die, your loved ones will only receive about $255 from Social Security. But the average funeral costs $5,000!”

Now, I’ve heard time and again that Social Security was only meant as a retirement supplement all along, and not intended to completely finance people’s lives in their old age. Didn’t everyone know this from the beginning? If so, why the heck haven’t more people saved for retirement?

I don’t expect to receive a dime from Social Security, even though I will have contributed thousands and thousands of dollars to it by the time I retire. I certainly don’t expect the government to pay for a lovely funeral for me. If I do receive anything at all, it’ll be a pleasant little surprise- hey! free pocket change! I believe it’s my responsibility to plan for the day when I will no longer be able to work, and save accordingly.

Should we pity these poor elderly people? Donate money and food and clothing and shelter, etc.? Or is it entirely their fault for not planning ahead? Am I being heartless?

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Benjamin Franklin

You never know what will happen in the future. My mom and dad owned their own businesses all the days they were married. These businesses were never terribly profitable, it took all the income to put food on the table and clothes on the kids, so not much money was socked away for the future. When dad died, mom had to rejoin the workforce at the age of 50. I was afraid for her future security since she won’t have much time to put money into social security or the Public Employee Retirement Plan, but she assured me that, when you own your own business, you pay a business tax that goes toward your social security, so she should be covered. Then recently she found out that since the businesses were always in dad’s name alone, the tax was also in his name and she’s not entitled to one thin dime. So whatever PERS and SS she can earn between now and retirement are what she’s going to have to live on. I told her that just isn’t right, she worked just as hard as dad, and she should contest it. I don’t know if she will or what the result will be if she does.

I know she’s not alone. Families can suffer tragedies and disasters that wipe out savings. Jobs can be lost and 401(k)s or PERS cashed in to keep the family going. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Stocks can fall, investments can go sour. It’s sad people have to depend on the government to keep them going, but no one can tell what misfortune might lie around the corner making it necessary to seek aid.

It’s a tough old world out there. Be nice to granny, you don’t know what she might have gone through.

I don’t make a lot of money. I’ve never made a lot of money.

By the time I pay utilities, bills, rent, meet my living expenses, and sock away a little money for savings to meet large expenditures such as car repairs and dental work, I don’t have a lot of money left over. I can spend a little money on books, internet access and two or three other little luxuries, but that’s about it.

Fortunately, my current employer does have a retirement plan, so I will have something besides Social Security to live on when I am no longer able to work.

But it won’t be a lot more.

We could get into blame-throwing here. Yes, I’ve made some pretty serious mistakes in my life. If I fall on hard times in my old age, some people will say, “It’s your own fault. You shouldn’t have done those ridiculously irresponsible things.” They’ll have a point. Others will say, “But he wouldn’t have done those crazy things if he hadn’t been so badly mistreated by others in his life and by society in general!” And they’ll also have a point.

But the fact remains that I am well advanced into middle age and probably won’t have time to prepare adequately for the day when I will no longer be able to work for money. All of my adult life, I’ve been doing the best I can to get by from one pay check to another. Like millions of other people, I’ve never been more than two or three paychecks away from homelessness.

To some extent, I can understand the OP’s attitude. He wants to know why he should be penalized because someone else was unable and/or unwilling to prepare for his old age. Obviously society can only go so far in protecting people from the consequences of their own actions or their bad luck.

At the same time, I have to insist that it is unacceptably inhumane to simply cast away millions of people who, for whatever reason, do not have the means for even basic subsistence when they reach the day that they are no longer able to work.

I understand that I do not have an unlimited claim on society’s resources. Even so, I believe that I ought not simply to be abandoned. And many people who are well off today will, much to their own surprise, find themselves in exactly the same situation–unable to provide adequately for their needs in their old age.

In the depression of the '30’s, many people who thought themselves well off suddenly found themselves suffering wretched poverty. The same thing could very easily happen today. The world is an uncertain place, and nobody really knows the future.

The OP of this thread could very well find himself falling on hard times when he is no longer able to provide for himself.

I don’t really have a good answer here. But I do ask the OP: Why are you so sure that you yourself will not depend heavily upon both public and private charity when you are old and decrepit and no longer able to work?

I understand that unforeseen events can devastate a family and wipe out their savings. I’m really talking about people who never faced such tragedies, yet never managed to save any money to finance retirement.

For example, my father-in-law just retired in his mid fifties. He expects to be able to live comfortably for the rest of his life on his SS and a modest pension, plus his wife’s earnings. (He’s not a stupid man, yet he doesn’t seem to understand the concept of “inflation”.) My mother-in-law is slightly more realistic: she has no pension, so she assumes she will just work until she dies. They have no savings at all. (Nada, nothing- no more than a couple hundred dollars in the bank.) They will be paying on their house for fifteen more years. When my mother-in-law is no longer able to work (or if she god-forbid dies), who do you think will support them? None of my husband’s sisters, all of whom are in their late thirties to forties, has a dime to her name, either.

On the other hand, my own grandma was born into severe poverty and was physically handicapped. She raised her three kids during the Depression. She and grandpa worked at low-paying jobs and had little education. Still, they managed to save enough that my grandma was able to live comfortably albeit modestly after grandpa died, plus each Christmas for the past 10 years she sent a $500 check to each of her 10 grandchildren. She died last week at age 99.

The vast majority of poor elderly people I have known (and I’ve known many) have simply assumed that Social Security would be plenty.

Holly: Now, I’ve heard time and again that Social Security was only meant as a retirement supplement all along, and not intended to completely finance people’s lives in their old age. Didn’t everyone know this from the beginning? If so, why the heck haven’t more people saved for retirement?

As Kat pointed out, a lot of people have bad luck, and a lot of people are indeed irresponsible. And a lot of people just don’t have a whole lot of money to put into savings. And since SS retirement benefits are indexed to amount of contributions and hence to overall earnings, those who make the least money (and hence are least able to maintain personal retirement savings) get the least in benefits, so they are worst off all around. I agree, though, that people should try to find out what their expected benefits will be and what they will need to live on, so they can plan ahead as well as possible; you have a right to expect your SS benefits but you can’t expect them to do everything.

I don’t expect to receive a dime from Social Security, even though I will have contributed thousands and thousands of dollars to it by the time I retire.

Hmmmm. Unless you are not expecting to be born until 2008 (in which case, welcome to the SDMB, youngest member!), you will almost certainly hit normal retirement age before 2075. And in fact, Social Security is projected (according to very conservative, and even pessimistic, estimates) to be able to pay at least two-thirds of promised benefits up to 2075 under the current system; and it will pay 100% of promised benefits up to 2037. As this report states,

So barring a collapse of our entire economy or government (or some ill-conceived privatization plan gambling away the trust fund on lousy stock picks), your prediction that you “won’t get a dime” from Social Security is grossly unrealistic. In fact, I charge you with being as indefensibly ignorant about the real facts of your expected retirement benefits as the retirees you complain about are about theirs. The difference is just that you’re ignorantly pessimistic and hence willing to work on your own retirement savings, which is somewhat better than being ignorantly optimistic and neglecting to save; but no kind of ignorance gets a whole lot of congratulation around here.

(You’ll note, by the way, that much of the loudest screaming and wailing over the fact that Social Security is going to be broke before today’s twentysomethings retire is coming from investors who have a great deal to gain if they can persuade the public to pump billions of dollars in SS assets into the stock market. Privatizing SS investment may or may not increase everybody’s retirement income in the long term, but it sure as hell will make many of the people recommending it a lot richer in the short term. Cui bono?)

I certainly don’t expect the government to pay for a lovely funeral for me.

You might point out to your clients that for one thing, commercial funerals (the kind advertised in commercials) tend to be grossly overpriced, and that there are many non-profit burial societies that make funeral arrangements for their members costing between $1000–$2000, or less. The Funeral Consumers Alliance site has more information.

If I do receive anything at all, it’ll be a pleasant little surprise- hey! free pocket change!

I just got a notification from the SSA stating that I just became eligible for SS benefits when I retire, and that based only on my contributions to date, I’d get a little over $150 per month. (Naturally, as I go on working and contributing for the next several decades, that will increase.) Maybe you have a vastly more opulent lifestyle than I do, but $150 per month ain’t “pocket change” to me (though it’s very far from being enough to live on, of course), and I doubt it ever will be.

*I believe it’s my responsibility to plan for the day when I will no longer be able to work, and save accordingly. *

I agree completely. And that means being intelligently aware of the resources that are there, as well as being determined to add to my own resources to make my retirement more comfortable. At present, the average elderly household (head of household 65 or over) receives over half its income from Social Security, just as your grandmother (may she rest in peace, she sounds like a wonderful woman) probably did, unless she was in the top 40% of the income distribution. Pretending that that money is irrelevant, or will just vanish when it comes to our turn to draw benefits, is not in the long run going to help us make smarter economic decisions.

(And by the way Kat, I can’t agree with you that it’s “sad” that many people depend on SS retirement benefits, although I agree it’s a shame if people have nothing else to live on and are barely surviving in consequence. I think it’s a terrific idea to have everybody contribute to a retirement insurance program which then entitles them all to retirement benefits, scaled so that those who’ve worked hard all their lives don’t have to be destitute when they’re old, even if they didn’t have high-powered careers and become rich. The idea that people are somehow freeloaders if they depend on those benefits in order to live comfortably is appalling, IMHO.)

Should we pity these poor elderly people? Donate money and food and clothing and shelter, etc.?

Why, yes. As LP points out, some people do the best they can (and note that for many of them, that includes paying to take care of children and/or other relatives who can’t support themselves) and still don’t earn a lot of money and can’t save much. Yes, it’s better to make a nice nest egg of your own and be able to live more comfortably when you’re old, but refusing pity and assistance to old people who are poor is not an option for a decent society, IMHO.

Or is it entirely their fault for not planning ahead?

Certainly it is irresponsible of people just to assume that they’ll have enough money to live on without even bothering to find out how much they have, how much they’ll need, and how much they can expect to get. I don’t condone people’s neglecting to plan and sacrifice for their future subsistence, even if I’m not in favor of letting them starve as a punishment. (Where, by the way, is the government as information provider on this subject? I got a nice little personalized brochure from SS, as I said, but I think this may be a fairly recent policy. How are people getting out of Business Math classes in high school without some exposure to the economics of savings and retirement? Why the hell don’t you have to pass a basic quiz on this subject or something before you get your first income-tax refund?)

Am I being heartless?

Not just for querying the prudence and good sense of people who expect Social Security to take care of them without even looking into the details of the benefits, no. If you are seriously suggesting that such people should be deprived of voluntary assistance when they’re struggling to make ends meet, then yes, you’re being heartless. Big time.

Since you don’t expect to get a dime from Social Security, then the private sector will have to pick up the slack for the truly needy. So yes, I suggest you donate money and food and clothing and shelter, and I suggest you pray that someone do the same for you in case your life savings get wiped out, you lose your job and find yourself unemployable, your husband dies (or takes off) leaving you to raise children on one income or a half-dozen other unexpected scenarios.

By the way, I just wanted to add another comment here, which is that I don’t think planning for retirement is all that easy. I mean, as a PhD physicist, I am hardly math-phobic, but I must admit that I get a bit confused when I try to figure out how much money I might need in retirement and how much I should therefore save. A lot of variables go into the equation, including inflation, returns on your investment income, interest rates, how much you will get from SS and employer pension plans, how long you will end up living, …

Fortunately, since I am earning a healthy salary at the moment, have no debts, and am relatively non-materialistic, I am able to err on the side of caution and am trying to horde away quite a bit. But, if I was actually in a worse financial situation, I would be pretty confused about how much I ought to be saving for retirement (although I know there are various resources out there to help people try to make some sort of estimate).

It depends alot on the person. Really we should probably go back to extended family.

IMO, it is more a problem with irresponsibility, not bad luck.

The average person is an idiot when it comes to money and savings for their retirement. I would hazard that the average person could not calculate simple interest, given a calculator and an hour. They see only the present, never the future.

I grew up dirt poor. I paid my own way through college by working full-time. I have never received one cent of inheritance. Yet, by careful and persistant savings, at age 32 I have more in my 401k than many people I know at retirement age. How? Well, it’s not that hard really.

Don’t fucking spend your money on stupid shit. Save it.

That simple in a lot of cases. No, I’m not applying this to all, or even most people’s cases. But we all know lots of people that fall into this category. And it infuritates me sometimes that I will be supporting my co-workers at retirement - the ones that buy a new car every year, spend $1000 on lottery tickets, buy not one but two satelite dishes, etc.

A co-worker was horrified the other day chatting before a meeting, because his kids are 5 and 3, and he has not started a college fund of any kind for them. But he and the wife did go to Maui, and go snorkeling in Mexico every Spring. And they have a house filled with new furniture, new electroniccs, and maxed-out credit cards. I have no sympathy for them whatsoever. Only for their children.


I’m not so sure. For every expert who states that SS is healthy and everything will be hunkey-dorey, another expert says just the opposite: that the SS stockpile consists entirely of IOU’s and is a house of cards. I may be being unrealistic, but I don’t think I’m grossly unrealistic. I insist I’m not ignorant on the issue, either; I’ve done quite a bit of reading on the subject. I just choose to err on the safe side.


Today’s elderly people grew up in a completely different world. In the past, elderly people were cared for by their children and grandchildren, but today that’s the exception. Society has changed, and now many people are unable or unwilling to take in an aging relative. Now and again I’ll hear people my age say they expect their kids will take care of them, but they may be in for a nasty surprise.

In the past, if you worked for the same company all your life you could expect to receive a decent retirement package with a pension. Few of us will receive a pension when we retire, yet it seems that almost no one is saving for retirement.

I agree with Anthracite: so many people today are so concerned with living lavishly that they don’t even think about retirement. At least elderly people have live through the Depression, and by and large they have always lived frugally.


Actually, my husband would be worth quite a bit more to me if he died, due to our life insurance. (Not that I’m tempted! Really!) We also have disability insurance. If my husband took off, I’d be able to support myself and the kids without him because I have insurance in the form of my own education. I do understand your point: terrible things can happen to ruin the best of plans. However, many poor elderly folk have managed to become destitute without tragedy.

I do donate clothing and shelter to poor elderly people. We have rental properties and give our elderly tenants a large rent discount. I regularly bring food to two elderly ladies, who each live alone, and visit them often. They have families but no one except me seems to have time for them. After I feed my own family our holiday dinner, I pack up the leftovers and spend the rest of the day visiting “my” ladies.

I’ve opened a care home for the elderly in my own house and currently have an elderly man that lives with us as if he was part of the family. He’s wealthy but very sick and, until he moved in with us, terribly lonely- his three kids are unwilling to take him in. When my licensing goes through, I’ll be able to provide housing and 24 hour nursing care to poor elderly folk as well through the Department of Human Services.

So, I have a soft place in my heart for old people.

Dont forget that many people work hard all their lives and save lots of money, but then have that saving destroyed by a medical condition. Someone of the SDMB was just talking about declaring bankruptcy because his child was in a serious car accident.

Also sometimes company pension plans disappear. I seem to remember a major airline that folded in the 1980s and took all the promised pension funds down with them. (anyone else remember this?)

I’ve also heard stories of people who get laid off when they are in their 50s so the company can avoid paying much retirement benefits. Old style pension plans didn’t accrue much value until you were in you last few years before retirement (age 65).

Yes, there are many ways people can lose their savings due to plain bad luck. I know one man whose granddaughter had been in a coma for 14 years- since she was a baby. He’d taken care of her all her life. He always believed she would wake up some day. Finally, he decided he’d take her to the Mayo clinic. He withdrew his life savings, $25,000, and had made arrangements to take her the next day.

That day, he was in an accident that broke his back and he had to spend a few months in bed. During this time he was laid up, burglars broke into his house and stole his $25,000. His granddaughter never made it to the Mayo clinic (she died a year later), not that they could have helped her anyway.

This family must have the worst luck of anyone in the world. A week before the accident that put his granddaughter in a coma, his son (the girl’s father) was in a separate car wreck that left him mostly paralyzed and severely retarded. His other son was murdered around this same time. His wife had a bad stroke, and he himself had a series of heart attacks but he singlehandedly cared for his granddaughter, son, and wife.

Okay, so some people have just plain crappy luck. What about the rest? If you neglect to save towards your retirement, does society have the responsibility to support you for the rest of your life?

I’m going to say YES. Lets assume I’m Joe Cool and I made a good living all my life, but I spent every dime on coke and hookers and sports cars. Now that I’m an old man and can no longer work do you really want me living on the streets. At first you might say screw you Joe. But think about it I’m going to be around I’m not going to dissappear. So evry day you’ll have to see me begging for a sandwich, coughing TB all over the sidewalks, peeing in the gutter. Now multiply this by millions of people. I don’t think most Americans would be happy living in an American version of India.

The cost of proving food and shelter to the poor in America is very low compared to GDP, and we get the benefit of not having to see or deal with the poor people.

See or deal with poor people? That doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Poor people die all on their own, whether or not people look at them.

Life is not guarateed. Cold? Heartless? Call me what you will. I didn’t make you, I am not your friend, I don’t want you to die but it is not my responsibility to help you live. It never was then, and it surely isn’t now.

I like asmodean’s take on it, really. Sort of. Or rather, if you’ve gotten to the point that no one is willing to help you live, be that friends or family, why the hell should someone who doesn’t even know you be forced to help out?


Oh, for heaven’s sake. Okay, let’s say that without taxpayer support, millions of elderly people will wind up like you, begging and coughing and peeing all over the place. In my mind, if I knew that failing to save for my retirement would result in me begging/coughing/peeing, I’d start my IRA STAT. On the other hand, if I knew that younger people would be forced to feed, clothe, and shelter me in my later years, I might not feel much urgency to provide for myself. Many older people feel a certain animosity for the younger generation anyway; what better way to punish those whippersnappers than to demand they pay to keep me comfortable? (Hey, I lived through the Depression! I’m a veteran! I had to walk to school uphill both ways!)

How much support to you suppose our society owes those elderly people who neglectfully didn’t try to save for retirement? Just enough money to keep them housed in a rat-infested hovel, where they’ll be out of sight and out of mind? Or enough money to pay for decent housing, medicine, food, utilities?

I second what aynrandlover says. No one should feel obligated to supply more to such people than what they’ve accrued through social security. Of course, some of us who are soft-hearted will give much more than what is required of us, though we may very well choose to support only those whom we feel deserve help.

It’s worth pointing out that many of us Cold-War veterans (I myself being one of the very last of them) never expected to see a day when they could quietly retire. I was convinced I would never live past the age of twenty-five, and I lived every carefree day knowing that sooner rather than later I’d be a cloud of dirty isotopes polluting the upper stratosphere.

Well, I’m still here. I’ve only just begun a retirement plan, and my past actions will prevent me from collecting any Social Security unless I spend decades of my life performing bureaucratic atonement. The twilight of my life, should I get that far, is almost guaranteed to live up to the cynical Hobbesian prediction: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

I doubt I will ever surmount the obstacles I’ve placed before me. I am preceded by a generation characterized by a combination of greed, activism, and selfishness. Whatever preparations are made for my declining years will be made by me alone, and frankly I don’t trust myself to do it: I’m still a rather firm believer in the probability of sudden, premature demise.

We’ll see, I suppose.

That’s actually a good point, Sofa King. I remember being so terrified of nuclear war when I was ten (sorry) that I was sure it was inevitable.

Other people have difficulty believing that they will ever be too old to work, but for less poignant reasons. My husband’s sister makes a good living, is in her late thirties, and hasn’t even considered saving anything for retirement. When my husband attempted to lecture her on the subject, she cut him off. “We just have different priorities,” she said.

Her priorities include having a very large wardrobe (my wardrobe consists of her hand-me-downs, most of which still have the tags on them.), the latest model SUV, eating out two to three times each day, and taking frequent vacations. I admit I envy her sometimes.

I’ve heard something like this said many times, “Hey, you never know what’s going to happen. I’d be really pissed if I deprived myself today, then died tomorrow”. Well, chances are you won’t die tomorrow; more likely, you’ll spend maybe a quarter of your life too old and sick to work and too penniless to support yourself.

On the other hand, I have a friend who was recently diagnosed with HIV in his early thirties. He’s already pretty sick. In his case, of course he should live for the moment.

My best friend recently found out that her dad has Huntington’s chorea, which is a vicious and painful disease that kills its victims in their forties. The afflicted person suffers from uncontrollable twitching and jerking, plus he loses his mind in a most painful and prolonged torture. She has a %50 chance of having the gene for this genetic disease. If she does have it, it will mean a certain and horrible death. She’s in her thirties, and until her father was diagnosed, she’d planned to have a baby. She has plenty of money in a retirement account. If her test is positive, she will abandon all of her hopes.

I, on the other hand, have assumed all along that I’ll live to a ripe old age (but ironically I have no desire to live past forty). I’ve suffered quite a bit while trying to save for that future as a senior citizen. Maybe I’m the one who’s going about it in the wrong way. Maybe I’ve been wasting my life. If only we could know how long we have left.

I’m getting kind of depressed now.

My mother in law is one of those “fixed income Social Security” people. When he was alive, her husband did not allow her to work or pay the bills (remember, she’s 74 now. These are old school people). When he died, she was left to pay funeral expenses and with no income at all. (No insurance). Were they ignorant? I don’t know. He was disabled from years of manual labor, but didn’t receive Disability payments for fear of the “welfare” stigma.

In the end, she is now alone, on a fixed income, and just making it. Thank God most women make their own plans for the future and start savings plans, etc. That just wasn’t the way they did things, and she didn’t question her husband.


That’s another good point, Zette. Even in my modern and enlightened household, I’ve had to struggle to be in on the financial decisions. Especially when I was a stay-at-home mom, the idea seemed to be that the person who earned the primary income was the person who got to call the shots. Add to this the traditional view that the wife must defer to the husband’s rules, and it’s no wonder so many elderly women are destitute.

(I’ll insert here that my husband is a wonderful guy and not a chauvanist in any sense. However, money holds power in most relationships. A woman who earns more than her husband will usually have more say than he does when financial decisions are made. Until very recently, wives who made more money than husbands were a rarity.)

As far as pensions go, I’ve heard some tragic stories about men who were lured into signing a paper that would increase the pension payments in the short term, but discontinue the pension altogether when the man died. The man’s wife was not consulted, and the man signed the paper (perhaps not understanding the little detail about the pension stopping when he died). Since women usually outlive their husbands, many elderly women have been left penniless by this scheme.


That has to be one of the best reasons that I can think of to support the idea of socialised medicine.

I’mn sure that some US doper will have some point they might raise against it but folk I know in the US tell me that this does happen despite the safety nets that are supposed to be available.