The Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis at the New School estimates that roughly 40 percent of Americans, or two out of every five who are currently considered middle-class based on their income, will fall into poverty or near poverty by the time they reach 65.
The authors of the study defined middle class as an individual or couple earning more than twice the federal poverty level before age 65 (currently $12,140 for an individual, $16,460 for a couple) and then earning less than that threshold after age 65.
Lead researcher Teresa Ghilarducci, using data from the US Census Bureau, predicts that 8.5 million middle-class older workers and their spouses will be downwardly mobile in retirement, falling into poverty or near poverty after reaching 65. And the risk increases as people get older. Those over 80 are 30 percent more likely to be poor than those aged 65-69. She cites three main reasons that the risk of poverty increases as retirees get older: depressed earnings, decreased asset values and increases in healthcare costs, which are all likely to accelerate future old age poverty rates.
Related to these factors is an additional issue. The most common age for retirement is 62, the earliest possible age to begin receiving Social Security. Although most people plan to work until 65 or later, about half of people who retire sooner than they had planned do so because of events beyond their control—their own health issues or needing to provide caretaking for a loved one, or getting laid off from a job and being unable to find another one.
The problem is that while it’s possible to begin receiving Social Security payments as early as age 62, the benefit amount is then permanently reduced to 75 percent of what it would normally be at an individual’s full retirement age.
In 2017, the average monthly benefit for those age 62 was only $1,112. That’s not much above the federal poverty level of $1,011.66 a month or $12,140 annually for an individual. Yet 25 percent of people in a recent survey expect that Social Security will be their primary source of income in retirement.
Living on Social Security Alone
What does life on a monthly budget of $1,112 look like? Based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average household over 65 spends $45,756 per year, or roughly $3,800 a month. Broken out by category, retirees spend about 35 percent of their budget on housing, 15 percent on transportation, 13 percent on healthcare and 13 percent on food, leaving about 24 percent for all other discretionary spending. Using those same percentages applied to the average Social Security check for someone age 62, here’s how much money an individual would have:
Even for those retirees who have paid off their mortgage and own their home outright, a housing budget of less than $400 a month and a grocery budget of less than $5 a day is hardly realistic. And $145 a month barely covers Medicare Part B, let alone any prescription medications. There’s not much left over at the end of the month for utilities, clothing, replacing household items or even a Netflix subscription, assuming you have a capable streaming device to watch it on. Doubling these amounts for a couple still means making do on an annual income of $24,280.
Compounding the problem is the lack of access to retirement savings plans for 35 percent of private sector workers, and the l for those over 50. Annual studies have shown that 42 percent of Americans have saved less than $10,000 for retirement—not enough for even six months’ worth of living expenses. Other surveys have shown that the main reason that people aren’t saving for retirement is that they are struggling to pay their bills.