Broken Promises

Broken Promises

Despite all the publicity surrounding the housing bubble and the subprime mortgage market, there is an even larger financial crisis looming. I fear many of us, especially those of us in the black community, may never reach our retirement goals or–even worse–may never be able to retire.

It’s well known that Social Security is on life support and traditional pensions are in a precarious state. Pensions, also known as defined benefit plans, reward workers in their retirement years with a preset monthly benefit. Research shows that in 1980, approximately 80% of mid-size and large companies offered workers a traditional pension. That percentage has since dropped by more than half. Additionally, many pension funds owe a lot more than they have set aside. Some estimates project corporate and public pensions are under-funded by as much as $750 billion. And I am not just talking about financially troubled companies. Mainstream, big-name brands Sears and Verizon are freezing their pensions and moving toward defined contribution plans, like 401(k) plans that leave retirement planning to the individual.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m an advocate of the 401(k), but as a supplemental savings plan. When 401(k) plans came into existence in the early 1980s, they were never intended to serve as stand-alone retirement vehicles. They were designed to reinforce existing retirement programs, not displace them.

My other big concern is financial literacy. Unfortunately, the off-loading of retirement planning to individuals without the requisite education is like handing people the keys to a car without driver’s ed. Because investing is rarely taught in school, the majority of Americans do not have the knowledge, tools, or confidence to make savvy investment decisions. The dearth of investment education actually boggles the mind when one considers that a high school student can still take woodshop as an elective. (Although I am not sure who actually whittles or makes their own furniture these days.)

I am particularly worried because I know from our research with Charles Schwab & Co. Inc. on the annual Black Investor Survey that the retirement crisis is likely to hit our community disproportionately hard. Of those surveyed last year, two-thirds of employed blacks, compared to half of working whites, worked for organizations with a traditional pension. I believe our retirement savings are so much lower than our white counterparts for this very reason. We are relying on the promise of a pension and forgoing our own savings effort in the process. We see our traditional pension as a safety net, but it’s riddled with gaping holes. Compounding the problem, we are grossly underinvested–black stock market participation lags our white counterparts by almost 20 percentage points (64% vs. 83%).

When I feel particularly disheartened, I keep in mind something the Rev. Jesse Jackson said recently: “We have to stop reciting the pain.” Instead of just acknowledging the problem, we must do something to fix it. To that end, I think efforts should be made at the governmental level to promote programs that will save traditional pensions.

But I also firmly believe