Finances worry retiree delegates

Thursday, August 28, 2008
Lawrence Jackson ~ Associated Press Democratic delegate Rosie Engman, worked Friday at party headquarters in McLean, Va. Engman, a retiree, is attending the Democratic convention in Colorado.

CHICAGO — Today's retirees live in what may be the waning days of retirement's golden age, enjoying the full benefits of Social Security and company pensions in many cases.

But their concerns are growing, and not just because of advancing age. Living on a fixed income has gotten much tougher in a turbulent economy, health insurance premiums are rising and the value of many of their homes is falling.

Retired teacher Rosie Engman, a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, is addressing the challenges in a way that mirrors the strategy of many Americans: living more frugally. She and her husband Larry grow their own vegetables, combine errands to save on gas and only eat dinners out on special occasions.

"You have to budget carefully," said the 69-year-old resident of Silver Spring, Md. "Prices are ridiculous."

The Associated Press interviewed a handful of retiree delegates to get some insight into the economic issues that matter most to them.

The past several decades have been a good time to be retired in America, historically speaking. Medicare was introduced in 1965, Social Security was expanded in the 1970s to provide ample retirement benefits, and pension programs that began proliferating after World War II have provided reliably for many.

Just more than 9 percent of the 65-and-older population was living in poverty in 2006, according to U.S. Census data — the lowest in the more than four decades of tabulating the category. By contrast, the figure was between 20 percent and 30 percent in the late 1960s and early '70s.

"Those 65 or older have long been the poor population, and that really has changed for a very short window — 30 or at the most 40 years," said Steven Sass, research director at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. "Now we're seeing a contraction of those income support systems that supported the elderly — namely Social Security and worker pensions."

Retirees in future years may be in for a rough ride if they don't adapt, he said.

Many current retirees, including some chosen for the convention, feel like they're already scrambling to live well on limited resources.

Just as she has worried about the war in Iraq and the environment, Engman now frets about the economy and its effect on her family and others.

"I worry about the huge national debt that will affect all of us and the poor economic outlook," the Obama delegate said. "I have five grandchildren and I wonder, what kind of world will their grandchildren have?"

She and her husband are role models for thrifty living — a skill many retirees learn by necessity to master. She hangs out their clothes to dry, to save money as well as be ecologically conscious. Their two cars are 10 years old. They shop at a farmer's market every week. And besides the tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers they grow in their yard, they try to buy only fruits and vegetables that are in season and other items that are on sale.

Creating more jobs for manufacturing workers out of work in their native Ohio and elsewhere needs to be a priority, she said. "We understand how badly the people are hurting there because we knew tons of people who worked at those factories."

Times are similarly tight for Eileen Gallagher of Oceanside, N.Y.

Gallagher said she's struggling some as she goes through every penny of her $2,600 monthly income, which comes from Social Security and her and her late husband's pensions.

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