Commentary

Walter Carpenter: All deserve a chance to save for retirement

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Walter Carpenter, of Montpelier, who is one of those 45 percent of Vermonters without a retirement plan.

I would like to respond to the commentary in VTDigger, “Consider Public Retirement Plan Options,” by Lisa Hagerty, a small business owner and a member of the small business group, Main Street Alliance. Ms. Hagerty gives us some sobering statistics: “About 45 percent of working Vermonters do not have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan. And nationally, half of all employees have no retirement assets — no pension, no 401(k), no IRA.” In other words, almost half of Vermonters and half of the employees nationally have no retirement programs except Social Security, which is hardly enough to exist on, much less live on these days. I am sure that this number is far higher and will grow excessively higher if Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress succeed in their fantasies of dismantling Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

I am one of these statistics and I know how well scary it is behind these numbers. I am 61 years old and have been working since I was 13. Unfortunately, when (or if) I reach that supposed retirement age, I will have no option other than to continue working as I did when I was 45 — eight a day, 40 a week. What will happen when, as a friend so aptly put it, I become “too frail to work and too poor to live?” Will we in that 45 percent just get dumped out into the streets? Will we have to survive as best we can off state programs, adding to this supposed “affordability problem” that everyone is talking about?

The 401(k) suddenly vanished to feed the medical debt and living expenses after the job and the benefits had disappeared into the void.

 

I work two jobs now. Neither provides any benefits, much less a retirement plan. Some of the my fellow workers at these jobs are in the same situation as me. Several are in their mid or late 60s and 70s, still grinding on at 40 per week because there was no pension or retirement plan at their jobs and Social Security simply is not enough anymore.

I once had a 401(k) retirement plan. I was a mid-level employee at a larger company in Vermont. Yet, I lost it while on medical leave for a life-threatening illness. The company so nicely reclassified my position to conveniently eliminate my benefits and pocket that money themselves while I was on the operating table. The 401(k) suddenly vanished to feed the medical debt and living expenses after the job and the benefits had disappeared into the void. I was 52 then and no company, or the state for that matter, that offered a retirement option as part of employment, wanted a 52-year-old man with a medical history behind him. In other words, I was too old and too risky. The employers who thankfully took a chance and hired me did so from the relative safety of temporary, non-benefit positions.

If there had been such an option as the public retirement plan proposed by Vermont State Treasurer Beth Pearce, and now winding through the committee process in the Legislature, I would not have lost my retirement savings due to an illness and corporate greed. My coworkers in their 60s and 70s would not have had to work like they did in their 40s and 50s to afford to live in their golden years like I will have to do in mine.

This retirement program is called a multi-employer plan (MEP) and both small business owners and employees could contribute and participate in it on a voluntary basis. It is the result of much study by the office of the treasurer. To quote Ms. Hagerty, the MEP would give “every Vermonter access to a secure retirement option.”

Two of Vermont’s small business organizations — the Main Street Alliance and the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility — not only back the MEP plan, but also participated in this study with our state treasurer. They did it and support the MEP because it is the right thing to do for small businesses and their employees who largely compose that 45 percent without any pension or any other access to a retirement plan other than Social Security.

I stand with Ms. Hagerty, the Main Street Alliance, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, and with Treasurer Pearce in highly supporting the MEP. It is the right thing to do for Vermonters. As someone who knows what it means to lose any hope for retirement through circumstances beyond my control, I urge our Legislature to pass the MEP and give all Vermonters an equal shot at a secure (emphasis on the word secure) retirement and not have to fear being “too frail to work and too poor to live.”

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  • Matt Young

    Walter, who is responsible for Walters life? Yup…Walter. Who says 40 hours per week guarantees anything? Business owners and taxpayers routinely work many more hours per week than 40, they also have skin in the game and could lose everything they have worked for at any time. Government employees and big ed union members can retire at a very young age when you consider that people live to be much older these days. Who pays for their retirement and benefits? Lots of folks who themselves have no retirement. I’m all for helping the sick and the elderly but lots of folks at the trough have no business being there. Every bite they take is one that those deserving can’t take.

    • Ray Gonda

      What a thoroughly insensitive and callous thing to say. Mr. Carpenter was addressing a state plan into which both the employee and employer could contribute to – not looking for a handout. That plan is a great idea and deserves support. It is a hand up – not a handout.

      • walter carpenter

        “That plan is a great idea and deserves support. It is a hand up – not a handout.”

        Thank you, Ray. You are right in that this is not panhandling for a handout. It is an excellent idea and definitely deserves support.

      • Matt Young

        What if your “plan” (money redistribution) puts the employer out if business or causes them to move elsewhere? Who have you helped then? A “hand up” is such a great sound bite.

        • JohnGreenberg

          Please explain how the plan would put an employer out of business.

          • Matt Young

            Increase in costs can and do put businesses out of business.

    • Pam Ladds

      No, 40 hours a week does not guarantee anything. And your point? Any of us could be (and many of us are) in the same position as Walter. I don’t notice him abdicating responsibility for what has happened, he continues to work and pound the tread mill. Being able to afford to retire and live comfortably (didn’t say extravagantly before you pitch a fit) should be possible for us all. If we were paid living wages and able to both live and save then maybe your judgmental position would have some validity. But his saving plan vanished through no fault of his own. And future employment opportunities with it. If a major illness occurs in your life or that of a family member it will be interesting to find out if your position changes. Instead of beating up on all of us smaller people and businesses take a look at a system that promotes inequity. A system where some will retire in luxury and others will be in line for for food banks! Then there will be no need for a trough

      • Matt Young

        My point is that sometimes 40 hours per week isn’t enough. Many pro-big union folks probably don’t like my comments. That being said, I specifically stated that we should take care of the sick and elderly. I guess I too qualify as a “smaller person”

        • walter carpenter

          “My point is that sometimes 40 hours per week isn’t enough.”

          The problem I have with this comment, Matt, is that it should be enough. Why isn’t it enough? In other democratic nations the full week is 32 hours a week, with six weeks or so paid vacation, full health care benefits, a full pension for retirement, education, family leaves, and so on and not to mention a decent and livable wage on top of this. Yes, they pay higher taxes, though not much higher than we do and without the wracking debt like medical or student debt that we incur here, and they are much happier than us.

          • Matt Young

            Maybe it’s our broken public education monopoly, start there.

          • walter carpenter

            “Maybe it’s our broken public education monopoly, start there.”

            It’s not our “broken education monopoly,” though I am not sure it is broken or a monopoly, but that is another question. It is the values in general that we have as a society that is the problem and that make it necessary for programs like this.

          • Matt Young

            It is broken and it is a monopoly.

          • walter carpenter

            “It is broken and it is a monopoly.”

            Prove it. And if it is broken, who broke it, or who is breaking it?

          • Matt Young

            “Prove it”…..We have declining enrollments and spend more and more for worse results. “Who broke it?”…..The pig public education monopoly and their strategically placed government officials.

        • David Bell

          Ok, how many hours is enough to be able to afford retirement then?

          • Matt Young

            You tell me, should it be 25? 15? Should the business owner be required to work 70 so his or her employees can work 25?

          • walter carpenter

            “Should the business owner be required to work 70 so his or her employees can work 25?”

            I did it when I owned a business a long time ago, but no. The point is that business owners of small companies should also not have to worry about a retirement plan.

          • David Bell

            Well, as Walter pointed out we are already on the higher side compared to many of our peer nations, and to you that is still not enough?

            In reality, the 40 hour work week came as a result of workers demanding fair pay after spending generations working 14 hour days for so little they could barely afford food and shelter while their employer lived in a mansion, good times, right?

          • walter carpenter

            “workers demanding fair pay after spending generations working 14 hour days for so little they could barely afford food and shelter while their employer lived in a mansion, good times, right?”

            Good point, Dave, and those 14 hours days were six day weeks. The industrialists always knew that charity would take care of the starving workers as well, so they would donate to charity as a tax deduction. I keep wondering if our nation wants to go back to those times.

      • walter carpenter

        “I don’t notice him abdicating responsibility for what has happened, he continues to work and pound the tread mill. Being able to afford to retire and live comfortably (didn’t say extravagantly before you pitch a fit) should be possible for us all.”

        Thank you very much for this comment, Pam. I am still pounding the tread mill and will be into my eighties or nineties if I last that long. So far, I am still in good shape, though the beginnings of future problems with arthritis are starting to appear now. You also raised another excellent point that should be part of this discussion when you said “If we were paid living wages.” That is a huge key to this. We are not paid living wages and that is a huge part of this problem.

        • Mary Alice Bisbee

          Great commentary, Walter! As you know, I am an 80 year old with a Masters Degree who due to illness and a divorce in mid life after many years as a homemaker, working several jobs both professional and manual labor just to keep going, now find myself in subsidized housing and eligible for food stamps. It is not something one seeks. Illness wrecks havoc with one’s life and dreams and even family connections. Should we also have to suffer economically as well? Point in fact, my first job as a hospital social worker in NYC paid me $50/week, no benefits. With the dollar continuing to be devalued, what will future generations have to face?

          Yes, I take care of myself and will do so for as long as I am able, but I am very happy to live in a state that provides for me when I am old-old. A state run retirement program would be awesome!

          • walter carpenter

            “now find myself in subsidized housing and eligible for food stamps.”

            I will most likely be there right along with you:(

    • Jerry Kilcourse

      “Who pays for their retirement and benefits? Lots of folks who themselves have no retirement.”

      Where is the same outrage when execs. at AIG still got their bonuses paid for by tax payer money after running the company into the ground, causing massive layoffs, and nearly tanking the economy?

      • Matt Young

        Actually I am just as “outraged” when failing companies have executives receiving bonuses.

    • JohnGreenberg

      “I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the
      establishments I have mentioned-they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.’

      ‘Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.’

      ‘If they would rather die,’ said Scrooge, ‘they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

    • walter carpenter

      “Walter, who is responsible for Walters life? Yup…Walter. ”

      Is Walter an individual that exists solely as an individual or is Walter not part of a wider society where things that happen beyond Walter’s control affect Walter’s life just as they do yours?

      “Who pays for their retirement and benefits?”

      Let’s see. I am not sure where you work, but let us say for the sake of argument that you work at a private business. If you are lucky enough to get retirement and bennies, you probably get a whack taken out of your paycheck for each one. Many companies only give retirement benefits to top and mid-level management. Yet, it is technically not you who are paying for them. It is the customers of that business who are financing your retirement program because that is how you get your paycheck. If it is with a public entity or a corporation that gets a lot of its income from federal or state contracts, well, then it is the taxpayer that is funding or partially funding your retirement. I bet you do not even thank us:)

      “Every bite they take is one that those deserving can’t take.”

      If this is a voluntary program between employer/employee, and this program will help employers as well, how is that taking from someone who, in your view, is deserving? And who anointed you judge to tell who is deserving and who is not deserving?

      • Matt Young

        Walter, I addressed your first point when I said, “I’m all for helping the sick and the elderly” sounds like you were sick and deserved some help. The point I was making was that folks who are able bodied belly up to the trough, when they do, folks with a legitimate need may be denied.
        Your thoughts on “who pays for retirement and benefits”. Your rational confusing. I am self employed and recieve no retirement or benefits. The idea that folks receiving retirement and benefits are the ones somehow being subsidized by taxpayers because they sell goods and services to taxpayers is a bit of a stretch.

        • walter carpenter

          “I am self employed and recieve no retirement or benefits.”

          That is exactly what this program is for. Two small business groups were involved in the planning of it for precisely this purpose. I know many a businessperson, including my brother, a building contractor in another state, who does not have a retirement pension either.

          “The idea that folks receiving retirement and benefits are the ones somehow being subsidized by taxpayers because they sell goods and services to taxpayers is a bit of a stretch.”

          Actually it is what happens. My point was that someone else is paying for your retirement if you worked in one of these companies or entities. It was owned by another company in a web of companies. I worked in a rather large company in Vermont and the salary and the bennies I got was paid for, at bottom, by the customers of that company, its parent, and siblings.

          • Matt Young

            No one else is paying for my retirement or benefits.

          • walter carpenter

            “No one else is paying for my retirement or benefits.”

            I do not know what kind of business you own or the work, or your situation, but a program like this would help you plan for your retirement. The two business groups in this study were small business groups, with many of their members probably in the same situation as yourself.

  • Jerry Kilcourse

    Great commentary…and some wonder why Scandinavian countries and some others are perennial leaders in happiness indexes.

    • Owen Farnsworth

      Jerry, I agree, Walter’s commentary is well written. He is clearly articulate, intelligent, and well educated. But, given this, I don’t agree that he is due a special entitlement.

      • Jerry Kilcourse

        Either one agrees or disagrees that there is something fundamentally lacking in a society when the Walters in this country who have worked full time their entire life, can’t retire at an appropriate age. Wasn’t that the idea behind Social Security and Medicare.
        Concerning special entitlements, big business has been receiving them all along in the form of various tax breaks and other forms of subsidies, including “too big to fail” policies not available to the average citizen.

      • walter carpenter

        “I don’t agree that he is due a special entitlement.”

        But you are, right?:) And what special entitlement was I being given? And, as Jerry said, in his post, why is that when I talk about a public retirement program, you call it a “special entitlement,” but when any one of the big businesses like Global Foundries, gets a special tax break or has a few million dollar fund, that this is also not called a “special entitlements?”

      • Ray Gonda

        Hi Owen, Clearly Walter was not looking for a “special entitlement”. Pension plans have been the norm from the 40s-50s until just before the turn of the millennium. He is addressing how a pension “gap” could be closed starting today. It more closely parallels a willing seller/willing buyer circumstance rather than an eminent domain “taking” (entitlement).

        By the way, where are you?

        Tight lines this season!

  • Great article by Walter and should be required reading in school. There are many lessons here such as;
    Think ahead and figure out how to save for retirement, you can’t obviously depend upon the generosity of friends and family members.

    Develop valued skills and find a career that pays well. In a global economy, people, including Walter’s friends and family members, pay for value. That doesn’t imply people aren’t valued but, if there isn’t anything special about your work and product you can’t and shouldn’t expect much.

    40 hour work weeks, jobs for life, seniority, retirement as 60 something, and etc are a myth. Moreover, if you choose to believe this you will end up like Walter.

    Regardless of your age, you need to acquire new skills hopefully, one’s that the market values. By the way, the market is global and includes your friends, your family, the world. If you’re not making a decent wage ask your friends and family why they wont pay more for your services.

    • Pam Ladds

      of course when all you can get is minimum or less than a living wage you are screwed no matter how smart the thinking. Of course don’t ever get a life threatening illness, have an accident or age. Scrubbing that crystal ball to ensure that the chosen career path always has “valued” skills and making sure to remain as “special” as Mr Edwards apparently has. Would that we’re all as smart and complacent as you!

      • Matt Young

        Pam, would it make more sense to just put in the least amount of effort, never learn new skills, never take a chance and never go above and beyond? A job with specialized skills will generally pay more than one that doesn’t require any. Is that wrong? Should everyone be paid the same “wage?” If so then why would anyone ever work harder, work longer, learn new skills, take chances or strive for excellence? Mr. Edwards brings up several valid points.