Retiring With Dignity

Meals on Wheels Chicago considers many factors when planning for the future of our programs. In an effort to educate the public about our work and the increasing demand for home meal delivery services, we are releasing a series of essays focused on systemic problems that affect seniors and individuals with disabilities. In this essay we explore the many reasons why saving for retirement can be so difficult, and the importance of strengthening social safety net programs in the United States. We hope highlighting these issues in relation to our mission will encourage our community to advocate for these vulnerable communities. In the meantime, Meals on Wheels Chicago will continue to raise funds for the home meal delivery program, providing our homebound neighbors with the food they need to stay healthy and independent. 

Financial advisors all say the same thing—save for retirement aggressively, invest, and begin early. The truth is, however, these measures are simply not possible for many individuals and families, leaving seniors without the resources they need to remain financially stable in their later years.

Many seniors rely entirely on social security to pay for food, housing costs and other expenses during retirement. Already, many struggle to make ends meet when relying solely on social security benefits, and this is set to worsen over the coming years.

Experts anticipate that, without a significant overhaul, social security will go bankrupt by 2035. At that point, benefits will be slashed by 20 percent, and will be further reduced as the years go on. This will leave seniors without the support network they need to fully meet their needs, exacerbating the crisis that so many seniors already face: hunger.

Even with the social security program as it exists today, 46 percent of unmarried individuals age 65 and older say they do not have enough money to cover their basic food needs. Approximately 28 percent of married individuals age 65 and older say they’re not satisfied with their ability to meet their basic needs during retirement.

Hunger, race and financial stability

Among seniors, an already vulnerable population, certain demographics face even greater challenges. Studies show people of color and those with disabilities are more likely to face hunger than white seniors across the United States.

People of color disproportionately deal with hunger, a report by the USDA shows. Twelve percent of US households experience hunger. However, that rate rises significantly when it’s broken down by race—18.5 percent of Hispanic households and 22.5 percent of Black households experience food insecurity, a difference that shows how far reaching the disparities in economic stability truly are.

That difference extends to individuals’ abilities to save for retirement, as well. On average, people of color have less in retirement savings than white individuals. Approaching retirement between the ages of 55 and 64, white households have an average of $206,400 in savings, which can greatly supplement social security benefits post-retirement. Black households between 55 and 64, on the other hand, have an average of $34,365 saved for retirement.

Furthermore, 75 percent of Black households and 80 percent of Hispanic households have less than $10,000 in savings, leaving many with little cushion to help meet their basic needs after they have stopped working.

Financial instability over a lifetime

These disparities do not begin or end with savings accounts. Instead, they show the lifelong impact of racism and its links to health, wellbeing and poverty over the course of a lifetime.

Hunger in childhood, which also disproportionately affects communities of color, takes a toll on a child’s physical and mental wellbeing. It can also make it difficult to focus in the classroom, setting kids off to a disadvantaged start that has ripple effects for years.

A 2019 study by the U.S. Department of Education showed 88.6 percent of white students in America graduated high school in four years, compared to 77.8 percent of Black students. These effects continue for the rest of one’s life, impacting employment, pay disparity, ability to save for retirement, and, eventually, food insecurity in retirement.

In the City of Chicago, 310,000 people, or 17 percent of the population ages 18 and up, do not have a high school diploma, which has a significant effect on employment rates and poverty levels. Approximately 5.2 percent of Chicago’s white population is unemployed, while 8.6 percent of the Hispanic population is without work, and 17.9 percent of the Black population is unemployed.

A total of 9.29 percent of Chicago’s white population lives below the poverty line. Compare that to the 19.69 percent of Hispanic Chicagoans and 30 percent of Black Chicagoans who live beneath the poverty line, and the picture of income inequality becomes even more stark.

For many, it’s impossible to save for retirement when they’re living their day-to-day lives trying to feed themselves and their families long before they leave the workforce, leaving them even more vulnerable to hunger as seniors.

With social security benefits dwindling and a lifetime of challenges in the way, people of color and low-income individuals are left trying to bridge the gap between government benefits and the ability to put food on the table.

Organizations like Meals on Wheels Chicago are here to help bridge that gap, providing meals to those who need them, without prejudice, judgment or discrimination. Seniors can enjoy the peace of mind that they’ll never go hungry while enrolled in the program, whether they were able to save for retirement or not. Unfortunately, federal funding for home meal delivery programs is not enough to feed every senior in need, and is under constant threat of budgetary cuts.

Financial instability should not be a reason for anyone to go hungry, but as social security covers less and less, programs like Meals on Wheels will be needed more than ever to keep seniors nourished and living with dignity during retirement.

By Anne Bouleanu, Freelance Journalist and MOWC Contributor