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Is senior poverty linked to a lack of retirement saving or workplace plans?

An interview with Chris Roberts of the Canadian Labour Congress 

These days, it’s pretty common knowledge that many of us don’t save enough for retirement, and/or don’t have a savings plan at work. Save with SPP reached out to Chris Roberts, Director of Social and Economic Policy for the Canadian Labour Congress, to see how this lack of retirement preparedness may connect to seniors having debt and poverty problems.

Is the shortage of workplace pension plans (and the move away from defined benefit plans) in part responsible for higher levels of senior poverty/senior debt?

“Certainly old-age poverty rates and indebtedness among seniors have risen over the past two decades, while pension coverage has fallen (and DB coverage in the private sector has collapsed). Seniors’ labour-market participation has also doubled over those time period.

“It’s clear (from research by the Broadbent Institute) that falling pension coverage and inadequate retirement savings more broadly will deepen the financial insecurity and even poverty of many seniors. But while there’s been considerable research linking stagnant wages and rising household indebtedness, studies linking falling pension coverage with rising poverty and indebtedness among seniors are relatively scarce.

“Both rising poverty rates and growing indebtedness among seniors have several causes. Canada’s public pensions, especially Old Age Security (OAS) and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), provide a minimum level of income in retirement for individuals without private pensions or other sources of income. Part of the rise in the low-income measure of old-age poverty has been due to the fact that OAS is indexed to the consumer price index rather than the average industrial wage, causing seniors’ incomes to lag behind median incomes. Unattached seniors, especially women, are at particularly high risk of poverty, but so are recent newcomers to Canada who are eligible for only a partial OAS benefit.

“With respect to rising indebtedness, a declining number (according to Stats Can data) of senior-led households are debt-free. More Canadians are taking debt (especially mortgage debt) into retirement, and they’re shouldering more debt in retirement as well. At the same time, the total assets of senior-led families have also risen, and their net worth has grown even as debt levels rose. Indebtedness and net worth seems to have grown fastest (again according to Stats Can data) among the top 20 per cent of families ranked by income.

“So I think we have to be somewhat careful to avoid seeing rising senior household debt levels as driven solely or even primarily by financial hardship caused by declining pension coverage. There is certainly ample evidence (according to research by Hoyes Michalos) of a significant and growing segment of seniors that are struggling with debt and financial pressure. But rising debt levels among higher-income senior households likely have other causes besides financial hardship.”

Is a related problem the lack of personal retirement savings by those without pension plans?

“Richard Shillington’s study for the Broadbent Institute demonstrated that a retirement savings shortfall for those without significant private pension income will be a major problem for many current and future retirees. This shortfall has also been documented in the United States (see a study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College). While retirement contributions as a share of earnings have been rising (even as the household saving rate fell), these additional contributions have gone toward workplace pension plans; contributions to individual saving plans have declined, suggesting that those without a pension have not been able to save independently to compensate for not having an actual pension (see this article from Union Research for an explanation).”

Is debt itself a key problem (i.e., idea of people taking debt into retirement and having to pay it off with reduced income)?

“I think rising debt levels in retirement do pose risks, even if the challenges vary significantly with income. For low- and modest-income seniors, some forms of debt (e.g. consumer credit, payday lending) can be onerous and even unconscionable. For home-owners, even if mortgage debt is accompanied by rising home values and rising net worth, servicing debts while managing health-related and other costs on fixed incomes can be challenging for seniors. Debts acquired at earlier stages of the life-cycle will likely become a mounting problem in Canada, as, for instance, the student debt of family members (see article from Politico) and seniors themselves (see coverage from CNBC) is becoming an urgent problem in the United States.”

Apart from things like CPP expansion, which seems a good thing for younger people, can anything be done today to help retirees to have better outcomes?

“Increasing GIS but especially improving OAS will be important to improving financial security for seniors. For the reason discussed above, OAS will have to be expanded or indexed differently in order to stabilize relative old-age poverty. But in my view, there are also good reasons to expand it. Current as well as future seniors would benefit. OAS is a virtually-universal seniors’ benefit (about seven per cent of seniors have high enough incomes that their OAS benefit is clawed back by the recovery tax), and it’s particularly important to low- and modest earners, women, Indigenous Canadians, and workers with disabilities. It isn’t geared to employment history or earnings, so it’s purpose-built for a labour-market increasingly characterized by precarity, and atypical employment relationships (e.g. “self-employment,” independent contractors, etc). Modest income-earners with pensions would benefit from a higher OAS; these workers earn only a small workplace pension benefit, and unlike increases to CPP, their employers would be unlikely to try to offset the costs of a higher (tax-funded) OAS benefit. While growing along with the retirement of the baby-boom cohort, the cost of OAS (as a share of GDP) is projected to peak around 2033 before declining. And at a time when workplace pension plans, individual savings plans, and even the CPP increasingly depend on uncertain and sometimes volatile investment returns, the OAS is funded through our mostly progressive income tax system.”

We thank Chris Roberts for taking the time to talk to Save with SPP.

Given the scarcity of workplace pensions, more and more Canadians must be self-reliant and must save on their own for retirement. An option worth consideration is opening a Saskatchewan Pension Plan account; your money is invested professionally at a very low-cost by a not-for-profit, government-sponsored pension plan, and at retirement, you have the option of converting your savings to a lifetime income stream. Check it out today at saskpension.com.

Written by Martin Biefer
Martin Biefer is Senior Pension Writer at Avery & Kerr Communications in Nepean, Ontario. After a 35-year career as a reporter, editor and pension communicator, Martin is enjoying life as a freelance writer. He’s a mediocre golfer and beginner line dancer who enjoys classic rock and sports, especially football. He and his wife Laura live with their Shelties, Duncan and Phoebe, and their cat, Toobins. You can follow him on Twitter – his handle is @AveryKerr22