Can most Californians even afford to retire?

Margot Roosevelt, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

Steven Johnson spent 19 years as a minimum wage laborer for a Los Angeles moving company, lifting heavy furniture and suffering three hernias along the way.

For the last decade, the 61-year-old has worked as a waiter and as a cook in fast-paced kitchens.

Now arthritis has swollen his knees. "I tried to tough it out, icing myself down," Johnson said. But he's had to cut back to two days a week.

Johnson's income last year: $11,000. As for retirement savings, he says: "That would be a big, fat zero."

His employers offered neither pensions nor 401(k) plans.

Johnson is hardly alone. Some 52% of California's private sector employees ages 18 to 64 work for businesses that have failed to offer either kind of retirement plan, the AARP reported in August.


That's 7.4 million people.

Corporate executives enjoy hefty retirement payouts, but over decades companies have jettisoned defined-benefit pensions that once guaranteed many rank-and-file workers a steady income until death. Voluntary 401(k) plans replace them in some cases but leave millions of workers vulnerable to stock market downturns. Others are unable to contribute given their low wages.

Among low- and middle-income earners, fear of old-age poverty can be particularly acute. Eight in ten Californians who have lacked access to an employer-provided retirement plan make less than $50,000 a year.

Although many government employees still get pensions, as do many union members, and some private companies offer 401(k) plans, widespread inequity has spurred California and several other states to fill the void by enacting state-sponsored retirement programs for the private sector.


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