I would like to share the following letter with you, even though I don't have an answer for the writer. (To conserve space, parts of the long letter have been omitted or paraphrased, but the meaningful elements remain.) Dear Mr. Abramson:
I was flipping through the pages of a Washington Post when your article on "Planning for Retirement" caught my eye. I thought to myself, there it is again; I have got to sit down and think about my retirement plans once more.
I am a 36-year-old divorced woman with a daughter, 17, who is a senior in high school participating in the Stay-in-School Program.
Through the years of marriage and desperately looking for a career and a fulfilling job, as well as coping with the other trails of a black female in this man's world, I have only managed to acquire a secretarial position.
I tried upgrading my education through college part-time; I tried technical schools and other little schemes to improve my station and worth. I am still a secretary.
My job offers a pension plan which isn't so bad, but it isn't the greatest plan in the world. I have no assets other than a car, no savings, and my credit is not in good standing. When I become a senior citizen, I may have to give in to that monster poverty, public assistance or government-paid supplemental handouts.
I am quite certain this is not a common problem among your clients; Caucasians are born with more clout than blacks on an average, which instantly puts them in a position to save for retirement.
I am truly concerned about my future. There is no point in staying in good health to live to a ripe old age if I cannot afford to provide myself food and shelter.
I would rather dry up and die than continue to have my pride taken away from me by not being allowed to earn a substantial salary, thus earning greater retirement benefits.
What else is there when you have no other resources?
HELP HELP HELP.
Do any of you readers have an answer for this woman? I don't. Maybe it's just a copout, but she's right in one respect -- my professional experience is all in helping the "haves" manage their money.
As a human being, my emotions are deeply touched by the problems of another human being -- but I have no knowledge or training that qualifies me to offer advice to one of the vast army of "have-nots."
But we need answers badly. In fact, this woman -- employed and articulate -- is better off than countless others (white as well as black, male as well as female) who have no salable skills at all.
Despite the undeniable progress that has been made, women in general continue to earn less than men. And blacks in general suffer from both higher unemployment rates and lower wages than whites.
As the writer points out, this translates into both harder times now and severely reduced retirement income later. Social Security and most private pension plans are based on prior earnings, not on need; and opportunity to save for old age is of course much more restricted.
We've got to do something. The problem is determining who "we" are. Government programs to upgrade skills have had some individual successes but certainly have not brought broad improvements. Reported mismanagement and misuse of funds have hurt these programs and even jeopardize their continued existence.
There are a few bright spots in the efforts of private industry and labor unions to teach marketable crafts and skills. But these efforts have been limited in scope and don't come anywhere near attacking the total problem.
The failures of our school systems to teach even the basics necessary for survival in our increasingly complex society have been documented many times.
I can't answer this plea for help. But you people out there -- you leaders of industry and labor, you legislators, educators, social scientists and just plain folks -- had better come up with some answers.
Because these are people out there, too -- not numbers in some statistical survey, but people -- who desperately need those answers to keep in good standing their membership in the human race.