Need a bit of this at the end of this week.
This is a song that came upon me one night
When the news, it had been telling me ’bout one more war and one more fight
Those who fought to achieve these rights endured tremendous suffering, pain and deprivation. It is they who made possible our middle class and opened up our democracy. The elite hired goons and criminal militias to evict striking miners from company houses, infiltrate fledgling union organizations and murder suspected union leaders and sympathizers. Federal marshals, state militias, sheriff’s deputies and at times Army troops, along with the courts and legislative bodies, were repeatedly used to crush and stymie worker revolts. Striking sugar cane workers were gunned down in Thibodaux, La., in 1887. Steel workers were shot to death in 1892 in Homestead, Pa. Railroad workers in the Pullman strike of 1894 were murdered. Coal miners at Ludlow, Colo., in 1914 and at Matewan, W.Va., in 1920 were massacred. Our freedoms and rights were paid for with their courage and blood.
American democracy arose because those consciously locked out of the system put their bodies on the line and demanded justice. The exclusion of the poor and the working class from the systems of power in this country was deliberate. The Founding Fathers deeply feared popular democracy. They rigged the system to favor the elite from the start, something that has been largely whitewashed in public schools and by a corporate media that has effectively substituted myth for history. Europe’s poor, fleeing to America from squalid slums and workhouses in the 17th and 18th centuries, were viewed by the privileged as commodities to exploit. Slaves, Native Americans, indentured servants, women, and men without property were not represented at the Constitutional Conventions. And American history, as Howard Zinn illustrated in “The People’s History of the United States,” is one long fight by the marginalized and disenfranchised for dignity and freedom. Those who fought understood the innate cruelty of capitalism.
Go read the whole thing. Give it some time to sink in. It’s highly likely that your economic education has been poor enough that it will take some time to grasp all the pieces. Reread it as necessary.
One thing to watch, though.
The liberal class has busied itself with the toothless pursuits of inclusiveness, multiculturalism, identity politics and tolerance—a word Martin Luther King never used—and forgotten about justice.
Be careful of arguments like this. I’m seeing too many of them lately.
There are ways to use identity politics to divide, yes, and the class of capital is as expert at these as they are at every other type of divisiveness. However, at their heart, the ideas of inclusiveness are little more than saying that where there are human rights to be had, we must fight the idea that some things legitimately exclude groups of people from claiming those rights.
We don’t even have to do it because it’s simply the right thing to do (although it is). When capital wants to chip away at human rights, it goes after those groups first. Union busting targets teachers, who are largely female (and who were much more valued when the profession was mostly male). School privatization targets inner-city schools, with large minority populations whom we’re told don’t stand a chance to succeed unless drastic measures are taken. Immigration “reform,” which increases the consequences of working illegally without any real hope of decreasing the numbers, targets Hispanics. Reality-based decision makers are pushed out of office as unacceptable religious minorities.
Little by little, they carve us away, push us apart, and reclaim what they believe is theirs. And for the most part, they let us do the work. It is no accident that the regressives demonize identity politics. Threatening us individually with the idea that no one will believe we are due our human rights works. It works very well.
It works even better when those on the left tell us that our concerns over those threats are just a distraction. They are not. Our rights were won by unions, but those rights have not been shared by all equally. Many of us have continued to be told we are not human, and not just by those on the right.
Unions require a certain amount of trust. Alliances are often uneasy, more uneasy the larger and more diverse they are. Denying the importance of identity politics, denying the call that we must all share in what we protect and what we regain, won’t build that trust. It won’t build those alliances. Instead, every time we’re told it’s unimportant, we have to spend the energy to explain one more time why that isn’t so. Just as I’m doing here.
So stop it, lefties. Leave patting us on the head and saying everything’s just fine to those on the right. Just acknowledge that, yes, it is every bit as important that we share in the reward as it is that we share in the work. Just commit to the idea that we’re every bit as human when it comes to human rights. That’s all.
Then we can get on with this thing. Together.
Want to make a nurse happy? Just say, “While you’re in my record, how long has it been since my last tetanus booster? Long enough that it was before they recommended an adult pertussis booster?” Oh, do the eyes ever light up.
Four days after getting a DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) vaccination, my shoulder is still a little sore. Pain lasting that long at the injection site is unusual, as is the overall joint involvement I got to go through. (Pro tip: don’t be me. There’s a reason I call myself defective. This is how my body treats me.) Still, it was entirely worth it.
Why? Well, there’s this:
The pertussis epidemic continues in California, which has seen 5,658 confirmed, probable, and suspected cases as of this week.
That is the most cases seen in the state since 1950, when there were 6,613, according to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH).
The rate of illness — 14.5 per 100,000 population — is the highest since 1959 (16.1 per 100,000).
Of the cases with hospitalization information, 10% required admission. Three-quarters of hospitalizations occurred in infants younger than 6 months, and of those, three-quarters were Hispanic.
Nine babies have died, including eight younger than 2 months — the age at which pertussis vaccination starts — and one 2-month-old who had been born prematurely and who had received just one dose of the tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis vaccine (Tdap).
There’s also the fact that it’s not just California that’s seeing increased vulnerability:
Fewer Minnesota toddlers are getting scheduled shots for major diseases, a new report says, because of declining health insurance coverage and rising parental skepticism about immunizations.
The report by Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota cited federal data showing a decline in the childhood immunization rate from 80.5 percent in 2007 – when the state ranked seventh nationally – to 76.9 percent in 2009.
“Any drop, even 1 percentage point, will get our attention,” said Patricia Stinchfield, an immunization specialist at Children’s. “What is 1 percentage point in Minnesota? 4,000 kids. That’s 150 classrooms of kids that are not vaccinated.”
The report concludes that Minnesota’s childhood immunization rate fell to 20th among states in 2009.
And while I may not hang around many babies whom I could infect if I caught pertussis, it’s a disease that sucks for adults as well. Then there are those who can’t be vaccinated because they’re already in fragile health:
Carrie, of course, is not otherwise healthy. She’s prone to seizures, one of the rare complications of pertussis. She also has that problem with swallowing.
Think back to the last time you had a bad coughing fit. It’s gross, but think about the saliva and the mucus. Think about the last time you threw up. Now imagine all that together, along with gasping for air–and not being able to swallow.
If Carrie gets pertussis, she’ll almost certainly get pneumonia. Well, she will if the doctors can keep her from choking to death first. There’s a very good reason that pneumonia is a common complication of pertussis, even without Carrie’s problems.
I don’t know whether she’s strong enough to survive it. Honestly, I’ve been too cowardly to ask. Matt and his wife will know, though. They’ll have been thinking these same things, trying not to let their worry show, as they try to keep her entertained while she’s home from school. Other parents at the school will have been thinking similar thoughts. As I mentioned earlier, Carrie’s school has a large population of medically fragile students. Some of them won’t have had the vaccine for sound medical reasons. How many of them could survive pertussis?
Yeah. No matter how many times I said, “Ow,” lifting something over the past few days, no matter how much my hips hurt, it was entirely worth it to know that I’m not passing on something much, much worse to someone else.
So the next time you go to your doctor, have a happy little chat with your nurse, won’t you?
If you see a rape allegation in the news, those words aren’t far behind. They are talismans, touchstones for the idea that we must never, ever forget that women lie about rape. These women lied; therefore, women lie.
The truth is, of course, that some women do lie about having been raped. That shouldn’t surprise us. People make false accusations about every type of crime, even murder, where it is excruciatingly difficult to do. If no woman ever lied about being raped, the gender might have some collective claim to sainthood.
The difference with rape is the reminder. Name someone who gave an acquaintance a gift then accused them of robbery. Find me a blog post about a robbery where one of these people is mentioned. Name someone who is used to demonstrate that insurance fraud occurs–every time a large insurance payout for theft makes the papers. Name one of those audacious people who tried to frame someone for a murder that never happened, even in fiction, then show me how their name comes up every time a body isn’t found.
It doesn’t happen. We’re not told that people lie about these things. We’re told that women lie about rape.
The implication in the “women lie” narrative is that we must be particularly on our guard against false accusations of rape, that any particular accusation is unlikely to be true. But is it?
The Rate of False Report
The standard figure passed around by victim advocates suggests a rate of false reports of 8% based on FBI crime statistics from 1997. This is comparable to rates for other crimes. However, citations can be found for rates as low as 1.5% and as high as 90%. In other words, huh? How do we deal with a range that big?
Luckily for those who want to sort out the truth of the matter, two papers came out in 2010 that shed considerable light by examining how false rape report rates are generated. David Lisak, Lori Gardinier, Sarah C. Nicksa, and Ashley M. Cote collected those prior studies that had the best (and most transparent) processes for sorting between false and merely unproven allegations. They also used a similar process for determining the rate of false reports of rape at a U.S. college.
Their results were interesting in two respects. The first is that all the credible studies produced rates close to the standard figure. Rates ranged from 2.1% to 10.9%, with the college study falling in the middle at 5.9%. The numbers on rape just don’t support the idea that extra vigilance is required for this crime over others.
The second finding of the study is even more striking. In the authors’ own words, “It is notable that in general the greater the scrutiny applied to police classifications, the lower the rate of false reporting detected.” Those studies that relied on sorting done by the police produced the highest rates of rape. Those that examined the details of the cases labeled as false and required evidence of lies, rather than merely suspicion, produced the lowest rates. The 2.1% represents accusers who were charged with making false reports, the strictest criteria. (See this post for some thoughts on applying the presumption of innocence equally to accusers and accused in cases of rape.)
What Is A False Report?
The paper from Lisak and his coauthors discusses the criteria that must be met in order for a police report to be classified as false, noting that official statistics frequently include cases not meeting the criteria. Liz Kelly, in a separate paper released in 2010, examines two “attrition” studies, studies that track the ways in which rape cases fall out of the criminal justice system. Aside from convictions, how can rape cases end up classified?
Only the last of these is actually a false report. The rest of them either don’t involve an accusation, or they exist in that murky land where we don’t know what happened. So how do so many of them end up being included in the false report statistics?
Making the Numbers
It is notable that in general the greater the scrutiny applied to police classifications, the lower the rate of false reporting detected.
Both the Lisak and Kelly papers include multiple studies that compare actual police classification procedures to international standards. To put it briefly, they don’t measure up. Depending on the location, any of those other classifications, aside from reports ending in convictions, might end up being included in official figures on false reports.
Some of this may be sloppy paperwork or coding, but part of the problem is the officers themselves. Kelly reports that even among those who are supposed to be experts in rape, the following attitudes can be found:
We have a lot of allegations that are then retracted, we have a lot of allegations that it comes out in the wash one way or another that it was consensual. He says it’s consensual and she doesn’t, or they’ve been together for like hours beforehand, she’s gone back to his flat. . . . But stranger rape, you immediately start to think, “Oh God, this could be a real proper sort of drag you in the car,” absolutely nothing beforehand has happened. I think subconsciously you would consider it more serious. . . . I think I’d have more belief in the victim, that that was saying it was by a stranger, that . .
. it was a proper rape, rather than perhaps someone who said “It’s my ex-boyfriend, he came round,” because then you start to think things like, “Oh, she’s just getting back at him now.” (Female detective constable 2)
I have dealt with hundreds and hundreds of rapes in the last few years, and I can honestly probably count on both hands the ones that I believe are truly genuine. (Male detective constable 2)
In addition to finding that coding procedures weren’t followed, the attrition studies Kelly reviewed also uncovered investigation techniques that violated international standards. The most egregious of these was offering lie-detector tests to victims, a practice widely viewed as hostile and accusatory toward victims. Using procedures such as these is one way to inflate the number of cases in which victims stop cooperating.
The prevalence of rape myths among the police forces coding reports as false should also be cause for concern when looking at their uncorrected numbers. When the women they consider untrustworthy match the profiles for those most at risk of rape (mentally ill, developmentally disabled, intoxicated, previously victimized–although the papers don’t mention it, racial and sexual minority status fall here too), or those exhibiting rape trauma (scattered, faulty memory, embarrassed, ashamed), they are making decisions that push these cases out of the system on a prejudicial basis, not a factual one.
Then there is the fact that law enforcement is under continual pressure to reduce crime rates. That can lead to situations like that uncovered in Baltimore last year by the Baltimore Sun:
The problem in Baltimore is striking, but Baltimore is hardly the only city affected. If you need to change your crime rate, deciding that more rape accusations are “unfounded” is a simple administrative solution.
These examples are why we can’t trust raw law enforcement numbers, which provide the citations for “women lie” arguments. If a police force doesn’t know what is and isn’t rape, how can it decide which rapes are falsely reported? If a police force decides that in he-said, she-said situations, “she” is arbitrarily not to be trusted, how can we trust their decisions on whether or not she lied? If a police forces continue to endorse rape myths, why would we trust their reporting numbers uncritically?
These are decisions that have consequences. They have consequences for the recovery of victims, as being disbelieved is a risk factor for poor recovery after rape (Ullman 1996). And they have consequences for the rest of us as well. The re-offence rate for rapists isn’t entirely clear, but the low estimates put it around 20%. Kelly cites three cases of serial rapists in which early victims were recorded as having filed false reports.
Given the small number of false reports found in well-built studies, and the large number of repeat rapists, it might be time to give some serious thought to how well our societal strategy of disbelief serves us.
A Note on Real False Reports
Kelly’s paper provides some interesting detail on a sample of reports that were accurately coded as false. Unlike the stereotype, most of the false reports did not involve direct accusations of a particular person. They were stranger-rape scenarios.
Also, in both the stranger-rape and acquaintance-rape scenarios, the false accuser was generally a victim of some sort. Some had been otherwise abused by those people they accused, including prior sexual abuse. Some were reporting rape to avoid abuse they would have otherwise received, as is suspected to the case for Tawana Brawley.
None of that excuses the false reporting of rape. It simply provides an opportunity to think about what might be done to reduce the rate of false reports even further.
Kelly L (2010). The (in)credible words of women: false allegations in European rape research. Violence against women, 16 (12) PMID: 21164212
Lisak D, Gardinier L, Nicksa SC, & Cote AM (2010). False allegations of sexual assualt: an analysis of ten years of reported cases. Violence against women, 16 (12), 1318-34 PMID: 21164210
Ullman, S. (1996). SOCIAL REACTIONS, COPING STRATEGIES, AND SELF-BLAME ATTRIBUTIONS IN ADJUSTMENT TO SEXUAL ASSAULT Psychology of Women Quarterly, 20 (4), 505-526 DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-6402.1996.tb00319.x
James Schmitz has always been my favorite Golden Age SF author. Part of it is that his heroes (of multiple genders) are competent. It is a joy to see them at work, scheming against seemingly impossible odds. A rather large part of it, though, is that his non-human characters live in a way that one rarely sees in stories. This is particularly true for characters that are ecosystems.
No, really. Ecosystems.
The work that shows this off to best advantage is Schmitz’s novel, The Demon Breed (full text), but it is a critical element of this week’s story as well. An excerpt:
He put his left hand up to his face, and Ilf saw he was wearing a wrist-talker. “Het,” Mr. Terokaw said to the talker without taking his eyes off Riquol Cholm, “you are aware, I believe, that the children are with us in the house?”
The wrist-talker made murmuring sounds for a few seconds, then stopped.
“Yes,” Mr. Terokaw said. “There should be no problem about it. But let me know if you see somebody approaching the area . . . ” He put his hand back down on the table. “Mr. Bliman, please continue.”
Mr. Bliman cleared his throat again.
“Mr. Kugus Ovin,” he said, “is now officially recorded as the parent by adoption of his niece, Auris Luteel. Since Auris has not yet reached the age where her formal consent to this action would be required, the matter is settled.”
“Meaning,” Mr. Terokaw added, “that Kugus can act for Auris in such affairs as selling the cutting rights on this tree farm. Mr. Cholm, if you are thinking of taking legal action against us, forget it. You may have had certain papers purporting to show that the girl was your adopted child filed away in the deposit vault of a bank. If so, those papers have been destroyed. With enough money, many things become possible. Neither you nor Mrs. Cholm nor the two children will do or say anything that might cause trouble to me. Since you have made no rash moves, Mr. Bliman will now use an instrument to put you and Mrs. Cholm painlessly to sleep for the few hours required to get you off this planet. Later, if you should be questioned in connection with this situation, you will say about it only what certain psychological experts will have impressed on you to say, and within a few months, nobody will be taking any further interest whatever in what is happening here today.
“Please do not think that I am a cruel man. I am not. I merely take what steps are required to carry out my purpose. Mr. Bliman, please proceed!”
Ilf felt a quiver of terror. Uncle Kugus was holding his wrist with one hand and Auris’ wrist with the other, smiling reassuringly down at them. Ilf darted a glance over to Auris’ face. She looked as white as his grandparents but she was making no attempt to squirm away from Kugus, so Ilf stayed quiet, too. Mr. Bliman stood up, looking more like a fierce bird of prey than ever, and stalked over to Riquol Cholm, holding something in his hand that looked unpleasantly like another gun. Ilf shut his eyes. There was a moment of silence, then Mr. Terokaw said, “Catch him before he falls out of the chair. Mrs. Cholm, if you will just settle back comfortably . . . “
You may have noticed that it…bothers me when people say stupid stuff about rape. Yes, it’s harmful, both because it invalidates those who have experienced rape and because it validates those who think rape is no big deal. That’s the part that infuriates me.
The part that annoys me and sticks under my skin, hanging on perhaps even longer than the fury, is that if these same people would just shut up and pay attention, they’d likely learn something important. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s not that hard to find people to talk about rape intelligently and compassionately–and with a command of the facts.
Anyone who’s reads a Twitter feed based around information will have seen this great post by Roxane Gay about the need to write carefully about rape. (Those who don’t pay their feed regular attention will see it in the next week or so.) She says what I was trying to say yesterday, but in a more writerly way, plus much more about how we trivialize rape by the way we portray it.
While I have these concerns, I also feel committed to telling the truth, to saying these violences happen even if bearing such witness contributes to a spectacle of sexual violence. When we’re talking about race or religion or politics, it is often said we need to speak carefully. These are difficult topics where we need to be vigilant not only in what we say but how we express ourselves. That same care, I would suggest, has to be extended to how we write about violence, and sexual violence in particular.
In the Times article, the phrase “sexual assault” is used, as is the phrase “the girl had been forced to have sex with several men.” The word “rape” is only used twice and not really in connection with the victim. That is not the careful use of language. Language, in this instance, and far more often than makes sense, is used to buffer our sensibilities from the brutality of rape, from the extraordinary nature of such a crime. Feminist scholars have long called for a rereading of rape. Higgins and Silver note that “the act of rereading rape involves more than listening to silences; it requires restoring rape to the literal, to the body: restoring, that is, the violence—the physical, sexual violation.” I would suggest we need to find new ways, whether in fiction or creative nonfiction or journalism, for not only rereading rape but rewriting rape as well, ways of rewriting that restore the actual violence to these crimes and that make it impossible for men to be excused for committing atrocities and that make it impossible for articles like McKinley’s to be written, to be published, to be considered acceptable.
Read the whole thing.
Nor is rape a new topic. Anyone who had been paying attention a year and a half ago, when the film industry decided to collectively take on jury duty for Roman Polanski, would likely have seen links to this post by Harriet Jacobs about how our society concludes that women haven’t been raped because they’re doing exactly what they’ve been trained to do.
People wonder why women don’t “fight back,” but they don’t wonder about it when women back down in arguments, are interrupted, purposefully lower and modulate their voices to express less emotion, make obvious signals that they are uninterested in conversation or being in closer physical proximity and are ignored. They don’t wonder about all those daily social interactions in which women are quieter, ignored, or invisible, because those social interactions seem normal. They seem normal to women, and they seem normal to men, because we were all raised in the same cultural pond, drinking the same Kool-Aid.
And then, all of a sudden, when women are raped, all these natural and invisible social interactions become evidence that the woman wasn’t truly raped. Because she didn’t fight back, or yell loudly, or run, or kick, or punch. She let him into her room when it was obvious what he wanted. She flirted with him, she kissed him. She stopped saying no, after a while.
Again, read the full post. Read the discussion in the comments as well. They’re well-moderated, so instead of the usual mess, you get insight and exchanges of ideas that could be their own posts.
Then, notice that you’ve learned something, even if you already know something about rape and rape culture. And the next time some idiot comes along, spewing know-nothing blather, feel all the more free to suggest their time could be better spent digging their way out of ignorance.
By now you probably know that the Republican Wisconsin senators decided that union busting wasn’t a budget issue after all, split their bill in a closed session (in a state with open meeting laws), and passed it with only Sen. Schultz voting against it. The Republicans in the Assembly have already passed the provisions once, so the split bill isn’t expected to meet opposition there.
This is likely to get…interesting. These provisions don’t have popular support, and recall effort organization for several senators was already well underway before the illegal move. The Assembly and governor’s office are about the only places this bill doesn’t face stiff opposition.
Protesters are occupying the capitol again. City police and county sheriffs have declined to move them. They’ve already shown organization and dedication not seen since Vietnam. The protest folk music has already begun.
What comes next?
If you want to watch in real time, The UpTake is streaming video from Madison.
So…the New York Times put out an article about an eleven-year-old girl who was gang raped in Texas. Well, actually, the article wasn’t about her. It’s about how all these people around the event were devastated by it. You know, the guys who did it (who helpfully created pictorial and video evidence such that the question of innocence is largely moot):
“It’s just destroyed our community,” said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”
And the town:
“It’s devastating, and it’s really tearing our community apart,” she said. “I really wish that this could end in a better light.”
And the mother, who clearly bears more blame than the rapists:
“Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?” said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. “How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?”
And the community institutions:
Churches have held prayer services for the victim. The students who were arrested have not returned to school, and it is unclear if they ever will.
But not the victim. Well, not unless you consider this:
They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.
I’m not going to go into everything that’s wrong with this article. It’s horrid through and through, and Mae McClelland at Mother Jones has made a good start in pointing out how. For the moment, I’d rather talk about why.
If you look at the major failures of the Times article, you can see that they mostly don’t come from the reporter. Not surprising. It’s incredibly easy to find people saying idiotic things about rape and very, very difficult to get it through to them that there is a better strategy than talking when they don’t know what they’re talking about.
But you know what? We know that. We’ve known for decades that most people get things wrong about crime, and we sure as hell know that they’re worse on the topic of rape. We know that people misassign blame. We know that they tend to treat perpetrators as something short of criminals. We know that there’s a lot of special pleading that goes on that makes what happened “not really rape.”
That, my dear friends, is why we employ experts. We employ them in training law enforcement personnel, because they don’t get rape on their own. We employ them to talk to juries in rape cases, because juries don’t know what constitutes evidence of consent or trauma on their own. We employ them to set up programs to prevent rape and to deal with the aftermath, because rape is so entwined in our culture that very few of us really understand all of what we’re looking at when we look at rape.
We don’t–I emphasize–do not let any old schmuck off the street do any of that. Never. We just don’t. Because they get it wrong, as this article demonstrates so thoroughly.
This “reporter” did just that, though. He took exactly what the average idiot on the street told him and reported it as though it were somehow relevant to the matter at hand. The matter at hand being the gang rape of a pre-teen. In a situation that causes any other kind of responsible professional to go the experts, this guy just printed what he was told. His editor, supposedly another professional, allowed it.
Unfortunately, that’s what all too much “journalism” is looking like these days: transcription with no value added. Which is not to say that transcription has no value. Instead it has roughly the same value as the sources transcribed, making it all the more important that the reporters and editors involved be professional in choosing their sources.
It isn’t hard to find an expert on the topic of rape. It isn’t hard to find someone willing to point out that adult clothes don’t make adult choices or that even if they did “or we’ll beat you up” isn’t a choice. It isn’t hard to find someone willing to tell you that the only newsworthy question about the victim is “Is she being taken good care of?” (The answer is likely to be less simple, but it usually is.) It isn’t hard to find someone who can point out that rape cases make communities uncomfortable because they put reality in direct conflict with comfortable, familiar myth on many levels.
It isn’t hard to turn the idiotic words of a few willing mouths into a lesson on the realities of rape, even if you’re not willing to take responsibility for debunking the myths in your own voice. And it desperately, consistently needs to be done. That it wasn’t done in this article is a failure of insight, it’s a failure of professionalism, and it’s a failure of journalism. It needs to be fixed.
Go sign the petition to tell them so.
It’s not hard to find organizations talking about retirement being in a crisis due to pensions. From organizations using that narrative to undercut unions to reporting that uses a snapshot approach to talk about plans with very long life-spans, the idea that pension plan funding and retiring baby boomers are going to bankrupt us all is everywhere. However, there are two problems with this idea.
The first is that it’s not true. State pensions and private pensions are not fully funded at the moment, but that has more to do with the current state of the markets and the fact that contributions largely weren’t made to these plans while market returns were being inflated by the tech and housing bubbles. Contributions need to be made, but nothing is spiraling out of control. Benefits cost money. That’s just the way it works.
The second problem with the pension crisis narrative, however, is worse. The emphasis on pensions hides a much larger problem with retirement in America. This crisis won’t hit for another decade or two, but the size of the problem is easily visible today–if you look.
What is the financial magnitude of the nation’s retirement income crisis? Retirement USA asked the respected non-partisan Center for Retirement Research at Boston College to calculate the figure that represents our current retirement income deficit – that is, the gap between the pensions and retirement savings that American households have today and what they should have today to maintain their standard of living. Using the data from the Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Consumer Finances, the Retirement Research Center has calculated that figure at $6.6 trillion.
The deficit figure covers households in their peak earning and saving years—those in the 32-64 age range—excluding younger workers who are just beginning to save for retirement as well as most retirees. It takes into account all major sources of retirement income and assets: Social Security, traditional pension plans, 401(k)-style plans, and other forms of saving, and housing.
It’s not hard to say what’s driving this. We are stunningly bad at long-term planning, we’re not terribly numerate, and almost everything around us encourages us to live at the edges of our means. That was bad enough in the era of the paternalistic pension, but now that 401(k) plans make the money to fund our retirements “ours” in a more immediate sense, we’re doomed. We decide we can’t afford to contribute. We take loans and hardship withdrawals. We cash out our savings instead of rolling them over when we switch employers. We’re not saving the money we need.
Beyond that, we’re doing a lousy job of investing the money we do save. We try to play the market. We avoid risk (and its associated reward). In volatile markets, we do exactly the opposite of what we should do–we sell low and buy high. As investors, we suck.
And if you’re sitting there feeling smug because none of what I’ve just said applies to you, hang on a minute. Actually, hang on for 10 to 20 years. That’s when my generation (Gen X) will start retiring and you get to really find out what this means for you.
Let’s start with what it means for your kids. We’ve seen it the last couple of years. Fewer people are retiring at all, and those who are leaving their careers are often still working, just in a less demanding job. Can’t afford to start drawing down your savings too quickly when you don’t have much. That means jobs that would be entry-level or unskilled are going to people with job histories to show they’re reliable. Young adults find it harder to find jobs. Sorry, kids.
Then there’s the run on public services. For the working poor, Social Security isn’t nearly enough for financial security. And no matter how much we say we’re going to throttle “entitlement” spending, money we don’t pay on basic services we end up spending on other services. If we don’t pay for food stamps, we pay for health care. If we don’t pay for preventive care, we pay for emergency care. There are costs we just can’t make go away. If retirees can’t pay, the rest of us do, and we don’t even get humane outcomes for our money.
Finally, there is the impact on the economy. We live in a consumer-driven economy. Poorer consumers mean a less-healthy economy. In addition to what that means for jobs for everyone still working, that hits savings invested in the market. It hits bonds as well, as those are no longer nearly as independent of stock price movements as they used to be. And once the effects start hitting, people who have savings won’t even be able to protect them by buying annuities. The current interest rates make annuities very expensive right now, and that’s going to be the case whenever markets are threatened.
So, saver or non-saver, you have only so much time before this retirement income deficit hits us all, and hard. Isn’t it about time to tell your media and your government to ignore the pension non-crisis and start paying attention to this?