May 11th, 2012
07:53 PM ET

Letters to the President #1208: 'No savings...no future'

Reporter's Note: I write a lot of letters to the president.

Dear Mr. President,

I know I should not be surprised, but I still can’t help but shake my head over the degree to which many Americans are saving little or no money for the future. A report this week says that roughly half of our citizens are saving nothing, zilch, zero, nada, the big doughnut for retirement.

This is troubling. I realize that many people are struggling to pay their bills and cover the mortgage. I know that saving can be difficult and seem pointless, especially to younger people who think they have all the time in the world to tend to such boring matters.

But I wonder, at a time like this, if saving money for the future ought to be considered a basic responsibility of citizenship. Look, we’ve had a lot of discussions lately about the rights we are owed by our country: rights to marry, rights to health care, rights to education. I don’t think I’ve heard nearly as much about responsibility. Oh sure, you say the rich should be responsible for more taxes. Fine. You can make that point, and obviously a lot of voters like it.

But where is the talk about what individuals owe to their communities?

Here is what I think many voters fear when they hear reports such as this: Social Security is going to go deeper into the hole as the population ages, and soon enough we’ll be told that all the money we’re all expecting upon retirement is running short. The next step will be “means” testing. If you’ve done the right thing and saved money to help cover your expenses in retirement that will be effectively counted against you, and your Social Security benefits will be accordingly reduced. Meanwhile, those who have saved nothing will get the full measure of their Social Security benefits because it is their “right.”

In other words, those of us who deny ourselves certain pleasures of spending now because we believe that saving for the future is a virtue and the kind of thing a responsible citizen does for the good of everyone, will later be rewarded…by being punished; while those who eschew their responsibility now will be rewarded.

I don’t mean to sound harsh or uncaring, because as I pointed out, I fully understand how hard it can be to set money aside sometimes. But nothing? Ever? That sounds less like a honest effort gone bad, and more like basic denial: “I don’t have to save, because in the end the government will pay for my retirement. It’s my right.”

Maybe that will work for twenty percent, or thirty percent, or maybe even sixty percent of the population, but if everyone acts that way we’ll all be in deep trouble. Now if you don’t mind, I need to go by the bank and make a deposit.


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