Seniors worry about finances

Florida has always had an above-average share of wrong-trackers — voters who are sure that the state and nation have taken an incorrect turn. This always confused me. I thought that Floridians, living in the Sunshine State, a tropical paradise, should exist in a perpetual state of contentment.

My first hunch at explaining this phenomenon was that Yankees moving to Dixie, particularly retirees, just weren’t enamored of the Southern way of doing things. I knew that enough of these Yankees were spouting off to inspire native Floridians to plaster their cars with responsive bumper stickers, “We don’t care how you do it up North!” So we had Southerners unhappy with so many unhappy Northerners.

This seemed like the best justification for sour Floridians until a wise man of Florida politics explained Florida’s naysayers to me a little differently. He observed that many men had spent a goodly portion of their lives working and saving in cold climes like Chicago or Long Island, shoveling snow and putting aside their savings so they could one day retire to the bliss of sunny Florida. These men sat down with financial planners who helped them sketch out the last years of their financial lives: “If you put aside this number of dollars every week, then when you retire you’ll have this much in investment income to live on.”

This interpreter of Florida led me to a Merrill Lynch office with an outdoor electronic ticker, streaming stock values all day long. In front of the office was a park-like area with benches. Old men sat there watching the market go up and down. Like most markets, it went down enough to create worry and fear. Yes, these vulnerable investors had saved for retirement income, but whenever the market had a hiccup, the retirees had visions of eating dog food. Florida’s natural attractions weren’t overcoming disappointments with the financial side of retirement. So whenever Florida politicians hint at raising taxes or fees, the reaction is worse than elsewhere. Fee increases just weren’t in the budgets they planned for their golden years.

I bring this all up because I am starting to see the alienated old men in other states. For years, seniors have saved and invested according to the rules. Maybe they even resisted the urge to splurge on a condo in Florida and continued to live frugally in the old house in Chicago or on Long Island. But it’s still going south for them. The stock markets are in decline. Money markets are muddled. All the lifelines to a secure retirement are being cut, in the view of increasingly angry seniors.

I talked in depth with one senior this week who typifies the breed. Though past 90 years of age, he reads Investor’s Business Daily religiously and keeps a cable channel constantly streaming financial news across the bottom of the TV screen. He’s one of those simple “millionaires next door” who never had a big salary but faithfully invested for all his many years. Even now, he is frugal, worrying about small increases in insurance premiums or telephone rates.

But this week he is outraged about the state of our economy and the specter of a major bailout for CEOs and money managers who acted badly. He was outraged at reports of CEO political contributions made to politicians who now hold the keys to the financial schemes Washington is considering to smooth over the mess the business donors made.

Florida politicians have come to recognize that seniors are a political force that must be dealt with. You can’t just ignore them. Democrats and Republicans in Washington, including Barack Obama and John McCain, better learn from Florida and watch out. The range of angry seniors is expanding to 49 other states.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.