As if aging in America isn’t hard enough these days, a new government report has uncovered that seniors are facing yet another barrier to a secure retirement: their student debt. Once thought to be a young person’s issue, new data released by the Government Accountability Office shows that older Americans are also finding themselves buried under the weight of their student loans. The data helps paint a much larger picture of the overall economic insecurity that too many of our country’s seniors face every day.
According to a recent story based on the report, a record number of borrowers are seeing their Social Security payments garnished because their federal student loans are in default. As the story explains, “More than half, or 54 percent, of federal student loans held by borrowers at least 75 years old are in default, according to the federal watchdog. About 27 percent of loans held by borrowers aged 65 to 74 are in default. Among borrowers aged 50 to 64, 19 percent of their loans are in default. The Education Department generally defines a default as being at least 360 days past due.”
The price of an education is quickly becoming too heavy a burden for far too many people, and it’s a burden that’s staying with them forever. College debt looms large as the most difficult debt to get rid of, and these numbers paint a startling picture of exactly how big a toll it’s taking on people as they age. For many, student debt is following them from the cradle to the grave – they’re condemned to a lifetime of payments that stagnant wages and mounting economic insecurity make it nearly impossible to manage.
What’s even scarier is that the health and retirement security of our friends and neighbors was, in many ways, already in jeopardy. In fact, the very idea of retiring has increasingly become a pipe dream for most workers. People are working until they die just to get access to health insurance and because they don’t have enough saved in retirement. If they ever do stop working, too many are living in fear that debt collectors will come garnish their Social Security payments. Student loan debt is just the latest in a long line of threats to the financial well-being of seniors.
And the problem is only going to get worse. Every eight seconds, someone turns 65 in this country. But as is true for the student-debt crisis, our country has no comprehensive plan to support our aging parents and grandparents and only a very fragmented, fragile system to cover them financially, medically or otherwise. At the end of the day, it’s becoming increasingly impossible to age securely in America without incredible wealth, which is further and further out of reach for younger generations.
That threat puts all of us in jeopardy. It endangers an already fragile economic recovery, and it exacerbates the financial vulnerability of people who have worked all of their lives to provide for themselves and their families. If our economy doesn’t work for students, and it doesn’t work for workers, and it definitely doesn’t work for seniors, you have to wonder, is it time to try a different approach?
Gupta is executive director of Jobs With Justice, a union rights adocacy organization.