Retirement Challenges: The View from a Congressional District Office

It is an unfortunate fact that the people most at risk of financial insecurity in retirement are often those who are financially insecure before retirement—people working in low-wage jobs, or unable to work, and struggling to meet day-to-day expenses. For them, the notion of planning for a secure retirement can seem as distant and unrealistic as planning for an overseas vacation or buying a vacation home.

Just ask Blanca Varela, district director for U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Arizona. Varela spends the bulk of her working hours helping constituents, many of them veterans or Native Americans, or both. Nearly every day, she says, veterans pass through O’Halleran’s office looking for help with homelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder and access to medical care through the Veterans Health Administration. Problems involving Social Security benefits also are common. “Just living from paycheck to paycheck is something we talk with constituents about on an everyday basis,” Varela said during a presentation at the 2019 SVIA Spring Seminar in Tucson. “Retirement is not at the front of these families’ list of issues.”

Varela spoke on behalf of O’Halleran, who was originally scheduled to talk at the Spring Seminar but was unable to do so due to conflicting responsibilities. In a prepared statement read by Varela, O’Halleran said his office prioritizes “policies that promote quality health care, education, 21st century technology and infrastructure, as well as solid investments in small rural economies.”

According to Varela, O’Halleran also is focused on coming up with a bipartisan solution to making Social Security a sustainable benefit. Social Security’s trust funds are on track to be depleted by 2034, at which point the program will be able to pay out only about 77% of the retirement benefits to which workers are entitled, and only about 96% of disability benefits.

Unfortunately, Varela said, lawmakers often seem to respond to problems only after they reach crisis stage. “Tom is saying, ‘Listen, we know this is a problem. We need to really work together in a bipartisan way to address the problem.”

Cautioning that not enough people are talking about how a break in the Social Security safety net would affect families—especially those who rely on it as their primary source of income—Varela said the country must come up with a way not only to mend the program but also to convince Americans struggling with their finances to set aside at least some additional money for retirement.

“How is it that you can impact those families?” she asked. “How, in the midst of them living in crisis and paycheck-to-paycheck, can we say that a few dollars set aside from every paycheck in a retirement account will go a long way when you retire? That’s a difficult conversation to have because people are living in the moment, they are living in crisis.” Looking specifically to veterans, Varela added, “There has to be some kind of strategy to engage people who have served the country. I wouldn’t begin to suggest how you can do that, but I think there has to be some way for veterans to have better financial planning for their future.”

Assuring access to health care is equally important, Varela added, noting that she has seen people from the Navajo Nation in Arizona travel three hours to New Mexico for a doctor’s appointment—a situation exacerbated by a lack of adequate housing and roads.

“Retirement and health care are both critical to the future of this generation and the generations to come, and we need to address them,” Varela concluded. “We need to get people thinking about saving but also about making smart health decisions.” She encouraged her audience to get in touch with O’Halleran’s office with any ideas they might have for distributing that message more widely.