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The building that houses Opelousas City Hall is pictured at left Monday, October 29, 2018, in downtown Opelousas.

The word “retirement” might mean something pleasant for most people, but for the growing ranks of the elderly poor, it’s a sentence to hard labor without end.

A growing national debate over retirement security — with a large percentage of Americans having neither a pension, nor 401K-type accounts — is illustrated by a Louisiana town and one in Utah featured in a recent article in the liberal magazine The Nation.

The authors contrasted the Acadiana community of Opelousas with Ogden, Utah, where many residents worked for years for pension-providing employers such as railroads, a nearby Air Force base and a large IRS office.

“Seventy-seven percent African-American and Creole, Opelousas is home to men and women who have worked all their lives, but mostly in jobs that provided no benefits at all — retirement or otherwise,” wrote Katherine S. Newman and Rebecca Hayes Jacobs. “In 2017, per capita income in Opelousas was only $15,266 a year, and 45.3 percent of its population was living in poverty.

“Few residents were entitled to sick leave or health care coverage while they were working, and virtually none can count on a pension to support them when they reach retirement age. A lifetime of poverty never translates into what the rest of the country defines as true retirement. Instead, the working poor stay on the job until they are ready to drop.”

The devastating commentary outlined how poor the community in Louisiana is compared to Ogden, where wealth is much more evenly balanced across society.

Both cities, fortunately, have strong faith-based traditions, such as the Catholic and Baptist churches of St. Landry Parish, and the Mormons of Utah. Still, it is the private sector’s preparation for its employees’ retirement that makes the difference.

“Both have faith-based efforts, but it is, of course, inevitable that without private-sector pensions, too many in Opelousas will not only be poor while they live, but work until they drop and never ‘retire’ in the American Dream sense,” Newman and Jacobs write. “It’s not reasonable to expect churches to replace the sense of common purpose, and mutual support, that was the hallmark of the old stakeholder capitalism that once put the interests of society ahead of quarterly returns.”

The authors write about significant national policy changes that might help the struggling older worker, including raising some Social Security taxes.

Louisiana’s contributions in this growing crisis are mixed. Gov. John Bel Edwards’ decision to expand some Medicaid insurance coverage for the working poor clearly makes a positive difference, by giving people care before Medicare age. The refusal of the Legislature to consider tax reforms, instead raising the sales tax, puts more burden on working families, including the elderly at the cash register.

The good news is that the Stelly Plan, the last big tax reform in 2002, did end sales taxes on groceries and residential utilities, as well as prescription drugs. That is a real help for those at the margins. Unhappily, the state's budget was unraveled by tax cuts that balanced the books under Stelly's original plan. Cuts in state aid and services, for young and old, suffered greatly during eight years of Gov. Bobby Jindal. Those are only slowly being restored. 

The Louisiana Budget Project also highlighted the state's earned-income tax credit, helping lower-income workers.

Whether the Nation’s policy prescriptions are ever adopted in this judgmental age of blaming the poor for their plight, in the short term society needs to encourage more employers to offer retirement accounts, and encourage workers to sign up for them, even when it is painful for those in low-wage jobs.

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.