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Needs Of Retirees Take A Smaller Center Stage At White House Forum


President Obama today is announcing a new regulation to help many Americans save for retirement. It'll take place at the White House Conference on Aging. This is an event that takes place every 10 years. It sets the government's agenda for improving the quality of life for the nation's rapidly aging population. But as NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, this year's conference has been curtailed by a lack of funding.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: One of the events being celebrated at the conference is the 80th anniversary of Social Security. But the average benefit is less than $1,300 a month, not a lot to live on. And about half of all workers have no retirement plan through their jobs.

TOM PEREZ: Tens of millions of people are in that boat.

JAFFE: Says Secretary of Labor Tom Perez. That's why there's a growing trend for states to create some form of retirement plan for workers without other alternatives, sort of a state-run IRA. Three states have passed legislation, and Perez says he's heard from the roughly two dozen more that are considering it.

PEREZ: The most frequently asked question from states is, is federal law an obstacle?

JAFFE: Because federal law regulates retirement plans. But at the conference, the president will say federal law is no obstacle to the state plans, at least as far as his administration is concerned. And Perez says the Department of Labor will formulate a new regulation saying that.

PEREZ: The goal of which is to create a safe harbor that would enable states to be able to move forward to enact these retirement savings plans.

JAFFE: Retirement security will be just one focus of today's conference. There may also be some new initiatives related to elder abuse. Also on the agenda is caregiving, healthy aging and technology. This will all be crammed into about six hours. In the past, these conferences have lasted several days. But this time, Congress didn't appropriate any money for it.

NORA SUPER: We don't look at it as just one day.

JAFFE: Says Nora Super, the conference's executive director. That's because they've already had dozens of listening sessions and regional forums around the country paid for through private donations. And she says that despite the compressed schedule, today's conference will be worthwhile.

SUPER: It was really important for us to have a day where the president of the United States could be part of the discussion and provide for us his vision of where we see aging heading in the next decade.

JAFFE: Past presidents have shared their vision for older Americans with more than a thousand delegates from across the country. Today there will be about 200 invited guests. But Super hopes that thousands more will join the conference through live streaming. There are more than 200 watch parties scheduled across the country, one of them in Kodiak, Ala.

PAT BRANSON: We're four hours behind D.C., but we'll just find out how many people are early birds and might show up.

JAFFE: That's Pat Branson, the executive director of the Senior Citizens of Kodiak. She says the White House sent discussion questions for groups holding the watch parties.

BRANSON: Here's the first one. In your experience, what are the most empowering parts of aging? Another one is, what are your strategies for taking part in healthy activities?

JAFFE: Branson was a delegate to the two previous White House Conferences on Aging, and she says the experiences were empowering.

BRANSON: It's that coming together of people from different parts of the country and that networking that went on outside of those meetings was most meaningful.

JAFFE: Branson's not sure that live streaming can replace that, but she says she's keeping an open mind. Ina Jaffe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."
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