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How to Boost Wealth in America as Work Changes

The Aspen Institute's panelists’ insights on financial security for all Americans

By Celia Heudebourg

(Editor’s Note: This story is part of a partnership between Next Avenue and Chasing the Dream, a public media initiative on poverty and opportunity.)

Work and Wealth
Credit: Adobe Stock

In this post-Recession era of economic uncertainty, financial security has been increasingly elusive for many Americans, calling into question how the labor market can promote wealth accumulation for workers. For insights and suggestions about this, on Monday, June 19, The Aspen Institute think tank held a panel in Washington, D.C.: The Future of Work and Wealth.

The experts' findings grew out of a collaborative initiative led by the Aspen Institute’s financial security and economic opportunities programs, where 42 leaders from industry, academia, philanthropy, government and nonprofit groups addressed ways to restore economic prosperity to families and communities across America.

The Future of Work and Wealth

Maureen Conway, executive director for The Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program, expressed the urgency of this initiative.

The goal, she said, is to figure out “what are the institutions that will support workers in this new economy?”

Highlights from the panel:

High Anxiety About Personal Finances

“People are working hard, but they are not able to achieve the prosperity that was available to people back in the day,” said Sarah Keh, Prudential Financial’s vice president of corporate giving. “With these hard times, many Americans are seriously anxious about their financial situation, no matter what income bracket they’re in.”

Keh explained that there are two fundamental components to this crisis: work and wealth. “A person’s ability to build wealth and earn an income are essential to that basic financial security,” she said.

For many today, the panelists said, building wealth is a luxury that time and salaries don’t permit. And, they added, the effects are taking a toll. Wages have remained stagnant since the 1970s  and four in 10 households experience more than a 30 percent fluctuation in income month to month due to unreliable employment, irregular hours or periods of unemployment, according to data from the JP Morgan Chase Institute cited in The Aspen Institute's new report, Reconnecting Work & Wealth. Nearly half of households have little or no emergency funds, while one in five Americans has a zero or negative net worth. According to PwC’s 2017 Employee Wellness Financial Survey, money matters were a top source of stress for boomers as well as younger generations.

A Portable, National Retirement Plan

Unpredictable health costs and concerns about making retirement money last through our new, longer lives further accentuate fears around ensuring personal wealth.

Panelist Alex Mazer, whose Canadian company Common Wealth focuses on expanding retirement plans, said one solution is adapting corporate pensions and retirement plans to the realities of the 21 century. Mazer is currently experimenting with a portable and national collective retirement plan for the Canadian nonprofit and charitable sector, which employs about one million workers.


“That’s a collaboration between philanthropic capital, progressive employers in the sector that care about decent work, retirement experts and the private sector,” he said.

Although Mazer admits this model needs further testing, he believes there are avenues to tackle the wealth disparities for retirement-age Americans. “We have to think about the changing nature of work, job tenure, the growth of non-standard work, changing institutions and labor unions,” Mazer said. “This is a new space.”

Tackling the Racial Wealth Gap

Often described as one of America’s most endemic issues, the racial wealth gap presents a true obstacle to financial security for African Americans and Hispanics. According to The New York Times, for every $100 earned by an average white family, an African American family earns just $57.

During the panel, Andrea Levere, president of Prosperity Now (a progressive research group), cited this stunning statistic: At the current rate, it would take African American families 228 years and Hispanic families 74 years to accumulate the same amount of wealth that white families currently have. Added Levere: “It’s incumbent on us to turn the safety net into a ladder.”

Levere told the audience that “low-income people have more capability than opportunity, and its our responsibility to create the on-ramps to the economy.”

While Levere called for the labor market to take an active role in allowing workers to build wealth, Executive Director of the Atlanta University Center Consortium (the world's oldest and largest association of historically Black colleges and universities) Todd Greene focused on the importance of diverse representation within innovation circles working on financial security and wealth promotion. “The people at the table who are having these conversations need to look like the people who are subject to having these types of challenges,” Greene said.

Levere emphasized the importance of keeping in mind the impacts employers and companies have on households and individuals. When it comes to work and wealth, she said, “it’s no longer either/or.”

This story is part of our partnership with Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America, a public media initiative on poverty and opportunity. Major funding is provided by The JPB Foundation.

Celia Heudebourg was an intern for Next Avenue. She has covered stories on mental health, gun rights, human rights and local politics for a variety of local and national outlets. Read More
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