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Profile: Jennifer

Jennifer, 28, was raised by a single mother who worked diligently to provide for her two children. Jennifer says her own determination to save adequately for retirement comes in part from watching her mother work so hard—24 years at the same dry cleaner—and still struggle to remain economically independent. Jennifer’s mother’s limited income made it impossible for her to put aside money for retirement—she only started contributing to a retirement plan at age 55.

Since the age of 14, Jennifer has worked at a series of jobs, all of them covered by Social Security. From 14 to 19, Jennifer worked alongside her mom at the dry cleaner. When Jennifer was 19, her son Estevan was born. After taking six months off to adjust to her new role as a parent, Jennifer went back to work full-time. As a single mom, she is the sole provider for her family. Should she become disabled and unable to work, Social Security’s disability protections cover both her and Estevan, and for that she is grateful: “I know that the payroll taxes I pay help my grandfather to live independently and at the same time protect me and my son.”

During her 20s, Jennifer has focused on raising her son, advancing her career, and building up her economic security. But her work patterns and employer experiences are typical of many her age: short tenures, modest salaries, and varying degrees of defined contribution plan coverage.

Jennifer did not qualify for her first 401(k) because she was not yet 21, even though she was clearly an adult with adult responsibilities. Her next job offered better pay but had no pension plan for its employees. At 24, Jennifer finally found a job that had a very generous 401(k) plan: a 7 percent dollar-for-dollar match and full vesting at the start of employment. Jennifer was only able to put away 2.5 percent into the plan, however, because she faced the economic reality of supporting her son on her salary alone.

As she moved from job to job, Jennifer focused on raising her income and her professional skills, and she is now employed as a web designer for a consulting firm in Virginia. She’s contributing as much as she can afford (5 percent) to her current 401(k), and her employer makes an annual lump-sum contribution that varies according to the company’s performance. She’s not fully vested in these employer contributions yet; that will take five years of service.

“I know my mother will depend heavily on Social Security in retirement. In fact, my grandfather gave my mom some of his Social Security checks over the years so that she could keep her family afloat financially. So it’s already been a family program for us.

“I don’t think privatizing Social Security is a good idea for any of us. I like having a 401(k) at work, but I don’t want to take those risks with Social Security, and I wonder what would happen to women like my mom if young workers all pulled money out of the system to fund their own private accounts.

“When Estevan enters in work force in 10 years or so, I will teach him that his Social Security taxes go to support his grandmother and so many others like her.”

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