A top benefits research specialist today urged lawmakers to remember the importance of long-term savings when they promote financial literacy efforts.

Dallas Salisbury, president of the Employee Benefit Research Institute, Washington, emphasized the need for retirement literacy at a House Financial Services Committee hearing on financial literacy and education efforts.

Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, New York, spoke briefly during his testimony about the difficulties many African Americans face when trying to save for retirement.

Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, Washington, talked about the work the CFA has done to get consumers to save by helping them to estimate their net wealth and their retirement savings needs.

But most of the witnesses focused mainly on short-term financial matters, such as helping consumers avoid debt, buy homes and cope with the current problems in the mortgage lending market.

“Savings is a tough choice to make in the midst of the constant noise of instant gratification urged upon us from all directions,” Salisbury said, according to a written version of his remarks. “The most powerful messages that individuals receive each day are to spend, and if need be, to borrow to do so.”

The federal government itself is about to send out “stimulus” tax checks with the “request that they be used for more consumption,” Salisbury said. “Better that they be used to pay down debt or fund an [individual retirement account] if the objective is long-term financial security.”

Even the current mortgage crisis is partly the result of public and private policies that made home ownership seem much more the “thing to do” than practicing thrift, Salisbury said.

When EBRI asks consumers about retirement planning efforts, fewer than a quarter of the consumers report having made a serious effort to estimate how much retirement savings they might need, and fewer than half of those report taking action, Salisbury said.

“Research suggests that over half of those did not actually take the action,” Salisbury noted.

The result is that, at a time when Congress has concerns about the long-term solvency of Social Security and the near-term solvency of Medicare, “over a third of new retirees depend entirely on Social Security,” Salisbury warned.