The Income Umbrella (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

People who have trouble hearing, walking or sitting at a desk for eight hours a day still get old.

Don Fuerst talked about that reality earlier this week at a meeting on managing disability insurance risks that was organized by the ERISA Advisory Council — a group that dives the U.S. Labor secretary ideas about how to handle issues involving the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

Fuerst is a senior pension fellow at the American Academy of Actuaries (AAA), Washington, a group that tries to tell policymakers what people who are good at math think about major policy issues.

The AAA actuaries think, by and large, that many Americans are already woefully ill-prepared to handle post-retirement expenses; that Social Security is not all that well prepared to handle its retirement benefits obligations; and that disability makes a terrible problem that much more terrible.

Most of the risks facing workers “can be addressed by improving individual   decisions,” Fuerst said, according to a written version of his remarks very kindly posted by the AAA.

But “the individual generally has little control over the onset of a disability,” Fuerst said. “Losses due to disability are not adequately mitigated by saving more or starting earlier.” 

Workers are much less likely to insure their current income against disability than against premature death, even though they are more likely to become disabled than to die, and they are less likely yet to have any protection for retirement plan contributions, he said.

“A long-term disablement often functions much like a choice not to participate in a retirement savings plan,” Fuerst said. “Although in reality it isn’t the individual’s choice, the result is the same—no savings, no employer match, and a very significant decrease in the amount available at retirement.”

Fuerst suggested that policymakers could address the problem by making employers and workers more aware of it, and of the idea of using insurance products to mitigate the risk.

My thoughts: The real problem here is that many workers have trouble preparing for the cost of next month’s rent check or mortgage payment, let alone future risk.

Improved public awareness campaigns likely would help, but the heart of any efforts to get people think more about the future has to be expanding economic activity and workers’ income; increasing workers’ sense of confidence about the economy; and increasing workers’ and policymakers’ focus on long-term thinking.

It’s hard to expect workers and employers to think much about the long-term at a time when Congress plays games of chicken with the budget every few months; Congress and the White House use gimmicks to produce a budget that looks somewhat less openly less terrifying than it would otherwise look; and the Federal Reserve Board starves the people and companies that do try to save for the long term by keeping interest rates low just to prop up the banks today and to keep customers from making a run on the banks, and rioting, today.