Continual political and social turmoil in African countries give pause to immigrant Africans considering returning “back home” for their golden years.
Immigrant Africans Face Challenges in Retirement
By Fredrick Nwankwo
“Now how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” That’s a line from the song, “By The Rivers of Babylon,” a classic by Bonny M, a popular Jamaican musical group of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Those lyrics come to mind, and become more fully appreciated, as one observes the circumstances of immigrant Africans as they age in America, staring at imminent retirement in “a strange land.” Yes, how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Many retirement-age immigrant Africans in the U.S. left their countries 20 to 40 years ago (mostly to study and return home). Today, as they retire, or approach retirement, Africa is mostly in political and economic disarray. With much of the continent’s security apparatus mediocre at best, with substandard equipment, retiring immigrant Africans in the Diaspora are growing weary of the option to return home as their retirement nears.
Not only are they facing the fear of returning to a place without adequate healthcare, they are also concerned about the day to day security of their lives and property. In the last 25 years, most African countries have regressed in their abilities to protect their citizens from criminal elements. A continuous rise in banditry – kidnappings and assassinations – coupled with excessive incidents of harassment and intimidation by security forces trying to extort money from citizens have made returning home to spend their “golden years” less of an attraction for Africans in the Diaspora.
Remember, these are people who left their countries when they were in their early twenties and thirties in pursuit of education. After school, instead of returning home as originally planned, they took up employment in the countries where they studied. Sadly, for many of them, they have become victims of the decision to plan to retire at home, rather than retire in the US. For the purpose of this article, let’s call this group the “When We Go Home” generation. They have spent their most productive years in America making grand plans for returning home to retire. As a consequence, although many have earned good incomes all through the years working, a good number (especially the self-employed among them) have not put aside enough resources to maintain a comfortable lifestyle upon retirement – be it retirement in the US, or in their native country.
Many did not maximize their contributions into the Social Security Insurance (SSI) program. The Social Security Insurance (SSI) program is the most basic source of retirement income for most Americans. Barring unforeseen emergencies or serious health issues, if adequately contributed to, Social Security income benefits can cover the most basic monthly needs of a retired person’s family. Many immigrants (not just Africans) who have retired and moved back to their home countries have lived comfortable lives just based on their Social Security Income benefits.
Also, a good number of these immigrants worked in jobs that offered in addition, retirement savings like 401k and IRAs. Many who had such opportunities have not adequately contributed to those programs either. Even some who may have started out contributing to the programs, somewhere along the way (because they planned to return home for retirement), withdrew significant amounts (if not the entire amount) to go home and build spectacular homes where they thought they will retire.
While this may have seemed like a wise decision at the time, unfortunately, as conditions back home deteriorated, returning to their home countries to live have ceased to be an attractive option. In hindsight, a better option may have been to accumulate as much of their retirement savings as possible in the available retirement programs that their jobs in America offered. Instead of the magnificent villas that they built in Africa, a moderate-sized, comfortable home would have been all they needed. Now, if that had been the case, now that they are retired, or about to retire, it wouldn’t matter where they retire, because they would have saved enough funds to be comfortable – be it in America (if home is not safe), or in their homelands, if the security situation improves. After all, what is important is for one to have the resources necessary to maintain a comfortable lifestyle that one is used to, regardless of where they choose to retire.
Retirement, even in America, can be challenging. Of more concern for immigrant Africans is the fact that many of their organizations in the US have not built structures to assist the aging population in their communities as they reach retirement. These organizations worry more about things they have no control over back home, rather than focus on the wellbeing of their people living and aging in America.
Studies have shown that more than one in eight US adults (ages 65 and older) are foreign-born. This number is expected to grow. The US elderly immigrant population rose from 2.7 million in 1990 to 4.6 million in 2010 – a 70 percent increase in 20 years (see chart). Understanding both the unique characteristics of the immigrant African elderly and the challenges some of them face is critical as policymakers and planners address the wellbeing and health of America’s aging population in the coming years. To benefit immigrant Africans, African community leaders and organizations should be at the forefront of identifying the challenges their community’s elderly face as they age and enter retirement in America. American organizations tasked with these responsibilities are not typically familiar with the immigrant African community’s challenges. If these challenges are not addressed by immigrant Africans themselves, their aging population may face hardships that are not based on prejudice but based on a systemic lack of understanding of what their community’s unique needs are.
It should be noted that in the last 25 years, increasing hardship among African countries, and the liberalization of US lottery visa qualifications has created an increase in the number of immigrant Africans who are migrating to the US after age 50. In some cases, after age 60. The unskilled individuals within this group may be especially vulnerable, due to limited English language proficiency, little or no US work experience, and weak ties to social institutions. Even though they entered America with legitimate visas, there are some regulations that prevent them from participating in many government entitlements before they are naturalized citizens. Among Africans, many these immigrants who arrive after age 50 are more likely to be female, typically with limitations to their physical functioning, and they are also usually widowed.
Fredrick C. Nwankwo, the publisher of ALEN magazine, is also a registered life insurance and retirement planning advisor.