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AMERICANS UNPREPARED TO MEET FUTURE FINANCES

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If you can believe it, a terrible convergence of financial dream and harsh reality will occur within the next few decades, perhaps even in less than one.

Medicare, for example, could go broke by 2002. The Social Security trust fund could run out of money in 2029. Many household budgets could go the same way.Then there's those federal budget deficits and the growing national debt.

Other factors are involved. People are living longer, meaning they'll need money for longer retirements, but people are saving much less than before. Many households have no savings whatever, and others are in debt.

Taxes are taking more of their income, too - moving financial power from the private to public sector - one of the primary reasons being to fund government debt and the government programs that are scheduled to run out of money.

Add another factor to the mix: Many proposals to deal with these problems involve just more of the same, that is, transferring more funds to the public sector that has done such a poor job of handling funds in the past.

Whatever the future, it appears that individuals are likely to be forced to rely on their own devices, but are they ready to do so, or even aware of the threat?

The convergence thesis involves other elements, including personal indifference to financial affairs, an inability to cope with them, and a good deal of frustration in getting needed information about financial matters.

One study, by a group called Capital Research Associates, showed half of American households in 1993 had less than $1,000 in net financial assets, and that even among those aged 45 to 54 years the median was only $2,600.

Such figures suggest some Americans might be struggling, and that seems to be confirmed. Personal savings have dived from 9 percent in 1974 to near an all-time low of about 4 percent now. Early this year credit-card usage was up 25 percent over a year earlier. Visa debit charges rose 59 percent last year.

Confusion and ignorance are widespread in the investment markets.

A study by benefits consultant Towers Perrin found 39 percent of investors in 401 plans couldn't even say how their savings were allocated. But 75 percent of respondents expected to live comfortably in retirement.

Despite a strong likelihood that millions of Americans will have to rely in retirement on their own resources rather than government or corporate benefits, investment information is difficult to find or biased at the source.

Few small investors understand their mutual fund prospectus. Even veteran investors are surprised to learn that their "domestic" fund invests abroad, that their "diversified" fund is overloaded with technology shares, and that "growth and income" funds might not provide any income at all.

Neither are risks fully appreciated, especially by small investors who have been assured that in spreading the risk mutual funds all but eliminate it. The Securities and Exchange Commission is concerned enough to study the issue.

In all, the available evidence suggests that millions of Americans aren't prepared for the future they envision. Most suffer some degree of ignorance. A large number believe that somehow the government will work things out.

Some, it seems safe to say, aren't concerned that a government they rely on for benefits can provide benefits only by leaning on them to pay taxes. And that there may be more relyers than payers.

It may also be that some who fear the future may be unable or unwilling to prepare for it. Tax policies discourage saving. Information about securities markets is as likely to confuse as educate. Some of it misinforms.

If convergence came today, Americans would be dismally unprepared. Without legislation, education and changes in mass psychology, it could be the same in 2002 or 2029.