Georgia Kuhn works 30 hours a week at the front desk of the Casper Senior Center. Her modest income, coupled with social security, means the 66-year-old Casper woman worries little about her finances.
She worked off and on throughout her life, while also staying home to raise her daughter. If she loses the grant money Casper Senior Services uses to pay her salary, she would have to look for another job. But with Wyoming’s relatively low unemployment rate, she doesn’t think she’d have to look for long.
“My wants are few and my needs are taken care of. I have a roof over my head and I have Medicare, so that helps,” she said. “I live simply.”
Wyoming’s low unemployment rate and relative low housing costs were two of reasons the state ranked best in the nation for retirees by the National Institute on Retirement Society.
A report by the society considered economic factors such as retirement income, housing and healthcare costs and unemployment rate – though it didn’t weigh weather in the equation.
Gov. Matt Mead touted the study as proof of what Wyoming is doing right, while noting the Cowboy State could still improve. The study’s lead author, Christian Weller, cautions that on a scale of one to 10 where 10 is the best, Wyoming still only ranks a nine.
“Does this mean Wyoming is doing better than other states?” he said. “That is it, but it doesn’t mean it’s doing all that great.”
Tom Gallagher, manager of research and planning for the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, has some concerns about how the study arrived at its unemployment and low cost of living variables. He also thinks Wyoming should have a discussion about what it is doing right and could do better in terms of seniors.
If older people want or have to work past retirement age, Wyoming seems to offer better prospects than other states, said Weller, who is also a professor of public policy at University of Massachusetts in Boston.
Wyoming ranked ninth among other states for retiree job prospects because of its relatively low unemployment rate, according to the study.
It may seem like a strange measure, since the point of retiring is not to work anymore, but Weller said about 70 to 80 percent of people nearing retirement plan to work longer, and a third of those have to keep working.
“What retirement for most people means is separating from their career employment,” Weller said. “They work for a mining company or government and that stops and then they want to do something else. They’re going to start a business, open a bar, start an online business, become a consultant, go into business with their kids or volunteer at local charities.”
Gallagher countered that while Wyoming does have a low unemployment rate, it is generally because people move to other states if they lose their jobs, which can be a factor.
“Wyoming has a large aging population. It is vital as more and more people enter retirement that they are secure. It bodes well for our state and citizens that we earned such a high ranking,” Mead said in a press release. “We must continue to work for a strong economy so that the private sector can continue to provide good wages and employment opportunities to help individuals today as they prepare for retirement.”
But Wyoming does need to work on some key issues, primarily savings, Weller said.
Less than 49 percent of Wyoming workers are offered or participate in workplace retirement plans such as 401Ks, giving the state a ranking of 18th in the country.
Part of that number is because many of Wyoming’s jobs are in tourism and construction, two areas that generally don’t offer additional compensation such as retirement plans, Gallagher said.
Wyoming needs to take the time now, when it is still relatively strong, to plan for the future, Weller said.
The government could start by increasing education about the importance of saving, he said. It could also talk to local employers in the private sector about ways to improve retirement programs.
In the end, caring for retirees often comes back to communities.
“As a civilized society, we have said we will help our seniors,” Weller said. “If you don’t help people, if you don’t give assistance, they will come knocking on the city’s doors and ask for social services. You prepare, or wait for the tsunami to arrive and then it’s too late to do anything.”
Will people flock to Wyoming as a retirement destination?
Gallagher doubts it. As with other top ranking states like Alaska and North Dakota, Wyoming’s weather and rural nature is prohibitive to many out-of-state seniors.
The reverse actually proves true to some degree. Most of Wyoming’s workers aren’t from Wyoming and will leave after retirement to live closer to children or other relatives, he said.
If people do rush to the Cowboy State, it would change Wyoming.
“If you bring people here at random you will see different sets of expectations when it comes to social services, expectations to practice religion and media availability,” Gallagher said. “Some of the state revenue comes from sales tax but most comes from extraction industries. You will have the demand for services go up but since there’s no income tax to go up there isn’t a vehicle to support new demand.”
Wayne Clements, director of Central Wyoming Senior Services, sees retirees move to Wyoming to be near their children, but also leave for the same reasons.
Upcoming retirees aren’t as prepared as they should be, but he doesn’t think the government should become involved in making people save more money.
“I’m nearly 65, and I don’t have any desire to retire,” he said. “I think people haven’t thought through what they want to do when they retire, or what they think they can afford.”
Some seniors, including Kuhn, feel lucky to live in Wyoming. She moved here almost 40 years ago from California and wouldn’t consider moving back. Wyoming is home, and she’s had years to adjust to the winters.