Elderly Folks at Home and the Curse of Internet Investing

BY Paul Solman  May 10, 2011 at 12:26 PM EST


The TreasuryDirect.gov homepage.

Paul Solman answers questions from NewsHour viewers and Web users on business and economic news most days on his Making Sen$e page. Here’s Tuesday’s query:

Name: Chris Curry

Question: The Bureau of the Public Debt sent a letter to account holders of Legacy Treasury Direct notifying them that the program was being phased out (in favor of the online TreasuryDirect system) beginning May 1, 2011. You can read about it here.

Making Sense

Since you seem to be so good at drawing some humor out of seemingly insane situations, I wonder if you could interview Paul Crowe, the Assistant Commissioner, Retail Securities, to find out what possessed him to think this was a good idea.

The people who are most affected by this are, for the most part, in their 80s and 90s. This is not a demographic that is fond of surprises, nor one which deals well with dramatic change. Their professional lives were spent in an era when computers were mainframes and the Internet and graphical user interfaces had yet to be invented. It is asking a lot to expect them to switch from a system which uses paper forms and the telephone to one which requires an Internet connection and a PC with a mouse (part of the login procedure involves clicking on a virtual keyboard with a mouse instead of using the actual keyboard).

It would be interesting to know what Treasury was thinking when they decided three weeks advance notice was sufficient. It takes about two weeks to get the access card in the mail to complete the sign up procedure. The information line provided for this change (not even an 800 number) is overloaded and can’t handle the volume of calls it is getting right now. It hardly sounds like they could process hundreds of thousands of access cards in the next three weeks, either, if they can’t even answer the phone.

It would be interesting to hear how this came about and who thought it would be a good idea to roll it out this way to a demographic which is probably the least likely to accept it with good grace.

Paul Solman: Do you have no one to help you? How about hiring a young consultant to set you up? I trust you’ll be able to navigate TreasuryDirect soon enough. It’s a little scary at first — your money flitting off into cyberspace — but it’s a lot easier than filling out papers by hand.

The issue you raise is too narrow a subject for a NewsHour piece, but it has broader implications. The Consumer Price Index was lowered in the mid-’90s, meaning a lower annual Social Security increase for retirees. A prime reason for the CPI adjustment: technological progress built into everyday life, but not reflected in the price. (Of a computer, for instance.) But as a viewer pointed out back then, older people may not benefit from the progress if they don’t use the technology, in which case their cost of living is rising faster than the CPI reflects. Looks like you’re one of those people.

This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions _Follow Paul on Twitter._