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Retirement Outside United States More Rhetoric than Reality

Philip Moeller

The past two years have been tough times for many Americans. If the grass was ever going to look greener somewhere other than the United States, you'd think it would have been after the Great Recession.

There has been no shortage of stories extolling this country or that as a retirement mecca, due to a mix of lower living costs, pleasant climates, and cultural attractions.

Over the past several years, Americans' attitudes about their own country have fallen from lukewarm to cold. Going back more than 30 years, regular Gallup polls have asked people whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States.

As recently as early 2002, more than 60 percent of those asked this question said they were satisfied, and that reading actually hit an all-time peak of 70 percent in December 2001. That was the merriest Christmas we've had in many years. More typical satisfaction scores have been in the 40s or 50s. The lowest scores in the first 30 years of the poll occurred in 1979 and 1992, when 12 percent and 14 percent satisfaction responses were recorded.

Beginning in late 2006 and early 2007, however, the country began sinking into a deep, deep funk. In early 2007, 35 percent of those surveyed by Gallup said they were satisfied with conditions in the United States. The satisfaction numbers began slipping throughout that year and the next, hitting their all-time low of 7 percent in October of 2008. They recovered to the mid-30s in the middle of 2009 but later retreated, hitting 11 percent last fall and rising since then to the mid-20s.

However, despite lots of talk about moving outside the country to retire, there is little compelling evidence that Americans are doing so in large numbers. The U.S. State Department estimates there are 6.3 million Americans living outside the country. A spokeswoman says this is a soft estimate based on an interpretation of voluntary and unaudited data provided by some Americans. The agency stopped producing detailed estimates more than a decade ago. There are firmer traveler numbers that find roughly 65 million of us travel outside the country each year. And a third of all Americans--110 million--have passports.

A more limited documented measure of overseas retirements is provided by Social Security.

It issues an annual report on how many of its recipients are outside the United States and the countries in which they live.

The growth of foreign recipients of Social Security payments was less than 7.5 percent during 2009 and 2010. At the end of 2010, the most recent report on foreign recipients of Social Security payments recorded that more than 548,000 monthly payments were being made to people outside the United States. The total is up 38 percent from 396,000 in 2000.

Most people who do retire outside the United States don't go far. Social Security reports that the two top countries where it sends payments are Canada and Mexico. Here are the top 10 countries for people receiving Social Security payments, with their current numbers and change over the past two years:

Canada: 108,200, up from 105,000

Mexico: 50,800, up from 48,800

Japan: 45,700, up from 37,600

Germany: 38,500, up from 37,100

United Kingdom: 33,300, up from 31,600

Italy: 32,600, down from 33,000

Philippines: 24,500, up from 21,800

Greece: 23,700, up from 23,100

France: 13,200, up from 12,300

Portugal: 12,500, up from 12,300

Gallup also asks people throughout the world whether they'd like to move to another country and, if so, their favorite choice. About 13 percent of the world's adults--640 million--said in Gallup's most recent survey that they would like to move. Nearly one in four--150 million--say their top choice is the United States. The United Kingdom is next highest, with 45 million.

Twitter: @PhilMoeller

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