FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Retirement Shouldn’t Mean Poverty

Vivian Majors spent her life cleaning houses while her husband, Martin, worked as a carpenter.

Their bodies broke down in their 60s. Martin now lives in a nursing home and has Parkinson’s disease. Vivian, now 71, lives on her own and ekes by on a $960 in social security, plus $50 in food stamps.

Hardened by years of physically taxing work that left her hovering around the poverty line, Majors, now retired, is girding herself for more years of financial hardship.

Social Security supposedly wiped out the scourge of old-age poverty. But inequality has widened the gap between the secure and insecure in all age groups, exposing American seniors to financial distress in ways that often go unnoticed.

According to research from the University of Massachusetts Boston, material hardship bedevils millions of Americans like Majors.

Opelousas, Louisiana, where Majors and her husband grew up and raised their own children, has the highest rate of elderly poverty in the United States. Opelousas is home to men and women who have worked all their lives. But in 2017, the average per-capita income in the town was only $15,266 a year, and 45 percent of its population lived in poverty.

Few Opelousas retirees received sick leave or health care coverage while they were working, and virtually none can count on a pension. A lifetime of poverty rarely translates into what the rest of the country defines as true retirement. Instead, the working poor often stay on the job past retirement age.

Social Security has played a crucial role in bringing down poverty rates for Americans over 65. But the lives of older Americans are a natural extension of their experiences in their prime working years.

As inequality impacts more working-age Americans, the poverty they experience throughout life follows them into old age. The Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston found in 2016 that a majority of American seniors lacked “the financial resources required to pay for basic needs.”

The numbers are higher for those living alone than those in two-senior households, but overall the material hardship of the elderly is significant — especially for the large population living just a little above the official poverty line.

These households miss out on benefits — from food stamps to housing grants to Medicaid — designed to assist those in need. They’re on their own and yet facing significant shortfalls in the resources needed to survive at a minimally acceptable level.

The institute found that gaps were particularly problematic for women who, on average, received $4,500 less per year in Social Security benefits than men because they had lower lifetime earnings and worked fewer quarters to take time out for caregiving.

In this sense, elder poverty isn’t really about elders; it’s about whole lifetimes of economic marginality.

Poorer seniors are likely to have been poor, or among the working poor, most of their lives. They’ve held jobs that paid low wages, were often involuntarily part-time, provided for no sick leave or health insurance, and provided nothing at all in the way of pensions.

Majors is a frugal woman. She shuts down the air conditioner during humid Louisiana summers rather than see her electricity bill rise. Even in her old age, with such limited resources, she lends a hand to her grown children when they need it.

“A lot of people sometimes wonder how you’re making it,” she says. “But you manage, you know. You’re going to survive.”

That is no doubt true. Yet we can ask ourselves why merely being able to “manage” is the best that can be expected for a hardworking woman like Majors. Retirement shouldn’t mean hardship in the 21st century.

Katherine Newman is the interim chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, Boston. This piece was produced by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, first published by The Guardian, and adapted for distribution by OtherWords.org.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 10, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Lynnette Grey Bull
Trump’s Postcard to America From the Shrine of Hypocrisy
Anthony DiMaggio
Free Speech Fantasies: the Harper’s Letter and the Myth of American Liberalism
David Yearsley
Morricone: Maestro of Music and Image
Jeffrey St. Clair
“I Could Live With That”: How the CIA Made Afghanistan Safe for the Opium Trade
Rob Urie
Democracy and the Illusion of Choice
Paul Street
Imperial Blind Spots and a Question for Obama
Vijay Prashad
The U.S. and UK are a Wrecking Ball Crew Against the Pillars of Internationalism
Melvin Goodman
The Washington Post and Its Cold War Drums
Richard C. Gross
Trump: Reopen Schools (or Else)
Chris Krupp
Public Lands Under Widespread Attack During Pandemic 
Alda Facio
What Coronavirus Teaches Us About Inequality, Discrimination and the Importance of Caring
Eve Ottenberg
Bounty Tales
Andrew Levine
Silver Linings Ahead?
John Kendall Hawkins
FrankenBob: The Self-Made Dylan
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Deutsche Bank Fined $150 Million for Enabling Jeffrey Epstein; Where’s the Fine Against JPMorgan Chase?
David Rosen
Inequality and the End of the American Dream
Louis Proyect
Harper’s and the Great Cancel Culture Panic
Thom Hartmann
How Billionaires Get Away With Their Big Con
REZA FIYOUZAT
Your 19th COVID Breakdown
Danny Sjursen
Undercover Patriots: Trump, Tulsa, and the Rise of Military Dissent
Charles McKelvey
The Limitations of the New Antiracist Movement
Binoy Kampmark
Netanyahu’s Annexation Drive
Joseph G. Ramsey
An Empire in Points
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
COVID-19 Denialism is Rooted in the Settler Colonial Mindset
Ramzy Baroud
On Israel’s Bizarre Definitions: The West Bank is Already Annexed
Judith Deutsch
Handling Emergency: A Tale of Two Males
Michael Welton
Getting Back to Socialist Principles: Honneth’s Recipe
Dean Baker
Combating the Political Power of the Rich: Wealth Taxes and Seattle Election Vouchers
Jonah Raskin
Edward Sanders: Poetic Pacifist Up Next
Manuel García, Jr.
Carbon Dioxide Uptake by Vegetation After Emissions Shutoff “Now”
Heidi Peltier
The Camo Economy: How Military Contracting Hides Human Costs and Increases Inequality
Ron Jacobs
Strike!, Fifty Years and Counting
Ellen Taylor
The Dark Side of Science: Shooting Barred Owls as Scapegoats for the Ravages of Big Timber
Sarah Anderson
Shrink Wall Street to Guarantee Good Jobs
Graham Peebles
Prison: Therapeutic Centers Or Academies of Crime?
Zhivko Illeieff
Can We Escape Our Addiction to Social Media?
Clark T. Scott
The Democrat’s Normal Keeps Their (Supposed) Enemies Closer and Closer
Steve Early - Suzanne Gordon
In 2020 Elections: Will Real-Life “Fighting Dems” Prove Irresistible?
David Swanson
Mommy, Where Do Peace Activists Come From?
Christopher Brauchli
Trump the Orator
Gary Leupp
Columbus and the Beginning of the American Way of Life: A Message to Indoctrinate Our Children
John Stanton
Donald J. Trump, Stone Cold Racist
Nicky Reid
The Stonewall Blues (Still Dreaming of a Queer Nation)
Stephen Cooper
A Kingston Reasoning with Legendary Guitarist Earl “Chinna” Smith (The Interview: Part 2)
Hugh Iglarsh
COVID-19’s Coming to Town
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail