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:
bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
August 22, 2019
George Ochenski
Breaking the Web of Life
Kenneth Surin
Boris Johnson’s Brexit Helter Skelter
Enrique C. Ochoa – Gilda L. Ochoa
It’s About Time for Ethnic Studies in Our K-12 Schools
Steve Early
A GI Rebellion: When Soldiers Said No to War
Clark T. Scott
Sanders And Bezos’s Shared, Debilitating, Basic Premise
Dan Corjescu
The Metaphysics of Revolution
Mark Weisbrot
Who is to Blame for Argentina’s Economic Crisis?
Howard Lisnoff
To Protect and Serve
Cesar Chelala
A Palestinian/Israeli Experiment for Peace in the Middle East
Binoy Kampmark
No Deal Chaos: the Brexit Cliff Face and Operation Yellowhammer
Josue De Luna Navarro
For True Climate Justice, Abolish ICE and CBP
Dean Baker
The NYT’s Upside Down Economics on Germany and the Euro Zone
August 21, 2019
Craig Collins
Endangered Species Act: A Failure Worth Fighting For?
Colin Todhunter
Offering Choice But Delivering Tyranny: the Corporate Capture of Agriculture
Michael Welton
That Couldn’t Be True: Restorying and Reconciliation
John Feffer
‘Slowbalization’: Is the Slowing Global Economy a Boon or Bane?
Johnny Hazard
In Protest Against Police Raping Spree, Women Burn Their Station in Mexico City.
Tom Engelhardt
2084: Orwell Revisited in the Age of Trump
Binoy Kampmark
Condescension and Climate Change: Australia and the Failure of the Pacific Islands Forum
Kenn Orphan – Phil Rockstroh
The Dead Letter Office of Capitalist Imperium: a Poverty of Mundus Imaginalis 
George Wuerthner
The Forest Service Puts Ranchers Ahead of Grizzlies (and the Public Interest)
Stephen Martin
Geopolitics of Arse and Elbow, with Apologies to Schopenhauer.
Gary Lindorff
The Smiling Turtle
August 20, 2019
James Bovard
America’s Forgotten Bullshit Bombing of Serbia
Peter Bolton
Biden’s Complicity in Obama’s Toxic Legacy
James Phillips
Calm and Conflict: a Dispatch From Nicaragua
Karl Grossman
Einstein’s Atomic Regrets
Colter Louwerse
Kushner’s Threat to Palestine: An Interview with Norman Finkelstein
Nyla Ali Khan
Jammu and Kashmir: the Legitimacy of Article 370
Dean Baker
The Mythology of the Stock Market
Daniel Warner
Is Hong Kong Important? For Whom?
Frederick B. Mills
Monroeism is the Other Side of Jim Crow, the Side Facing South
Binoy Kampmark
God, Guns and Video Games
John Kendall Hawkins
Toni Morrison: Beloved or Belovéd?
Martin Billheimer
A Clerk’s Guide to the Unspectacular, 1914
Elliot Sperber
On the 10-Year Treasury Bonds 
August 19, 2019
John Davis
The Isle of White: a Tale of the Have-Lots Versus the Have-Nots
John O'Kane
Supreme Nihilism: the El Paso Shooter’s Manifesto
Robert Fisk
If Chinese Tanks Take Hong Kong, Who’ll be Surprised?
Ipek S. Burnett
White Terror: Toni Morrison on the Construct of Racism
Arshad Khan
India’s Mangled Economy
Howard Lisnoff
The Proud Boys Take Over the Streets of Portland, Oregon
Steven Krichbaum
Put an End to the Endless War Inflicted Upon Our National Forests
Cal Winslow
A Brief History of Harlan County, USA
Jim Goodman
Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue is Just Part of a Loathsome Administration
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail