Basic Solutions to a Shameful Situation
by Louise Cooper
From the Spring 2014 issue of Jewish Currents
Poverty among American women 65 and older is no longer just a problem, but a crisis. As of 2012, there were more than 733,000 elderly women living on $15 per day, or less than $5,500 annually — an income that barely exceeds half the federal poverty level. That figure was an increase of 135,000 in just one year, according to the National Women’s Law Center. No one seems sure why.
Overall, the poverty rate for elder females is two times the rate for men of the same age group. More than 11 percent of white women 65 and older now live at or below the poverty line — many of them widows who were not living in poverty before they lost their husbands, according to our government’s Administration on Aging. For women of color, the situation is shockingly worse: Among older women living alone, one out of every two African Americans and two out of five Hispanic Americans live in poverty.
The numbers are terribly high for Jews, too: In the New York area (the boroughs, Long Island, and Westchester), according to the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, 565,000 Jews and their family members now live below, at, or near the federal poverty line, more than double the number twenty years ago — including 34 percent of Jewish seniors. Of Russian-speaking seniors in New York, says Met Council, more than three-quarters are poor.
Women generally live longer and are more economically vulnerable than men. They make up two thirds of the minimum-wage workforce, working full-time without health benefits, pensions, or the ability to save. In addition to earning less than men, women usually have to take time off from earning to raise families, which has a negative impact on the Social Security they will receive later in life. With no free or affordable child care, no paid leave for either childbirth or caring for a sick family member, and few pension systems in the U.S., the accumulated loss of income for women due to unequal pay and family care can be catastrophic in old age.
Medical care is prohibitively expensive: Although Medicare is available at 65, it reduces Social Security by $100 each month yet pays only 80 percent of all medical and drug costs. A supplemental policy can cost upwards of $250 per month, and drug coverage costs another $40.
The number of women living in poverty in our country was even higher in the past: 35 percent in 1959, which decreased to 15 percent in the 1970s and 10.2 percent in 2004, providing proof that government social programs can have very positive impact. The numbers are rising, however, since the Great Recession began in 2008.
Let’s move beyond statistics to some personal histories of women with whom I have worked as a social worker (their names have been changed), to reveal the scope of the problem of poverty for older women. Two of the three are Jewish; all three are college-educated. Their stories reveal the economic vulnerability that nearly all American women face as they age.
• Brenda grew up in Arizona, were she went to college in the 1960s, got an accounting degree, and became involved in radical politics. She married, and she and her husband moved to New York. They continued their political activity and put their ideals into action by living communally for two years. She had a child, and then divorced her husband.
As an accountant, Brenda was paid well, but still earned between $200 and $400 less each week than men in the same position. With no child support from her ex-husband, she returned to Arizona to take advantage of the support system provided by her family. (Whether through a commune, family, or friendship circles, many women rely upon extended support systems, which often shrink in old age.)
Over the years, Brenda had only one job that provided a pension, but she assumed that it and Social Security would allow her to have a golden old age. Retirement came early, however, after she suffered strokes. The pension went for medical care and to help her son in a custody battle for his child. The grandchild, now grown with a Ph.D., lives on another continent. Brenda’s son has two other children and is not in a position to help her financially.
She receives $1,450 per month from Social Security, of which $900 goes for rent in senior housing. Although she is still quite active, her disability isolates her from people, and friends she still has in Arizona are too far away to help. Brenda depends upon a walker and wheelchair to get around, and she has an aide who comes once a week. Physical therapy helps, but the cost of $35 per session limits what she is able to achieve.
• Arlene grew up on the West Coast, where she went to college, majoring in education. Right after graduation, she married and had a child, with whom she stayed at home for eighteen months while her husband went to graduate school. Arlene then worked as a substitute teacher before going overseas with her husband for his graduate work. When they returned to the U.S., he reneged on a promise that it would be her turn to go to graduate school.
There were now two children. What kept Arlene going was a communal school that gave lots of support. When she and her husband decided to divorce, he sued for custody and accused her of being a lesbian because of her connections to the school. Fortunately, the judge decided that she was doing a good job helping her children have an extended family far from their own biological family.
Her husband went back to the West Coast and paid child support but stopped paying alimony. Arlene sued for this and won, which enabled her to get her graduate degree in dance therapy. She later moved from a large city to a more countrified setting. She made a living, but it was never enough for her to be able to save. For seven years she worked in a job with a pension, but gave little thought to how she would be able support herself in her later years. Today she receives a $207 pension and $830 in Social Security. Between her income and her partner’s, they make $1,000 per year too much to qualify for HUD housing assistance — besides, the list for HUD is closed where she lives.
Arlene’s son is an artist, without much income. Her daughter died of cancer in her twenties. Arlene is active and healthy but cannot afford to take adequate care of herself.
Both she and Brenda need dental care but make slightly too much to qualify for assistance. They also need eyeglasses, which they are unable to afford. Any extra money they have goes towards maintaining their cars, as they live in an area with little public transportation.
• Susan was born in Europe, married at 21, and raised a baby while getting her undergraduate degree. She got a divorce when her daughter was 2, and finished her degree when her daughter was 8. Susan worked in social services and got into law school, but was unable to land a loan she needed to be able to attend. She was receiving $100 per month in child support, and managing to get by with a roommate and a boyfriend, with whom she opened an art shop and art school. When their relationship ended, so did the shop and school.
Susan then opened her own small business, which succeeded too well; by the time she had seven employees, she found that she really didn’t like managing people and that the business had gone from satisfying to nightmarish.
Her daughter, while in high school, had a mental breakdown, but recovered after two years. Susan saved money by not using credit cards and living within her means, but she paid little attention to her future needs, for two reasons: Her mother had died in her forties, so Susan had no personal experience with the needs of people over 65, and she came from a country that provides a modest income, along with subsidized housing, for people over 65.
When she contracted cancer, she had no health insurance and was able only to have basic treatment; when we last spoke, she’d had no medical follow-up for two years. A good friend held a mortgage for her when she found a house to buy, and when that house sold at a good profit she was able to purchase a little house for herself outright. She now gets less than $450 in Social Security and maintains a small business, which she runs with her daughter.
There are some pretty clear patterns in the life stories of these and other older women with whom I have worked. Although well-educated, they were not paid as well as male counterparts, or settled for jobs without pensions that paid only slightly above minimum wage. They took responsibility for children with little or no financial help from fathers. When their children ran into problems, the women shouldered the costs, which in some cases left them destitute.
For most of them, marriage offered no protection in their older years. Despite Senator Marco Rubio’s stated belief that marriage is the “greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty,” not a penny of the hundreds of million of government dollars spent on promoting marriage has worked to alleviate poverty. As Annie Lowery wrote recently in the New York Times, it is not single parenthood that creates poverty but poverty that destroys marriage.
Existing services to help poor, older women are few and oversubscribed. Still, the solutions to their plight seem pretty obvious to me. Slow journeys to poverty could be interrupted by progressive social policies at several stages of life, and both sudden plunges and gradual sinking into poverty could be prevented with some basic social support. For example:
• People with limited incomes, at any age, should be provided with subsided or free housing.
• Medicare should include dental and eye care.
• Medical insurance premiums need recalibration to be affordable for single mothers with children.
• We need enormous improvement in public transportation so that people do not have to cover the costs of private transportation or face immobility and isolation. Small-scale transportation should be available at senior and low-income housing, with schedules that take into consideration the needs of the people who are actually using it.
• Low-cost loans for home ownership, education, and business should be available to women, instead of the current practice of charging them higher interest rates because their incomes are limited. Every woman I’ve talked to has paid significantly higher interest rates on all loans.
• Better services should be provided to the disabled.
• Child care should be free or heavily subsidized.
• Tax laws should be revamped to take single-parent family needs into consideration.
It is hypocritical to talk about the necessity of having women as full partners in our national life, and to demand that of other countries, without providing the tools to make that possible. As Maria Shriver recently put it in an NBC News report, women in America are doing it all but not having it all — particularly not in the isolated and vulnerable years of old age.
Louise Cooper spent the first ten years of her social work career working with runaways and gangs in New York. She then started a New York therapy practice working with people in the arts. Her company, Copwood, does training in creativity and innovation and the use of humor for both private and public companies.