Buffalo News, May 18, 2008: Poverty in the golden years

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By Samantha Maziarz Christmann NEWS BUSINESS REPORTER
Updated: 05/18/08 6:58 AM

In 2000, Jennette Foster retired from her long career working as a secretary for several different agencies throughout Erie County. Now, at age 68, with painful arthritis in both knees, she is back to work five days a week trying to make ends meet.

Foster is just one of many local women living out her retirement years in poverty.

According to a recent study published by the AARP Public Policy Institute, retirement- age women are twice as likely to live in poverty as their male counterparts, despite declining poverty rates among American seniors.

Longer life expectancies for women increase the chances they will outlive their spouses and the sources of additional income they bring into the home. More than 60 percent of female seniors in New York live alone.

In Foster۪s case, some improperly filed paperwork meant her painter husband Arthur۪s pension from the Municipal Housing Authority stopped with his death.

“If I had the pension, I would probably be OK,” she said.

Indeed, the study found pension income is commonly a crucial factor deciding whether or not an African-American woman will retire in poverty. Elderly African- American women are three times as likely to live in poverty than white women, and far less likely to receive income from assets.

Foster receives just over $1,000 a month from Social Security, but it is the minimum wage job provided through the Supportive Service Corp.۪s Senior Community Service Employment Program that keeps her head above water.

AARP۪s study found that women who were married, employed, and healthy had a better chance at remaining economically secure than those who were not. But as they age, women increasingly lose power over these factors, making them more susceptible to poverty.

In fact, Foster۪s knees recently forced her to take medical leave from work.

“I hope I can go back,” she said. “I need the money badly.”

Audrey Anderson considers her job at Millard Fillmore Hospital a godsend.

At nearly 82 years old, Anderson, a mother of seven children, has learned how to stretch a dime.

“It was a tight squeeze, raising my kids. I was used to taking nothing and making it into something,” she said.

She worked her entire life and spent 13 years printing clothing labels at M. Wile & Co. before retiring. In addition to social security, she receives $30.19 a month in pension from the garment manufacturer.

Not “a big eater,” she often packs up the lunch her employer provides and takes it home for dinner. She still drives her own car, but tries to use it only for the essentials, such as going to church at Ephesus Ministry on Greiner Street.

Adjusting the purple uniform blazer she wears to work over a neat floral dress, she holds her head high.

“When you۪re so used to having nothing, you don۪t notice,” she said. “I feel blessed. Those who always had enough, they don۪t know what to do. I feel sorry for them.”

One social worker said the poverty threshold is “so abysmally low” that anyone who receives Social Security falls above it. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, the poverty threshold for a single-person household over age 65 in the year 2006 was $9,669.

But, Kristin Legere, a spokeswoman for AARP, said a new picture is emerging as the next generation of women reaches their retirement years. Noting that the women studied were born between 1923 and 1937, she said women۪s financial habits are changing.

“Things are different now. At the time, marriage was a way for women to protect themselves against poverty,” Legere said. “Now, things are based on a woman۪s own earnings rather than her husband۪s, and the income generated during employment helps. Women are consistently contributing to their own welfare.”

Not only do women have more and better employment options, they۪re staying in those positions longer rather than leaving for good after childbirth and contributing more to Social Security than ever before. Women are also investing more, taking advantage of 401K plans and employer-matched funds.

That is a smart move, said Karen Olson, vice president of Olson Asset Management in East Aurora.

“Many women don۪t begin with a plan,” she said. “But, it۪s never too early to put yourself first.”

As part of its Divided We Fail program, AARP is educating women about retirement planning and urging them to start thinking about it sooner, something Olson believes is crucially important.

“Younger people are more concerned about starting their lives finishing college, buying a house, starting a family,” she said. “But the choices you make today, no matter what age, may give you better choices tomorrow.”

Although women can make moves to keep them ahead of the pack, poverty isn۪t something that can always be avoided.

Yvonne Bamford has fared better than many. Though she divorced in 1972, her long career as a keypuncher-turned- licensed practical nurse provided a comfortable income. She would have “loved” to stay working, even now at age 75, but several health conditions left her unable to push the heavy medical cart.

In fact, the study found that almost two-thirds of white women who wind up poor after age 65 did not live in poverty before retirement.

Bamford paid into Social Security for decades, and also receives an “itty bitty” pension of her own, as well as income from investments. Experts would say she did everything right. Still, her income is such that she is considered poor, but remains ineligible for any government subsidized programs.

She gave up driving. She lives in a rent-controlled apartment. Some advised her to spend down her money so she would qualify for cleaning and health care services, but inflation is taking care of that on its own.

“What little savings I have are eroding,” said Bamford. “Forget about trying to get ahead. It۪s about trying to break even.”

Her monthly grocery bill has gone from $80 to $120. When she lost 20 pounds last year, she struggled to replace basic clothing. The idea of eventually needing long-term care terrifies her.

Despite her careful planning, Bamford sometimes feels hopeless about the future.

“You work all your life, and what do you get?” she said. “What am I going to do hold my breath and keep my fingers crossed?”

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