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Economic insecurity

Published April 28. 2012 09:01AM

Like tens of thousands of other young women in post-World War II America, she married her sweetheart when he returned from the battlefields. They settled down, raised a family, and when the children grew up, she helped make ends meet by going to work in the local garment factory, a stressful job that paid little.

Now, in her 80s, she lives alone, a widow. She has her meager pension from the factory, a few dollars a month, and her Social Security check. All in all, she survives on about $12,500 a year, wearing heavy sweaters and thick socks so she can turn the heat down even lower, eating dinners of just potatoes or buttered noodles because the cost of meat is out of her reach.

She could be any elderly woman in any town in America.

As the costs of food, fuel and housing continue to rise, more elderly women in the United States are living in poverty, according to a study released in March by the Washington, D.C., based Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW).

The report, "Doing Without: Economic Insecurity and Older Americans," analyzed U.S. Census Bureau data.

"Older women are at greater risk of economic insecurity than older men," the report says. "Sixty percent of women age 65 and older who live alone or live with a spouse have incomes insufficient to cover basic, daily expenses. By contrast, 41 percent of older men studied live in households that have incomes that fall short of economic security.

"Economic insecurity is a pervasive threat for women of all ages, and the economic security gender gap persists across and throughout their life span. During their working-age years, women are significantly more likely to report incomes that fall short of economic security than their male counterparts.

"When women reach retirement age, they typically have smaller pensions and fewer assets than male workers, reducing their likelihood of a financially secure retirement. In addition, women typically outlive men, which increases their chances of living alone for some portion of their retirement years and on exhausting savings and assets. The loss of a spouse or partner may reduce household income, without a proportionate reduction in household expenses," the report says.

"Growing old in America is getting more and more expensive. Even though we may not be able to avoid getting older, we can't afford it either," said Donna Addkison, President and CEO of WOW. "Working hard is no guarantee you'll be able to cover your most basic expenses when you retire."

Building a retirement

with few bricks

"Throughout their lives, women face a higher likelihood of living in poverty than men. While part of this likelihood rests on time spent out of the workforce, usually in an unpaid family caregiving capacity, part of the problem rests on the well-documented lack of equal pay for women compared to their male counterparts. A woman working in 2012 can lose over $400,000 in her lifetime to pay inequity and this loss is low considering that the pay gap has closed to 77 percent in 2012 from 59 percent in 1963," says Marianne Bellesorte, Senior Policy Analyst at Pathways PA, a local Pennsylvania partner of WOW's.

"The impact of lost earnings for women lasts well into retirement, where women face not only the loss of wages that could have gone into savings but also the loss of Social Security and other retirement benefits based on those wages," Bellesorte says.

The crisis hits home.

"In Carbon County, a single elder in retirement needed between $17,209 and $22,166 to live in his/her own home in 2007. Yet the average yearly Social Security payment in that county for a single person was $12,415, leaving a gap of at least $5,000. In Pennsylvania, a woman's median income in retirement relies far more on Social Security than a man's," she says.

"As the cost of basic needs such as food and utilities rise beyond the growth of Social Security payments, that gap will only increase. At the same time, programs once available to help make up that gap are under strain from the recession and from budgetary cuts, making it even harder to access the services needed for a woman to live with dignity in her home in retirement," Bellesorte says.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey, an estimated 104,512 women over age 65 lived below the poverty level in Pennsylvania during the previous year. That's about 9.26 percent of women over age 65.

Pennsylvania ranks 30th of the 51 states on the Economic Security Gap index that is included in WOW's report. According to the index, an elderly, single renter of either gender needed $21,792 to make ends meet in 2010. But the median elder income was only $17,200, leaving a $4,592 economic security gap.

Massachusetts had the greatest gap, $10,248; Alaska had the smallest at $1,068.

Helpers stretched thin

There is some help out there for elderly women who are struggling. Among the organizations is the Carbon County Area Agency on Aging, a "one-stop" service agency.

But, says agency Administrator Cheri Santore, the agency is straining to meet rising demand in the face of possible funding changes.

The state is crafting next year's budget, and Gov. Tom Corbett is proposing a 20 percent cut to counties to provide human services.

The proposed cut "does not affect our office directly, but may have a huge indirect impact on seniors wanting and needing services," she said.

In March, Santore wrote to state Rep. Doyle Heffley on the agency's behalf, expressing her concern about changes in regulations proposed by the state Department of Public Welfare. The regulations "will add additional costs, while fragmenting and reducing the quality of care provided to seniors," she wrote.

Corbett has proposed cutting $169 million from DPW's budget, a move some say will rip more holes in the social safety net that many poor, including elderly women, rely upon.

For help with food, many elderly women turn to their churches food pantries or the Salvation Army. However, food pantries are also stretched thin, given the economic downturn and consequent job losses.

Santore and others who administer programs designed to help the elderly are still waiting to find out how the state budget will impact their services.

"The issues we are facing with the upcoming budget(s) and regulations being proposed are quite cumbersome and complicated. At the same time, there is no detail regarding how this will 'roll out', so in essence, we have no idea how this will effect our agency and/or the services that we currently provide," she said.

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