|Vivian Majors at her home in Opelousas, Louisiana, on February 20, 2019. Photograph: Annie Flanagan/The Guardian|
Elderly poverty was supposed to be a thing of the past. Social security supposedly wiped out the scourge of old-age penury, signaling one of the great social-policy triumphs of the modern era. But this is far from the whole story. Inequality, which has grown markedly in Europe and North America since the 1970s, has widened the gap between the secure and insecure in all age groups, and has exposed American seniors to financial distress in ways that often go unnoticed.
|Opelousas, Louisiana, has the highest rate of elderly rate in the US. Photograph: Annie Flanagan/The Guardian|
Opelousas, Louisiana (population 16,480), where Majors and her husband grew up and raised their own children, has the highest rate of elderly poverty in the US. Seventy-five percent African American, 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% of its population lived in poverty.
|Mary Quick sweeps after the Holy Ghost Community Meal in Opelousas, Louisiana. Photograph: Annie Flanagan/The Guardian|
The statistics from Opelousas are extreme, but its labor market’s underlying conditions – which residents have faced all their lives – are echoed across the country. Of those who are still of working age, 62% of African Americans and 69% of Latinos have no retirement savings. Come retirement, they are almost entirely reliant on social security. When that is the sole source of income, economic hardship is likely to be the outcome – not to the extent it was before social security was created, but a great deal more than for workers with long histories in often better-paid private-sector jobs.
|Holy Ghost Community Diner in Opelousas, Louisiana. Photograph: Annie Flanagan/The Guardian|
We tend to think of inequality as shaping the lives of children and working-age adults, depending on their educational attainment. But the trajectory of inequality powerfully affects older people as well. Their lives in old age are a natural extension of their experiences in the prime working years. Social security is, in the end, insufficient to protect a surprisingly large number of older Americans from poverty.
|Vivian Majors takes care of her husband Martin who has Parkinson’s disease. Photograph: Annie Flanagan/The Guardian|
This perspective is corroborated by the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Its Elder Economic Security Standard Index provides a more fine-grained understanding of hardship, conditional on household size, location, housing and health status, among other variables. The index shows that in 2016 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. The variation across the states is pronounced. But “in every state, the share of older adults living ‘in the gap’ between the federal poverty line and the Elder Index is larger than the share living in poverty”.
|Rates of old age poverty in the world. Illustration: Forbes|
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.
The gender gap reminds us of one of the most important aspects of elder poverty: it does not generally descend at the end of a career. Instead, it is a function of the inequalities that beset people during their working years. In this sense, elder poverty isn’t really about elders; it is about lifetimes spent under conditions of accumulated economic marginality.
|Vivian Majors at her home in Opelousas, Louisiana. Photograph: Annie Flanagan/The Guardian|
Majors is a frugal woman. She is inclined to shut down the air conditioner in the height of a humid Louisiana summer rather than see her electricity bill rise beyond what she can afford. 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 should not mean hardship in the 21st century.
|Opelousas, Louisiana. Photograph: Annie Flanagan/The Guardian|
• This article was supported by the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy and The Economic Hardship Reporting Project
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Retirement should not mean hardship – but many older Americans live in poverty