On Sunday, I did my laundry with a steady flow of fellow tenants. I live in affordable senior housing in inner Northeast Portland, where I've been since the economic downturn of 2008. Everyone here is at least sixty-two and living on limited financial resources. The communal laundry room is quite competitive on a Sunday. Recently, one of the dryers became spontaneously generous. Now it provides fifty minutes of drying time for twenty-five cents, while the other dryers still require two quarters. Saving twenty-five cents matters to tenants who live on incomes that allow very little margin for error.
The laundry room is near the back door, where vehicles can wait in the yellow loading zone. Several people sat nearby, waiting for a ride to church. Prudence sat a proper distance from two of the waiting men in her consistently styled gray wig and Sunday dress. She is an extremely modest woman who has never been married and never speaks out of turn or with unkindness. I have seen her face engage in a visible struggle to hide her disapproval of behaviors around her. Her mouth becomes a slash as it tries to control a frown but stop short of a smile. She left the workforce early to care for aging parents. Her story is familiar. Many of the women who live in my apartment building spent their prime years caring for children or other family members. Thirty-seven of the forty-two apartments are occupied by single women whose only income is their Social Security pension. There are only five men living here.
I recently became curious about the gender ratio of the tenants and learned that, according to the Social Security Administration, more than 17 percent of unmarried, elderly women live in poverty—almost twice the percentage of men. In 2012, the average annual Social Security income for a man was $16,398, compared with $12,520 for a woman. Social Security for women who never married, or who divorced prior to ten years of marriage, is even lower. The system does not make adjustments for time out of the workforce to care for family members, although most people would agree this is an important social contribution and certainly qualifies as work. Thus, retirement benefits for these women are extremely low, often in the range of $500 to $850 per month. Women like Prudence are penalized because they did not marry and sacrificed career to care for family. They enjoy their golden years perched on the economic edge.
Linda was pushing a cart down the hall. It was stacked with miscellaneous household items. She was hauling her belongings from her old apartment into a vacated unit on the sunny south side of the building. She stopped for a while to answer my nosey questions. Linda has a lot of arthritis pain in her feet and hips. She shuffled her balance from side to side, exchanging the pain in one foot for the pain in the other, like she was dancing on hot coals. I helped her move a few cartloads because it was easier than watching her struggle alone.
Linda grew up in Southern Oregon. A dentist pulled all her teeth when she was fifteen. She doesn't seem to have a clear understanding of why and has worn false teeth ever since. She needs a new pair because her jaw has shrunk with age, but she hasn't been able to figure out how to get Medicare to pay for them. She married right out of high school and was soon divorced with two children to raise on her own. She worked as a nanny during the final ten years of her working life, raising two children for a professional couple. They showed their appreciation to her by paying her well, which allowed her to retire on about $1,100 per month in Social Security. Even so, at the end of the month, she stands in line for several hours to get into the food bank at the church up the street. It is the only way she can make ends meet.
Most people have a backstory about how they came to live in subsidized housing. It is a story that they may have told openly and it becomes a story that gets told about them to newcomers. Poverty is confining, like a prison. Sharing our stories is like saying, “This is what I did. What are you in for?”
My full-time working life began in 1964. I worked as a waitress for seventy-five cents an hour at a Greyhound bus depot in Montana and, again, for a dollar an hour at Archie's Waeside in Iowa, a hangout for farmers who hadn't studied the art of tipping. I was rescued from Archie's when a friend told me about a production-line job at the meatpacking plant thirty-five miles away that paid three dollars an hour to start. The jobs that required fine motor skills, like the vacuum-packaging machine where I started, were entry-level jobs. They were also considered women's jobs and paid less. Other jobs that required more strength, and sometimes more size, had the highest pay. They were called “heavy breaking” jobs and were considered men's jobs.
At the plant, I progressed through a few jobs with better pay and then I bid on a heavy breaking job. I could see that not all the men on the line were big, and I was strong and understood the physics of my body. The management was surprised at my boldness but did not put up any resistance. I was able to do the job in the qualifying time. As long as the chain was moving at the speed they wanted for optimal production, they were satisfied. None of the men on the line cared because I did my share of the work. I made eight dollars an hour on that job in 1970.
Management kept their eye on a good production worker and might eventually offer a position working for the company off the line. A man working a heavy breaking job would be offered a position as foreman (yellow hat), with firing authority over the line workers. A woman would be offered quality control (green hat), with authority over the product (and less pay than a foreman). Management watched me do the heavy breaking job for a year, and offered me a quality control position. I told them I would like to be promoted to foreman, just like anyone else working a heavy breaking job. They said no, and I went back to work on the line until we went out on strike.
I spent the first twenty-five years of young adulthood at jobs like these, working while raising my own children. After that, I was called in to pinch-hit in my youngest daughter's and granddaughter's life when it unraveled, which, until my daughter got sober, was frequently. In all, I dedicated almost forty years to work and caregiving centered on family. In the midst of all this, I still managed to complete my college education, in December 2007, at sixty-one years of age. I planned to find stable employment with a decent salary and benefits for the first time in my life, but my timing was off. In the face of the economic crisis, most jobs disappeared from view for several years. According to the National Council on Aging, older workers like me had an especially difficult time finding a job. After the recession, we were half as likely to have regained employment as the nationwide average. I applied for my Social Security retirement at age sixty-two. This meant I would receive a reduced monthly stipend of $826 per month. But what choice did I have? It was the only way I would have any steady income.
My lifetime strategy of teeter-totter economics—paying some bills this month and setting others aside until the next—was on the verge of collapse. I was fortunate to get an apartment here after only two years on the waiting list. Many waiting lists for affordable senior housing are closed or can be at least three years long. As a resident here, my rent will be no more than 30 percent of my income. I work part-time, which improves my income and also helps me feel included and useful in the “real world.”
The women in my building are mostly white women from blue-collar roots similar to my own. We were brought up to believe that hard work, dedication, and loyalty to family were the pillars of American society. If we thought about it at all, we imagined that our dedication to family would be recognized down the road and we would receive some fair share of the social benefit. We did our duty as women and trusted in fairness. My generation of women raised families at a time when attitudes were changing about divorce, sex outside of marriage, and women working outside the family. The divorce rate climbed to 33 percent in 1970 and hovered around 50 percent between 1975 and 1985, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By 1982, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 20 percent of children in America lived with a single mother. The courts regularly awarded primary custody of children to women, but child support awards were uneven and not well enforced.
In my case, I was afraid to petition for support because I feared retaliation and wanted no contact with my ex-husband, who almost killed me more than once. Law enforcement treated domestic disputes as a private matter and often practiced minimal interference. When women like me could get the abuser out of the house, we took whatever jobs we could to keep food on the table. It left us with little time to notice that we received fifty-eight cents on every dollar that men made, as estimated by the National Committee on Equal Pay, and still paid 100 percent for rent and full price for food. The inability to earn a fair wage adds up over a lifetime of work and makes setting aside savings much more difficult. By one estimate, wages lost due to the pay gap can equal $700,000 over a lifetime for a woman with a high school education. Many jobs for women of my generation did not come with a career path or a retirement plan other than Social Security. We did not plan on failed marriages and did not know that we had to stay married for at least ten years to benefit from our husbands' higher wages. As for child support, by the time I felt safe enough to pursue it, I received little help from the Department of Justice and nothing ever came of it.
Kay lives down the hall from Linda's new apartment. That Sunday afternoon, I brought her a chicken breast and some flowers. She fell on the ice in February while trying to walk her dog, Mr. Dickens. I discovered her lying facedown on the ice-covered asphalt driveway. She must have felt very vulnerable because the garbage truck was due at any moment. She begged me to help her up and insisted she was fine. She did not want me to call 911. I could barely stand on the ice myself and couldn't really imagine trying to support another body. I am very cautious about these things. A neon sign in my head flashed a persistent message, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” as I imagined a lifetime of paralysis for her (or me). A man from the mental health facility across the street stood watch over her while I brought Mr. Dickens inside my apartment. I felt like a traitor as I called 911. However, she was grateful later on when she was diagnosed with a cracked pelvis.
Kay leaves her apartment door unlocked now. People come and go with various offerings of assistance. Her cell phone is off because she ran out of minutes for the month, due to repeated robotic collection calls from her dental provider. She had a hip replacement last year. The surgeons required a cavity-free mouth to avoid infectious complications. So she had to have many teeth pulled in order to qualify for surgery. After the surgery, she needed teeth to eat with and signed up for a loan to get some dentures. Medicare does not pay for luxuries like false teeth. It doesn't even pay for maintaining natural teeth in our aging mouths. Kay was a working single mother too, and her income is similar to mine. She was working in a special program for low-income seniors. It allowed her to earn $200 per month without losing any of her benefits, such as the lower co-pays for medical and pharmacy, or her food stamps. She worked about twenty hours a week helping out with the kids at the Boys & Girls Club, which penciled out to around $2.50 per hour. I'm not sure if she will be able to continue her job after the injury.
Back in the laundry room, my next-door neighbor Donna was washing clothes for the second time that day. This is part of her daily cleaning ritual. She is very nervous and extremely thin and pale with large circles of rouge on her cheeks. She frequently traipses out to the garbage with two or three individual items pinched tightly between her thumb and index finger. When we pass in the common areas, she explains herself incessantly through clenched teeth, with her head tilted downward and a clandestine body posture, as if she were confessing to a crime. When I first encountered her, I assumed she was very timid. However, I learned that she is capable of being surprisingly aggressive and angry when she does not get her way. She has several especially noisy cleaning rituals on Sundays, which I hear through our shared wall. She leaves her bathroom fan on for long periods of time. It vibrates along the ceiling into my bedroom. I complained to her about the noise several months ago. She explained impatiently that she needs to “get the moisture out of the air,” as if anyone in touch with the inherent infection that is life would understand. Whatever I may think of her lifestyle, it is clear that regular cleaning routines bring her a sense of satisfaction and purpose. Yesterday in the laundry room, she pointed out that she'd discovered some pennies that had fallen out of a pocket in her laundry and shared gleefully that at least they would not have germs. She seems to lead a relatively happy life.
Before I returned to my apartment for the evening, I stopped to visit with a group of women in the community room. They were talking about money. One woman said she'd worked a state job for several years and accumulated a modest sum in her retirement account. Her husband lost his job and wanted to start his own business, so she gave him the money she'd been saving. The business failed, and they divorced after nine and a half years. She wondered how much better her life would have been if she'd kept the money or stayed married a little bit longer. Other women blamed themselves for not planning better for retirement. It was painful to hear them judge themselves so harshly. These are hardworking women, not inclined to make excuses. They have always accepted more than their share of responsibility. I would like to see more appreciation for the many service-oriented roles that women fill, especially caregiving. It is easy to lose track of this in a culture that is infatuated with beauty and money. The ladies who live in my apartment building may have never had much money, but beauty
ah, you should see the pictures. And that is a story for another day.
5 comments have been posted.
Thanks Josey, for inspiring me to add my voice to your prescient words. I'm a degreed, 73 yr old woman who survives through HUD subsidized housing (after an 8 year wait) and thankfully, a number of other assistance programs. In 1983, divorcing after 10 yrs, a best friend and I were joking about or status (she a single mother) and we envisioned ourselves cruising the streets, side by side, grocery carts holding our worldly goods. We realized we knew a number of friends who might be interested forming a support group for eventual community living option. After the initial networking, a hardy band of 13, deemed ourselves Bag Ladies of the World(the BLOWS). After 33 years we still meet for lunch on the first Sunday of the month and whereas we've not accomplish our original goal of a community house, we have managed to save a nest egg (through monthly optional dues) we have formed a bond of "sisters" who are there for support through good times and bad.... currently a spate of joint replacements. Be proactive, tolerant and loving .... form a support group for the future, eventual.
Martha Snyder | December 2016 | Eugene
This is a wonderful piece on the incredibly tough time so many older women are having. I am fortunate to be relatively ok financially but know many women who are in the same boat as this writer with little more than a small amount of Social Security dollars live on. We chose family and lower paid "helping" professions instead of opting to push for more money and we are losing again in our retirement years.
Donna Morris | August 2016 |
I have worked at nonprofit social service agency Northwest Pilot Project in downtown Portland since 1989 helping low income seniors to access subsidized apartment buildings. This story is a penetrating look inside such a building -- a look the public rarely gets to see. Thanks to the author for the meticulously-researched, compassionate, and insightful description of life inside her low income senior apartment building. I look forward to the sequel on the beauty of the residents. However, the beautiful heart of the author is already apparent.
Bobby Weinstock | August 2016 | Portland
Judi said it well. Balanced between relevant personal history and observations of fellow occupants of the residence and its laundry room.
laurence tyler | August 2016 | Portland, OR
Wow! Josey is a friend of mine and I'm thrilled to see her article in print. It makes me sad, however, to learn more about the plight of older women in our society and the hardships they face daily, just to exist. Senior citizens as a whole have become more and more invisible in our culture. Thank you, Josey, for putting into words the situations that people among us face every day.
Judi Hertz | August 2016 | Portland, Oregon