For Women, Income Inequality Continues Into Retirement

Nov 17, 2015
Originally published on December 1, 2015 2:57 pm

Poverty does not treat men and women equally, especially in old age. Women 65 years old and older who are living in poverty outnumber men in those circumstances by more than 2 to 1. And these women are likely to face the greatest deprivation as they become older and more frail.

This pretty much describes the situation of 87-year-old Lydia Smith.

In her small, tidy apartment near downtown Los Angeles, she's surrounded by dozens of family photographs. She picks out one and points to her twin sister, her mother and her brother. "Unfortunately, he's gone," she says. "She's gone," she says, pointing to her sister. And "Mama's gone," she says.

Smith, a war bride, came to the United States from Rome with her family after World War II. But she got divorced in the 1950s and never remarried. Once her son and daughter were grown, she moved to this second-story walk-up.

"I've been here 46 years in this apartment," she says. "I have no intention of moving, either."

How could she disrupt all of her neatly arranged collections? There's a basket of baby dolls, a Barbie-filled breakfront and a bunch of Hello Kitty knickknacks. All are the result of a discerning eye and the local Goodwill store, pretty much the only place she's bought anything in years.

She gets just over $900 a month from Social Security, and that's it. Her apartment is subsidized through a program called Section 8. She pays about a third of her income in rent; the government picks up the rest. Smith doesn't get food stamps, but she does qualify for Medicaid. That's a good thing, since she's being treated for a heart condition and severe arthritis.

"When you're in constant pain, you have no desire to be active," Smith says. "So this is why I stay home a lot. I don't go places."

Smith never saved for retirement. It didn't occur to her. And with the kind of money she made working as a clerk in a department store and a cashier at a restaurant, there wasn't much left over anyway.

This is the story of most of the 2.6 million women ages 65 and over who are living at or below the poverty line, says Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security at the National Women's Law Center.

Over a lifetime, she says, "women earn less than men because their wages are lower and they're more likely to take time out for caregiving." And, she says, women live longer than men, so "they have to stretch these lower benefits over a longer life span."

Decades ago, an older woman without much income might have lived with her children, says Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research. But now, families are often spread out around the country, and it's rare for older people to move in with their kids. Hartmann says that women of color, women who are foreign-born and women who live alone like Smith have it the worst.

"The poverty [rate] of single women [living] alone is 18 to 20 percent," Hartmann says. "Many of these women may not have any relatives. They might not have had children. [Or] those children might not be in a position to help take care of them."

That's the case with Smith. Neither of her children lives in Los Angeles. They're both getting on in years themselves and have health and financial struggles of their own.

Such situations are one of the reasons that Social Security advocates and some politicians talk about increasing Social Security benefits, especially for people 85 and older. But Smith says she never thinks about what life would be like if she had more money. Since she was a child in Italy, it's always been like this. She has her routine down. She's content.

"I read, I do puzzles, I listen to music," Smith says. "I go out maybe twice, three times a week to go to the market" or to drag her laundry to the public laundromat. These days, Smith's arthritis makes it hard for her to get to Mass.

"But I pray at home, "she says, "and I have a video of the Mass. I watch it on television." She's confident that God will accept her prayer no matter where she is.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You know, we focus so intently on news of tragedy. And it's right that we do. But it's worth recalling also the lives of desperation lived out of public view. Poverty does not treat men and women equally, especially in old age. There are more than twice as many older women living in poverty than men. We're exploring the changing lives of women as they age, and NPR's Ina Jaffe met up with one elderly woman in Southern California.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: There are framed photographs covering almost every surface in the tidy apartment of 87-year-old Lydia Smith. They're mostly pictures of her family.

LYDIA SMITH: This is my mother, my twin sister, my brother. Unfortunately, he's gone. She's gone. Mom is gone.

JAFFE: The family all moved to the United States from Rome after World War II. Lydia Smith was what they used to call a war bride.

SMITH: In 1944, the Fifth Army marched through Rome. And we were three sisters and all three married an American soldier.

JAFFE: But she got divorced in the 1950s. She never remarried. Once her son and daughter were grown, she moved to this second-story walkup near downtown Los Angeles.

SMITH: I've been here 46 years in this apartment. And I have no intention of moving, either (laughter).

JAFFE: How could she disrupt all of her neatly arranged collections? The basket of baby dolls, the "Hello Kitty" knickknacks, the breakfront filled with Barbies - all the result of a discerning eye and the local Goodwill store. That's the only place she's bought anything in years. She gets just over $900 a month from Social Security. And that's it. Her apartment is subsidized through a program called Section 8. She pays about a third of her income in rent. The government picks up the rest. Smith doesn't get food stamps. But she does qualify for Medicaid, which is a good thing since she's being treated for a heart condition and severe arthritis.

SMITH: When you're in constant pain, you have no desire to be active, you know? So this is why I stay home a lot. I don't go places.

JAFFE: Smith never saved for retirement. It didn't occur to her. And with the kind of money she made working as a clerk in a department store and a cashier at a restaurant, there wasn't much left over anyway. This is a story of most of the 2.6 million women who end up poor in their later years, says Joan Entmacher, vice president for Family Economic Security at the National Women's Law Center.

JOAN ENTMACHER: Women earn less than men because their wages are lower, and they're more likely to take time out for care giving. Their life spans are longer, so they have to stretch these lower benefits over a longer life span.

JAFFE: Decades ago, an older woman without much income might live with her children, says Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research. But now families are often spread out around the country. And it's rare for older people to move in with their kids. Hartmann says that women of color, women who are foreign-born and women who live alone like Lydia Smith have it the worst.

HEIDI HARTMANN: The poverty of single women alone is 18 to 20 percent. Many of these women may not have any relatives. They might not have had children. Or those children might not be in a position to help take care of them.

JAFFE: Which is the case with Lydia Smith. Neither of her children live in Los Angeles. They're both getting on in years themselves and have health and financial struggles of their own. Such situations are one of the reasons that Social Security advocates and some politicians talk about increasing Social Security benefits, especially for people 85 and older. But Lydia Smith says she never thinks about what life would be like if she had more money. Since she was a child in Italy, it's always been like this. She has her routine down. And she's content.

SMITH: I read. I do puzzle, listen to music. I go out maybe twice or three times a week to go to the market. I have to go to public laundry mat to do the laundry. Don't remind me.

JAFFE: She doesn't watch a lot of TV, though - too vulgar, too violent.

SMITH: I have a lot of my own movies. When television was good, it used to show nice movies on TV. I used to record them.

JAFFE: In fact, she has a huge collection of videos - another one of her many collections. None, though, are more important than her arrangement of Christmas decorations and the pictures of Pope John Paul II, Our Lady of Czestochowa (ph) and the Virgin of Guadalupe. You see, Smith's arthritis makes it hard for her to get to mass.

SMITH: But I pray at home. And I have a video of the mass, you know. I watch it on television.

JAFFE: And she's confident that God will accept her prayer no matter where she is. Ina Jaffe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.