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 that age range 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 babydolls, 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 aged 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.