Vivian Majors spent her life cleaning houses while her husband, Martin, worked as a carpenter. Their bodies broke down in their 60s. She is now 71, living on her own and struggling to pay her bills. He is in a nursing home and has Parkinson’s disease. She survives on a $960 monthly social security check and $50 in food stamps. Hardened by years of physically taxing work that left her hovering around the poverty line, Majors, now retired, is girding herself for more years of financial hardship.
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.
According to research from the University of Massachusetts Boston, material hardship bedevils millions of Americans such as Majors who are over 65.
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.
Few Opelousas retirees received sick leave or healthcare coverage while they were working, and virtually none can count on a pension to support them when they can no longer work. A lifetime of poverty rarely translates into what the rest of the country defines as true retirement. Instead, the working poor often stay on the job past retirement age.
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.