Older Women Face Tarnished 'Golden Years'

Article excerpt

A little-known crisis in the United States deserves a full and open national discussion. Although most policy advocates are already aware of the high poverty rates for elderly women, the fate awaiting older female members of ethnic and racial minority groups is disturbing. Whereas white women are twice as likely as white men to be impoverished in old age, women in diverse minority groups face a precarious financial future, a future with profound implications for the quality of their lives and health.

Single African American and Latina women are about four times more likely to live in poverty than white men during their retirement years. This persistent and serious problem is not likely to change without a national retirement policy that takes into account the unique challenges that women, particularly minority elders, face trying to prepare for a secure retirement.

AN ALARMING FATE

The Women's Institute for a secure Retirement (WISER) and MANA, a National Latina Organization, have worked together since 1997 to bring greater public focus on this alarming reality. The United States is at the beginning of the retirement era for the large boomer generation, and this country is not much closer to insuring the future security of older minority women than it was a decade ago.

Despite an overall decline in poverty levels for elders in recent decades, many older women remain poor. More than 40% of African American and Latina women who live alone have incomes below the federal poverty line, compared with 17.9% of single, older white women and only about 10% of elderly white men. Compared globally, the United States has one of the highest poverty rates for older women among industrialized nations.

With women entering the workforce and achieving college degrees in record numbers, one might assume that this grim situation will change for the next generation of women retirees. Yet, the same factors that disadvantaged the current generation of women retirees also threatens to undermine today's genera,tion of female workers. Issues of pay equity, occupational segregation, caregiving responsibilities, longer life expectancy and women's work patterns all converge to reduce pension earnings, public benefits and personal savings.

Women continue to earn less than men for work at all education levels, including professional and managerial positions; women are more likely to work in female-dominated professions with few retirement benefits. As the primary uncompensated caregivers in American culture, they are also more likely to take time off or reduce their hours to care for family members. The result is less money earned in a retirement plan and less money saved. Even though these factors affect women generally, the cumulative effect on older women from ethnic or racial minorities is much harsher.

In addition, although women end up with less money, they actually need more to finance a longer retirement. Because women are likely to live longer than men-years often spent alone-they are more likely to have high medical expenses and need long-term care, which is largely uncovered by Medicare. Members of the current generation of elderly women in poverty struggle with meeting their basic needs, particularly healthcare costs. We are unable to point to much evidence that the future for single older women and older minority women is anything but bleak.

ATTITUDES AND BELIEFS

Numerous studies show that a majority of Americans are worried about retirement; however, a 2005 poll conducted by the HeinZ Family Philanthropies and WISER found that women workers ages 30 to 55 in the United States are not preparing adequately for retirement and may be headed for a fate similar to the current generation of older women. The national survey found that:

* Almost four in 10 women in the survey (38%) are worried they will live at or near the poverty level because they cannot adequately save for retirement. …