Just a husband away from poverty America's struggling older woman

Mary Schmich

November 18, 1992|By Mary Schmich

WE can't have meant to do this to our mothers.

I know a 69-year-old woman who didn't leave her parents' home until the age of 30, when she married and moved in with her husband. For the next 32 years, she raised their children while he negotiated with the outside world, made the family rules and ruled the family money.

After a life of hard work and good intentions, the man died. He left $134 in the bank. The woman found herself destitute and, for the first time in her life, alone.

Now this woman lives on Social Security and the charity of her children. She rations money as if she lived in wartime. Her body tricks her with all sorts of sabotage. Her back is bad, her hands are gnarled, her knees buckle when she tries to step onto a bus. Even so, she avoids doctors, arguing that she'd rather save her money for things that matter.

This woman is the most cheerful person I have ever met. She happens to be my mother.

I mention my mother because I saw her in the news this week. There she was in a new Census Bureau report on the elderly, a face behind the faceless numbers, she and a few million other women who are traveling the last lap of their lives by themselves and short on money.

Statistic: One-third of all American women 65 and older live on less than $10,000 a year. That's 5.7 million women, and their incomes drop as they get older.

These are women who know something about hardship, about suffering in silence. They have lived through a depression and a world war or two. They come from an era when women invested most of their ego and energies into their marriages, never dreaming that for millions of women, marriage as a money bank would turn out to be about as safe as a 1980s S&L.

Statistic: Last year, the median income for men 65 and older was $14,357. For women the same age, the figure was $8,189.

Many of these women -- as many as half by some estimates -- were not always poor. How did they get that way? The old-fashioned way. Their husbands died.

Statistic: Of older white women living with a husband, only 4 percent have incomes less than $6,500 a year, the official qualification for poverty. Of older white women living alone, 24 percent are poor.

For black and Hispanic women, the numbers are even grimmer. Twenty-two percent of older black women living with a husband are poor. Among those living alone, the number rises to a staggering 6 in 10.

If it's hard to fathom how a woman's fortune can change so quickly, consider an imaginary situation:

A woman's husband dies right on demographic schedule, around the age of 72. The woman is likely to live 6 1/2 years longer. Like most widows -- and unlike most older men -- she will live alone.

But her husband's bank accounts were emptied to pay his medical bills and funeral costs. He spent his pension while he was alive. If she ever worked outside the home, it was at a low-paying job, so she has no pension to call her own.

What she does have is his Social Security, which may, just barely, pay the rent and buy a couple packs of chewing gum. If there is a house, it probably needs repairs, and the property taxes keep on rising.

Now the woman herself gets sick. It is one of those long-term disabling illnesses that tend to afflict women, unlike the short-term fatal ones common among older men. Medicare pays only part of her bills and none of her prescription drugs. By some calculations, women over 65 spend a third of their income on medical care.

Consider that situation and it's easy to understand a saying popular at The Older Women's League: Women are just one husband away from poverty.

The league is a grass-roots advocacy group with some ideas on how to give older women better lives. Allow Social Security credit for women who leave the work force to care for a dependent, whether it's a child, an ailing parent or sick husband. Provide pensions at all jobs, even those that don't pay well. Ensure that pensions can be taken from one job to the next. Guarantee health care for every American.

A few years ago, I talked to a man who had helped conduct a nationwide study of widows. He fed me all the dry statistics and then, unexpectedly, he said softly, "What have we done to our mothers?"

What have we done to our mothers? We should all be asking that. Statistics aren't just statistics. These are our mothers, our aunts, our schoolteachers, our nurses and nannies. They don't need our pity. But, along with all the women who will follow them, they do need better laws.

Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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