There are over 76 Million Baby boomers alive today. A report by the Williams Institute six years ago said lesbian couples over the age of 65 were twice as likely to live below the poverty line as opposite-sex couples. A study by the same organization in 2013 reaffirmed earlier findings and extended the scope of the study.
And yet, I hear many people asking “Why?” I “hear” some accusation in that question, some tonal intimation to suggest it is the fault of the senior and elderly lesbians. I think I can perhaps shed some light on the subject, offer some answers to these questions, or rephrase the questions.
At first, I wasn’t sure what this had to do with lesfic (the catch-all phrase for lesbian fiction that covers many genre from Romance to Mystery to Fantasy and beyond) and/or lesbian authors and readers. Then I realized that I know over a dozen authors who can no longer write (in some cases not at all, in other cases, only rarely) and a couple dozen lesfic readers who cannot afford even cheaper eBooks. Those are merely the people who I and other friends know.
The ones I know or know about are lesbian women mostly over 60 who struggle to make their way in a world that is harsh and unforgiving. Too many are older or elder lesbians with health problems who worked all their lives to find their (usually meager) savings and investments shredded by retirement age or soon afterwards. Some of the cause was corporate greed, some was a personal need to dip into said monies for extreme emergencies and for others there has been a quick erosion of even those savings to supplement a social security check that is low and puts them BELOW the US Poverty Threshold.
That social security check is low for many reasons. Common reasons include the cumulative effect of decades of no parity in wages, shorter time in the work force, not working by virtue of raising children (including siblings and other relatives’ kids), necessity to care for elderly and/or ill parents or family member, and a general exclusion from the various societal rights, family support and other benefits that non-lesbian women experience.
Additionally, lesbians, particularly long-term couples over 60, were not allowed to marry in their twenties and thirties and forties like their Straight counterparts. We cannot underestimate the very real financial repercussions of this. Without having had a legal and socially-accepted way to start their lives together, plan their financial future together and travel the arc of best practices of couples throughout the world, lesbians have been at a financial disadvantage. If their parents or other family members were unable, for whatever reason, to offer the guidance that most males receive, lesbians were, and continue to be, very much on their own, learning by doing, learning by failing and learning by influence.
The official “poverty level” in the USA is about 14.5% or about 45.3 Million people; between 2012 and 2013, 15.8% or just over 7 Million of those in poverty were female (19.9%, or 8 Million, were children, under the age of 18).
The number of people over 65 who are in poverty is about 4.3 Million. Keep in mind that the official poverty threshold level (a strange number that determines which, if any, of the benefits you receive) in this country is about $23,800 FOR A FAMILY OF FOUR! For one person over 65 living alone, it’s just over $11,000.
For a great many, though, living BELOW the Poverty Threshold is a grim reality. Social Security checks of $500 to $700 don’t go very far. According to the Social Security Administration, 46 percent of single people receive 90 percent or more of their income from Social Security. Many receive 100% of their income from Social Security.
It is a well-documented fact that alcoholism and drug addiction were prevalent factors in many over-60 people in this country when they were younger; the incidence for Gay and lesbian people was exceptionally high. Although many were able to re-stabilize their lives, the effects financially can spell long-term problems, not the least of which is trying to play financial catch-up at a time when job security for older workers is tenuous, and jobs for seniors are scarce if work is even possible given health, mobility and opportunity restrictions.
And in a relatively recent trend, the stressors of Baby Boomers transitioning to a new phase of aging (those over 65-70) are causing such stress and anxiety that a whole new wave of substance abuse and other behavioral addictions such as hoarding and gambling is alarmingly on the rise.
For others, a perfect storm of uninformed or non-existent planning, careless disregard for their own future well-being and a history of illnesses have brought them to this place. But does it matter how anyone got here? I suggest it does not; the situation is dire, it affects the entire nation. If the folks who managed to sock away a half million, three-quarters of a million or a full million dollars are running out of money–which branch of the judgment cops are you going to call? It does not matter how anyone got here; what matters is how we put our best minds and efforts into alleviating the suffering, the stigma and the sadness of realizing or feeling that no one cares. No one cares, any more.
Two years ago, an article in the New York Times spelled it out:
Still, $1 million is more money than 9 in 10 American families possess. It may no longer be a symbol of boundless wealth, but as a retirement nest egg, $1 million is relatively big. It may seem like a lot to live on.
But in many ways, it’s not.
Inflation isn’t the only thing that’s whittled down the $1 million. The topsy-turvy world of today’s financial markets — particularly, the still-ultralow interest rates in the bond market — is upending what many people thought they understood about how to pay for life after work.
“We’re facing a crisis right now, and it’s going to get worse,” said Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. “Most people haven’t saved nearly enough, not even people who have put away $1 million.”
For people close to retirement, the problem is acute. The conventional financial advice is that the older you get, the more you should put into bonds, which are widely considered safer than stocks. But consider this bleak picture: A typical 65-year-old couple with $1 million in tax-free municipal bonds want to retire. They plan to withdraw 4 percent of their savings a year — a common, rule-of-thumb drawdown. But under current conditions, if they spend that $40,000 a year, adjusted for inflation, there is a 72 percent probability that they will run through their bond portfolio before they die.
…And if you’re not close to being a millionaire — if you’re starting, say, with $10,000 in financial assets — you’ve got very little flexibility indeed. Yet $10,890 is the median financial net worth of an American household today, according to calculations by Edward N. Wolff, an economics professor at New York University.
The aging boomer population—now facing financial strain, job loss, declining health and grieving the death of a parent or spouse or partner or illness of a sibling—has some addiction experts concerned. Additionally, those who at some time in the past were able to attain clean and sober living are re-threatened by this new set of stressors either in their own lives and/or among their friends.
There are many Gay men—writers and readers–in nearly identical situations, but the earlier years of higher incomes often put even them ahead of their lesbian counterparts on the “just barely making it” spectrum. In other words, the Gay men are just barely making it with MORE money. They are still in poverty by any measurement.
For Transgendered citizens, the outlook is even more grim as they are bucking a visible and invisible wall of rejection, bias and outright bigotry born of misinformation, lack of empathy and religious intolerance. Bisexual citizens have been some of the most “hidden” in the GLBT rainbow, and figures are difficult to come by; however, as that group’s visibility increases and social programs, art and literature show their existence and identity, that should change.
The reasons GLBT senior and elders are an endangered group are many. For some, a job summarily ended by companies that no longer valued loyalty and longevity, while for a great many others, health care was non-existent for enough years to worsen old or new health problems. And if you are not White, the situation triples and quadruples in severity.
And we now have a serious situation with that group of people who fall into the health insurance “coverage gap”—this results from state decisions not to expand Medicaid, meaning their income is above current Medicaid eligibility but below the lower limit for Marketplace premium tax credits. These individuals would have been newly eligible for Medicaid had their state chosen to expand coverage. We’re talking just over 4 Million people.
Adults left in the coverage gap due to current state decisions not to expand Medicaid are concentrated in states with the largest uninsured populations. A quarter of people in the coverage gap reside in Texas, which has both a large uninsured population and very limited Medicaid eligibility. Eighteen percent live in Florida, ten percent North Carolina and eight percent in Georgia.
Over half of the people caught in this (to me) immoral and inhuman “gap” are middle-aged (age 35 to 54) or near elderly (age 55 to 64). According the research done by Kaiser, adults of these ages are likely to have increasing health needs, and research has demonstrated that uninsured people in this age range may leave health needs untreated until they become eligible for Medicare at age 65.
And guess what? Women actually make up the majority of poor uninsured adults in states not expanding their program even though their non-parity, lower former income levels are more likely to qualify them over men for Medicaid under current rules. So, let us count the ways in which women have been screwed! Let us double or triple that when considering the over 62 writers and readers most likely to write or buy lesfic.
They are lucky to have a roof over their heads with SOME food. Many are in what is euphemistically called “precarious housing”—shelters, the lowest rent housing in some of the most dangerous areas of a town, or that not exactly ubiquitous category called “the kindness of strangers.” If you want to see what one non-les-fic, best-selling Romance writer, Hank Phillipi Ryan recently reported on the state of so-called ‘hotels for the homeless’, watch this.
In addition to specific health problems and varying degrees of malnourishment, the lesbian writer and readers who live below the so-called poverty level, suffer from a kind of depression that the experts consider a function of their inadequate environments.
But here’s the point of this particular article: You can’t write when you are depressed; you can’t afford a $2.99 eBook when you are poor. That $2.99 might be two meals. Or part of the (mostly) free insulin program you’re on. Or part of the (mostly) free chemo you’re on. Or your part of the rent for that day.
There are no free lunches! Anyone who attempts to shame the poor and hungry elderly, the older and sick gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender human is on the wrong side of our national need to ‘do the right thing.’
Many older lesbians do try to participate in a kind of underground economy, offering their crafty or artistic or other special skills for extra money; most, though, seem to spend more time sorting through which treasured keepsakes they can sell on eBay or Craigslist. I know one woman who will buy a piece of furniture, like a small table, for $30 and resell it all sanded and painted, for $50. She can do this about once a week if she finds the right table. Another has taken to selling her model car collection. Another sells off her first edition books. Another makes quilts and another crochets. Another sells her own jewelry.
Most are selling stuff off rather than creating or repairing things to sell. Some have no talent or skill that way, many have no spirit. Some are too old to do any kind of work or bring in any kind of extra income, and some are too ill. Even the most optimistic among them, though, are pretty dispirited and in constant anxiety about what will become of them as they age more and health declines or declines further. This is not restricted to just lesbians; most Baby Boomers are feeling this way. It’s just harder for lesbians because they ARE lesbians, and many formerly very Out lesbians still never mention their orientation to physicians, social workers or in any place or institution where they fear retribution in the form of neglect or purposeful abuse.
I have heard that lesbians over 60 are great fun if you can find one! Far too many are invisible. Many are alone, frightened and ill. Far too many are poor. Most try to keep their wonderful sense of humor, gratitude, history and identity. They don’t go out so much, certainly not as much as their younger counterparts, but when they do, they don’t like the same things they did when they were 30, even 40.
But what they DO like is reading, including audio books, film, some travel, lunches or dinners out, learning, friends and family if they have any. It takes some disposable income, and most do not have it. And the writers? Some keep writing…many do not. They know the latest trends, the good old standby stories, the new technology, all of it, and they can still write with the best of them (and often, better). It takes some disposable income, and most do not have it.
But even when they do have a few extra bucks, they are too depressed, too sick, too hungry, too alone, too disillusioned and too damn tired of people asking “Why?”
There is no extra money for the ordinary pleasure of sharing a meal and reading a book, and certainly less money for writing a book, publishing a novel, entering a contest, joining a professional group…attending a convention…no money for that.
I wonder what would happen if even half of the combined membership of the various lesbian writer and reader clubs on Facebook were to donate $20 each month to someone in this position. You may think you don’t know any such lesbians, but I’m here to tell you that you do. But let’s say you think you don’t. How are any of us to find the lesbians in need, how are we to know if their situation is legitimate, how are we to approach them in offering to help? All good questions. It’s up to each of us to find that individual lesbian we could help.
But the bigger question is: How might we go about helping more than one or two? This is something that we need to think about and discuss. There are issues of dignity, issues of pride, temperament (shyness, embarrassment, shame) and issues of access.
SAGE is a wonderful organization that provides services and advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transsexual Elders but it needs help in the form of greater geographical coverage for elders, greater media coverage to leverage its existence and greater participation by GLBT non-elders and allies to ensure that SAGE and any other organization like it has as much visibility and support and hands-on volunteerism as we can give.
I am genuinely impressed that one of the les-fic anthologies coming out Fall 2015 will be giving its proceeds to SAGE. Be sure to support Liz McMullen’s Through The Hourglass, Lesbian Historical Romance with Sacchi Green and Patty G. Henderson, Editors.
Many of us feel we struggle to keep our own heads and family above water. People may be afraid to ask someone if they can help a bit for fear it would become expected of them. I understand. In my experience, though, that’s never been the case. I didn’t miss the 20 (or more) dollars, and nothing was ever taken for granted. I actually live on a fixed income, now, but it is far higher than many lesbians I know, and far lower than a few lesbians I know; but I got rich the day I realized I wasn’t the only lesbian on earth. For most, though, that kind of “rich” will not keep a roof over their head or food and medicine in their cupboards. For many, buying a book is a real luxury, not in the budget and a rare event. And for the writer? Even my own kind of “rich experience” won’t pay my way in the world.
Somewhere in this opportunity is a lesbian answer to a common problem that affects lesbians far more than many others, for all the reasons I have listed. And even if we don’t have all the answers right now (and we don’t), I hope others will join me in discussing the general subject and brainstorming ideas.
A Few Resources: