Lee Miller and Friend, Photograph by Man Ray
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.