April 15, 2006 National public radio
Retiring on the Edge of Poverty in Rural America
All Things Considered, · Forty years ago, a third of the nation's elderly lived below the poverty line. Now, just one in 10 seniors is considered poor. That plunge in the elderly poverty rate is credited to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid
and other assistance programs.
But the safety net they provide is fragile, especially in rural areas and among elderly women. In Harrison County, Ohio, a rural area of some 16,000 people spread across 400 square miles of rolling Appalachian foothills, a delicate
balance keeps rural seniors housed, warm and fed.
For Harrison County resident Billie Leas, retirement means some reliance on assistance programs. Once a month, she receives a box filled with 35 pounds worth of free, government-commodity food -- dried milk, corn flakes, peas, peanut
butter, evaporated milk and canned meat, vegetables, fruit and juice.
Leas, a widow close to 80, says she gets by on less than $250 a week. Her husband worked at a coal mine and steel mill, but he died six months short of a pension. So Leas depends on Social Security, most of which goes to rent, heat,
power, groceries and medicine. A safety net of county, state and federal programs also helps. Leas says it is difficult to accept this kind of aid. She never imagined she'd still be struggling to get by in retirement. "I did think [I'd] have a pension
which would help me, but I don't. And I try to do the best I can," she says.
Billie Leas is not exceptional, in Harrison County or elsewhere. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, close to 30 percent of rural seniors, aged 65 and up, are poor or nearly poor. That's five percentage points higher than urban and
suburban seniors. This poverty rate rises for women, climbs even higher for widows, and continues to climb with age.
"We've never seen it so bad," says Suzanne Bauer, who directs the Senior Center in Cadiz, Ohio, the Harrison County seat. "People are doing without medications, and they're worried about trying to heat their homes. There's just more
and more need."
The center distributes 186 food boxes each month. Bauer says there's a need, but no money, for at least 50 more. "Each month is just a crisis for them," she says of the seniors her center serves. "Do we buy food? Do we buy medicine?
Or do we heat our house? That's their choice."
A Mixed Economic Outlook
The Harrison County economy once boomed with farming, mining and milling. But those industries have long been in decline. The area now offers young people few economic opportunities, and many have moved to make their living elsewhere. That's left the
county with a smaller tax base with which to fund programs for the poor.
"What's left is the people who raised their families here and lived here. And now they're here by themselves," says Bill Lowry. He works for the mid-Ohio Food Bank, which supplies Harrison and 14 other counties with food boxes for
Many of those who remain are women. According to the Census Bureau, elderly women are twice as likely to live in poverty as elderly men. In Harrison County, 80 percent of those served by the Senior Center are women. Most are widowed
or divorced. Some husbands left decent pensions behind -- until mines and mills went bankrupt. There isn't much family support, either, with children and grandchildren gone, notes the Senior Center's Bauer. Every month, she says, she gets calls from
children who have relocated across the country, asking her to check in on their elderly parents.
Many of the jobs still left in Harrison County are service jobs, and they pay, on average, just $7.50 an hour -- poverty pay for a family of three. One in five people in Harrison is 65 or older. Seniors outnumber 18-to-24-year-olds
almost three to one. Low wages also diminish the tax base, so the safety net seniors depend on is both fragile and threatened.
Scott Blackburn directs the Harrison County Office of Job and Family Services, the primary supporter of the Senior Center. The food box program, he notes, is federally funded. And it has no funds in the president's proposed budget.
If the budget cut holds, half a million seniors nationwide will lose their monthly food boxes, according to America's Second Harvest, a food advocacy group. Federal, state and county funding for other key programs is also uncertain, Blackburn
Harrison County resident Marie Shambaugh, a 94-year-old widow, inspects her monthly food box.
Rural areas generally have a higher proportion of older persons in their total population than urban areas, and nonmetro poverty rates for older persons are higher than metro rates.
Women represent 58 percent of the rural population age 65 and older, and 71 percent of the rural population age 85 and older.
Because women outnumber men at older ages and are more likely to be poor, policies affecting rural health and pension programs are key to their financial standing.
Source: Carolyn Rogers/USDA
Harrison County's "Silver Spade" is believed to be the biggest coal shovel still in use in the Eastern U.S., but it's about to the be retired. Forty years ago, 3,000 miners worked in this and the neighboring county, compared with about 300 today.
Harrison County at a Glance:
-- In 2000, the median poverty rate in Harrison County fell within the range of the national median (12.5 percent).
--Poverty in the southeastern quadrant of Ohio decreased more than the national median decline 2000 and 2003. This may be due to the revitalization of coal mining in the region.
--Per capita Social Security disability payments and food stamp payments are above the national median.
-- The percent of houses without plumbing or phones is above the national median.
-- Elderly persons make up a larger share of the population in Harrison compared with the state and the nation.
-- About 70 percent of Harrison County's population has a high school education or less, compared with 53 percent of the general population of Ohio and 48 percent of the nation as a whole.
-- For much of the last 20 years, the county has experienced negative population change.
-- Until 2000, unemployment in Harrison County was significantly higher than in the rest of Ohio. The low level in 2000 may reflect a decline in the number of persons in the labor force.
-- Per capita income in Harrison County is slightly more than two-thirds the national per capita income (which was $30,000 in 2003).
Source: Amy Glasmeier/Poverty in America Project