Retiring on the Edge of Poverty in Rural America Close to 30 percent of seniors in rural America are poor or nearly poor. Government assistance provides a safety net, but it's fragile, especially among elderly women. Only a delicate balance keeps many housed, fed and warm.
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Retiring on the Edge of Poverty in Rural America

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Retiring on the Edge of Poverty in Rural America

Retiring on the Edge of Poverty in Rural America

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

And now the face of poverty in rural America. Older Americans are much better off today than they were back in the 1960s, when one-third of the senior population was considered poor. The poverty rate for the elderly is now just one in 10. Some credit Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other assistance programs.

But NPR's Howard Berkes reports that the safety net these programs provide is fragile, especially in rural areas and among senior women.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

Imagine life dependent on a knock at the door.

(Soundbite of knock at a door)

Unidentified Man#1: Hi, there.

Ms. BILLIE LEAS (Resident, Harrison County): Hello.

Unidentified Man: How are you doing? We got your commodities.

Unidentified Man #2: Hi, Ma'am. Would you like them?

BERKES: And a cardboard box of free, government commodity food delivered once a month.

Ms. LEAS: One pack dried milk. Corn flakes, two boxes. We have peas.

BERKES: Billie Leas sorts through the food box in her senior's apartment in Harrison County, Ohio, where close to 16,000 people are scattered across 400 square miles of rolling Appalachian hills. It's as rural as eastern Ohio gets. And it tells a familiar story for seniors in rural places. As Leas tells her story, she uses the word we, even though husband Edward died more than two-decades ago.

Ms. LEAS: We have rent and utilities, car insurance. I have to have a supplement because Medicare doesn't pay it all. They only pay 80 percent. When we don't have enough financial security, it's hard to do that.

(Soundbite of Leas coughing)

BERKES: Leas is close to 80, she says. And 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 and a safety net of county, state and federal programs.

BERKES: Is it difficult for you to accept this kind of help?

Ms. LEAS: Oh, yeah. Has been. We never had to do that. When we were very young, we were through the Depression and all of that. And of course it leaves a inscription on your mind about what and want. And when you start slipping and going back again, it makes it hard.

BERKES: Did you ever imagine your life being like this?

Ms. LEAS: No, never did. Hmm. Well, I did think we would have the pension, which would help me. But we don't. And I don't. And I try to do the best I can.

BERKES: Billie Leas is not exceptional, in Harrison County or elsewhere. According to the Census Bureau, close to 30 percent of rural seniors, age 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.

Ms. SUZANNE BAUER (Director, County Senior Center): We've never seen it so bad. People are doing without medications. And they're worried about trying to heat their homes. And they're just more and more in need.

BERKES: Suzanne Bauer directs the County Senior Center, where she's worked 20 years. The center distributes 186 food boxes each month. Bauer says there is a need but no money for at least 50 more.

Ms. BAUER: Each month it's just a crisis for them. Do we buy food? Do we buy medicine? Or do we heat our house? That's their choice. If you see the economy that we're dealing with, you know that they're going to be in need.

BERKES: The Harrison County economy once boomed. Workers commuted to steel mills in neighboring counties. Miners dug coal above and below ground. There's no better symbol than this, of the prosperity of the past.

(Soundbite of heavy equipment)

Mr. CHRIS COPELAND (Director, Economic Development): This is the Silver Spade. It is the last, to our knowledge, remaining very large mining shovel in operation, at least in the Easter United States.

BERKES: Chris Copeland is Harrison County's economic development director. And he stands at a strip mine where a machine as big and as loud as Godzilla works in a narrow manmade canyon. It scrapes truckloads of limestone, exposing a black seam of coal four feet thick.

Mr. COPELAND: It went into operation in approximately 1965. It is the width of an eight-land highway. And it is the height of the Houston Astrodome.

BERKES: And it's about to be retired, replaced by something smaller but more efficient. That's also the trend for workers. According to Copeland, 3,000 miners worked in this and the neighboring county 40 years ago. About 300 mine now. One steel mill alone had 12,000 workers. But now...

Mr. COPELAND: I think with recent layoffs, fewer than 1,000. So those industries are still here. They're still important to the community. But by no means are they the juggernaut that they were at one time. It's a very different place than it was 20 or 30 years ago in pretty much all aspects.

BERKES: Some workers spent their entire lives at those jobs. Wages and benefits were better than ever. Children followed parents into the mines and mills, and stayed close to home in case aging parents or grandparents needed help. There was plenty of tax revenue for programs helping the poor. And Main Street businesses thrived.

Mr. BILL LOWRY (Employee, Mid-Ohio Food Bank): There was once a nice car dealership in this town. And there were a few nice restaurants. There were shops. And there was a society that supported everybody in its way.

BERKES: Bill Lowry works for the Mid-Ohio Food Bank, which supplies Harrison and 14 other counties with those monthly food boxes for seniors. When coal and steel declined, Lowry says, the good jobs dwindled and younger people moved away.

Mr. LOWRY: They've got families of their own. And they need to support themselves. And 65 miles east of here, in Pittsburgh, there's work. A hundred and twenty miles west of here, in Columbus, there's work. The people who are left are the people who had bought homes 20, 30, 50 years ago. But they aren't worth anything because the young families that would ordinarily be moving into a house like that are buying houses in the suburbs of Cleveland or Columbus or Pittsburgh. And what's left is the people who raised their families here and lived here. And now they're here by themselves.

BERKES: Most of those left behind 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 lost pensions when mines and mills went bankrupt. Some also lost family support when kids and grandkids left.

Suzanne Bauer at the Senior Center.

Ms. BAUER: Every month I get calls. A daughter will call and say my mother lives in Harrison County, what can you do for her?

BERKES: And where's that daughter?

Mr. BAUER: Usually in Texas or Mississippi, or a long way off. And they stay away. They can be in their 50s now, and they're still away.

BERKES: So, Harrison County is aging. Close to 20 percent of the population now is 65 years of age or older. And they outnumber young people, age 18 to 24, almost three to one. Many of the jobs today are service jobs, averaging just $7.50 an hour. That's poverty pay for a family of three. Low wages also strain the tax base and the safety net seniors depend on.

Mr. SCOTT BLACKBURN (Director, Office of Job and Family Services): I've talked to Suzanne, who's the director at the Senior Center. And I've told her. I said as long as I physically can, you know, I fervently believe that, you know, the seniors need to be helped. And I will do it as long as I possibly can.

BERKES: 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's targeted for elimination in the President's proposed budget. If that budget cut holds, half a million seniors nationwide will lose their monthly food box deliveries. Funding for other key programs is also uncertain, says Harrison County's Scott Blackburn.

Mr. BLACKBURN: They're teetering, in my opinion. It makes me wonder and worry.

BERKES: Based on what you're describing, it sounds as if the safety net that keeps people from going over the edge, here in the county, is itself on the edge.

Mr. BLACKBURN: I think that's fair to say, as far as the way the funding has always been in the past, and the way it is now. I truly agree with that.

BERKES: There is hope for a brighter economy, which could lead to better jobs, a bigger tax base, and more money for social programs. And it's something Economic Development Director Chris Copeland is eager to show off.

Mr. COPELAND: We are on Dickerson Church Road. We're headed to the site where Harrison Ethanol, LLC will build its facility. That will be a $73 million capital investment in the county.

BERKES: Copeland sees all kinds of potential for the ethanol plant, which will sit atop a reclaimed strip mine and an abandoned farm. We sit by the site in his car, sheltered from a cold wind and snowflakes, looking across a placid lake.

Mr. COPELAND: We're hearing weekly from businesses that are interested in starting in the county because they know there will be spin-off opportunities as a result of this project. They will employ 107 people onsite. They'll have an additional 60 truck driving jobs. But I think that the added number of jobs in the community will be, far outweigh those numbers.

BERKES: And as if on cue, a small red pickup pulls up with two men looking for work. They were just laid-off from a steel mill.

Unidentified Man #3: Is this where that ethanol place is going to be?

Mr. COPELAND: Not yet. Well, they've been clearing some vegetation.

Unidentified Man #3: Yeah, I see that.

Mr. COPELAND: Hopefully, we'll break ground in the next quarter of this year, sometime in the late spring.

Unidentified Man #3: Is that right? Where would be a good place to go to try to get one of those jobs?

BERKES: The optimism about the plant and the economy is not shared by some of the seniors dependent on boxes of food provided by a program that may soon disappear. To them it seems bad everywhere. They worry about their children and grandchildren growing old and facing what they face. Bernice Hawkins(ph) lives in a seniors apartment in Harrison County.

Ms. BERNICE HAWKINS (Seniors Apartment Resident): I think it's gonna be harder for them. Both parents have to work in order to have a standard income, I guess. I just wouldn't wanna be growing up now. I'm glad that I'm where I'm at today 'cause I feel sorry for the people that's bringing these children into today. What have they got to look forward to? Not much right now.

BERKES: And here's Marie Shambaugh, a 94-year-old widow still living in the bright yellow farmhouse she was born in, sitting by her monthly food box at the kitchen table.

Ms. MARIE SHAMBAUGH (94-Year-Old Widow): The way living is now, the cost of living and everything, I pity the young people the way things are going. Everything's getting worse instead of better.

BERKES: Shambaugh just spent close to $900, almost her entire monthly Social Security check, to fill her fuel tanks with heating oil. That's the third time she's done that since summer.

Ms. SHAMBAUGH: I think of the coming generation, what they're, hmm, coming up to.

BERKES: When you think about your granddaughter's future and maybe growing old here, what are your thoughts about that?

Ms. SHAMBAUGH: Well, I don't think she'll grow old here. I think she'll probably live someplace else.

BERKES: Harrison County, Ohio is not unique. In many parts of the country, rural counties are losing jobs and young people. Older folks remain, and some struggle to survive after leading comfortable lives.

Outside the Harrison County Senior Center, pallets of food boxes ride a lift from a truck bed to the ground. Inmates from the county jail stack the boxes on handcarts and wheel them inside where those who couldn't wait for delivery stand in line. Some called for days, I'm told, wondering when the food boxes would arrive. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

Unidentified Man #4: I'll be glad when it warms up. We got a few back out there. There's always a group outside there.

ELLIOTT: We have photographs of Harrison County, Ohio, and more on our website, npr.org.

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