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Golden Years Are Anything But for Needy Seniors

Elderly: Instead of enjoying their retirement, some are living with their kids or are returning to work to make ends meet.

June 11, 1996|JOCELYN Y. STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They were lovely affairs, extravagant ceremonies to honor Pauline Jenkins for some praiseworthy deed or another. In her younger years Jenkins ran two businesses of her own, headed the Pacoima Historical Society and worked in more charitable and civic organizations than she can remember.

Now that she is 85, those affairs have long ceased--the gilded plaques sit in a pile in her living room. But in the solitude of her Pacoima apartment, Jenkins is still at work. Now the task is figuring out how to make her $614 Social Security check cover rent, utilities and food and financing the extras, like stamps and cigarettes.

"I just go without," Jenkins said, sitting on her bed.

There are times, lonely moments, when she marvels at her fate.

"I was once a very important person," she said. "They had big parties to give me these things--champagne and all. What happened? I guess I just got old."

Since the 1960s, the poverty rate among older people has improved significantly, primarily thanks to programs like Social Security and Medicare, researchers say. But this success masks the significant numbers of older people who, like Jenkins, have not been lifted up with this rising tide.

The very old, widowed, single women and minorities suffer comparatively higher rates of poverty than the overall numbers suggest, and their lives bear little relation to the "greedy geezer" image perpetuated in national discussions about entitlement programs for older people.

"Some of them don't get SSI," or Supplemental Security Income, said the Rev. Alicia Broadous-Duncan, executive director of the Northeast Valley Multipurpose Senior Center in Pacoima.

"Others only did [housecleaning] and they have minimal Social Security. Some are living with their children, and the children are receiving AFDC or general relief. It's rough."

In the San Fernando Valley, about 11,000 seniors, or 4.4% of residents age 60 and over, live at or below poverty. In Glendale, about 10% of people 65 and older live in poverty, while the rate in Burbank is about 8% for people in that age group.

Although the poverty rate for older people in the Valley and throughout the city declined slightly between 1980 and 1990, there are troubling signs that the rate is on the way up, said Dan Gerski, a planner with the city's Department of Aging.

In the northwest Valley, the population of older people increased by more than 12,000 during the decade, more than any other area in the city. The second-largest increase was registered in the southwest Valley.

As the population of older people increases, so will the need for services that help keep them out of poverty, a need that is already evident.

In the city of Burbank, about one-third of the people on the waiting list for federally subsidized Section 8 housing are 62 or older. In Glendale, about one-third are 60 and older. And in Los Angeles, about 20% of Section 8 participants are 62-plus.

Even people who own their own homes may find that maintaining the property and property taxes is far too expensive on a fixed income. "Sometimes, seniors have to make choices, whether they will eat or pay their rent," said Ann D. Smith, general manager of the city's Department of Aging.

Social Security Debate

Nationally, the increasing population of older people has helped fuel a debate over Social Security and other entitlement programs.

Some predict that the elderly will overwhelm resources, creating a future of indebtedness for younger generations of Americans. Others argue that older people are being scapegoated and that the discussion has been too narrowly framed.

Martha Phillips of the Washington-based Concord Coalition, an anti-deficit group, argues that America is "becoming a nation of Floridas."

"There are 3.3 working-age people to support every retiree. About when the baby boom generation is fully retired, we will be down to about half that," Phillips said at a national conference on aging.

"Older people consume more resources than younger people, even when you count the cost of elementary, secondary and higher education."

But some experts believe that such dire data serve to alarm rather than enlighten.

"Increasingly, the retirement of the baby boomers is being defined solely in financial terms, as an impending demographic disaster," said Eric Kingson, an associate professor at Boston College's Graduate School of Social Work.

"In doing so, it distracts attention from important ethical and moral concerns. . . . Overlooked is the moral obligation that each of us--old and young--have to one another," Kingson said.

Kingson argues that there are solutions to the projected shortfalls in Social Security that do not require massive structural changes and cutbacks that would harm millions of older people.

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