Dec 13, 2016
For some low-income workers, retirement is only a dream
It was a striking image. A photo of an 89-year-old man hunched over, struggling to push his cart with frozen treats. Fidencio Sanchez works long hours every day selling the treats because he couldn't afford to retire. The photo and his story went viral and thousands of people donated more than $384,000 for his retirement.
His story is a window into a dark reality: Many low-wage workers say they can't afford to retire. With no money saved for retirement, home care worker Gwen Strowbridge, 71, of Deerfield, Florida, plans to stay on the job until she can't physically work anymore.
"I can't see it in the future. I'll stop working if my health won't allow me to keep working," said Strowbridge. Now 71, she works six days per week caring for a 100-year-old woman in Florida.
Studies have found that about one-third of low wage workers like Strawbridge say they'll never be able to afford retirement. The problem is particularly acute among minority women.
A 2016 study by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that one-quarter of workers 50 and older say they won't retire. Among low wage workers, earning less than $50,000 a year, it was 33 percent.
Strowbridge's first job, in the 1960s, paid 98 cents an hour, setting her out on a path of low-wage jobs that stretched across five decades. She raised three sons with her husband, Roy, a dock attendant who unloaded cargo from boats. The couple was forced to use the little money they had saved for retirement on family medical issues.
Strowbridge stopped working briefly after she turned 63 to care for her husband, who had quadruple bypass heart surgery. Their Social Security benefits weren't enough to cover medical expenses, rent, utilities and food. When he died, she went back to work.
Jacquelyn B. James, co-director of Boston College's Center on Aging and Work, said it is common for low-wage workers to stay on the job, with no plans for retirement. "It is really easy for them to say 'I'm going to work forever' but things happen," said James. Among those things: health issues. A 2016 report by the nonpartisan research nonprofit National Institute on Retirement Security shows that many black, Latina and Asian women have to work past retirement age to be able to afford basic expenses. Women were 80 percent more likely than men to be impoverished.
The research showed that for men between 70 and 74, about 19 percent of their income comes from wages. For women, it's about 15 percent. "You couldn't put nothing in the bank because I was always underpaid," Strowbridge said. "I just didn't make enough to save.” Januario Salgado's financial situation mirrors Strowbridge's. He never saved for retirement. He is 64 years old and doesn't plan to retire. He works 10 hours, six days per week in a grocery store in a suburb outside Chicago. "I couldn't save," Salgado said in Spanish. "I worked a lot to help my family. I used to send money to my parents in Mexico.” While caring for elderly parents is a norm in Mexican culture, many of the children don't think it's their responsibility, said Salgado, who came to the United States 40 years ago. His sons are among them. Salgado plans to start collecting Social Security benefits when he turns 65 but he will continue to work as long as he is physically able. He doesn't want to become a burden to his children. For Esther Bolanos, 64, the situation is even more difficult. A domestic worker, she has been able to save some money for retirement but said it is not enough. She won't be able to receive Social Security benefits because she doesn't have legal status. "It's sad to think about my situation. I was forced to close my business and leave the economic stability I had in my country to come here," Bolanos said in Spanish. "I left everything behind because of the violence."
Bolanos owned a successful cheese factory in Mexico City, but success made her a target, she said. Her husband was killed and she was robbed at gunpoint twice. After the last robbery, she decided to migrate north.
"I told my daughter, I'm going to take you to a safe place" even if I have to work cleaning houses, she said. If Bolanos had stayed in Mexico City, she would be retired. But now that she's in the U.S., she doesn't think she ever will. "I don't think about retirement," she said. "I think about what would happen to me if I get sick."