As The Income Gap Grows, Fewer Women Can Afford To Retire — And I’m One Of Them

by Alex Poppe

Light reflects off Dad’s glasses onto my Skype screen. He looks worried. “You’re almost 50,” he reminds me. “You need to think about where you want to be living in the next 20 years.”

Twenty years! It strikes me that at 83, he probably won’t be alive in twenty years. Will I?

Recently, the New York Times published an article examining life expectancy and income levels in the United States. According to their report, the top one percent of American men and women live fifteen (men) and ten (women) years longer than the poorest one percent. As the income gap has grown, so has longevity.

The situation is grimmer for single women than for married women and for all men. According to a recent CNBC article, women are 80% more likely than men to be impoverished at age 65 or older. The 79 cents on the dollar that women generally earn compared to men really adds up. Not only do women earn less and therefore are unable to maximize retirement savings plans as men do, but they also live longer and face higher retirement expenses. The cherry on top? Women 65 and older receive an income that is 25% lower than what men receive. Single gals suffer the most: They lack the financial security of a dual-earner household, dual social security benefits and spouse retirement benefits.

I am a single teacher working in northern Iraq making $28,800 per year. Can I afford to grow old in the United States?

My stats: Upon graduating, I worked for Mobil Oil Corporation for two years, quit to become an actor for fourteen years, became a teacher and have been working abroad for most of the last ten years. I have never made more than $45,000 a year (in the heyday of New York City wine bars), have no health insurance, no assets, no debt, no pension, a stunted IRA, a master’s degree and no children.

“Your mother and I have a combined income from social security of $3,000 a month. You won’t have that because you haven’t been contributing to social security.” His voice sounds gruff, but that’s just his way. The lines on his forehead disappear into the top of his scalp. “We live off that and our savings.”

I don’t have much savings.

He reaches for his five o’clock gin and tonic. His throat must be sore from the spirited comments he’s just made concerning my desire to work in Colombia after my contract in Iraq finishes. After living in seven different countries, my wanderlust has not abated. I’m fifty, going on twenty. Just last week, my Aunt Jodie said, “Your generation sure does get around,” after relating her grandkids’ latest work/study abroad adventures. I don’t point out that I’m old enough to be her grandchildren’s mother.

The clatter of pans floats in from the kitchen where Mom is making dinner.

I can’t cook either.

“Don’t you want to come home?” He seems genuinely puzzled. Dad is a social studies urban legend come to life. He came to the United States in 1947, a World War Two refugee from Berlin, without education or language, and by sheer hard work, learned English at night school while working as a plumbers apprentice, earned a business degree from Northwestern University and made a comfortable, middle-class living for himself. Does he look at me and see disappointment?

Can I afford to grow old in the United States?

I’ve tried to come home — twice. Both times, I couldn’t find gainful employment even though I had been valedictorian of the business school at Marquette University and had a varied skill set. I barely cobbled together an income working two jobs. Working abroad affords me the opportunity to travel, dine with pistol-packing Kurdish hitmen, hangout with Assyrian sheiks, map refugee camps with local NGOs — really live. How can I explain to Dad that coming home to find a job with health insurance and benefits feels like a death sentence?

My jaw locks. I recently chipped a molar grinding my teeth in my sleep. As Dad sips his gin and tonic, I try not to stare. I don’t have the solace of alcohol. “Come home to what? The only jobs I’ll be able to find are as adjuncts and they don’t offer benefits. You still have to run around and work multiple jobs to scrape by.” In summer 2008, I returned to the United States, to New York City, which is home to me even though Mom and Dad live in Chicago. I commuted almost two hours each way from my sublet, five times a week to be an adjunct instructor at Brooklyn College and then 45 minutes each way three time a week to teach at Sunnyside Community Center. No health insurance or retirement savings plan included.

“You’ll be paying into Social Security at least.” His ice cubes tinkle in the glass.

Would it matter? At this late stage, what kind of quality of life could I expect to have were I to retire in the United States?

According to CNN Money, I would need assets fourteen to sixteen times my salary if I want to retire when I am sixty, or a boat load of money in the bank. The Washington Monthly says that only one in five Americans think they will be able to support themselves comfortably in old age. It also finds the state of American retirement security is “approaching crisis proportions.”

Even if I did return to the States permanently, there is no guarantee I would find employment with a company that offered an employer-sponsored retirement savings plan such as a 401(k) like Dad had. One in three Americans lack access to these kinds of savings plans. Setting up somewhere in the States would eat up a huge part of my meager savings: I would need a car, a bed, health insurance, appliances, not to mention a place to live. Besides what I have with me in Iraq, my worldly possessions share the closet with Mom’s overflow of clothing in the spare bedroom of their condominium. A friend in Connecticut has a few boxes of my books.

The weight of things.

I asked the other teachers at work if they plan to return to the United States for retirement. Most said no. Teachers in their twenties, thirties and forties all thought they would not have enough money to live in the United States when they are old. All are looking to settle permanently abroad. Is the United States headed the way of other oligarchic countries — citizens are either very rich or the very poor with not a lot in between?

Lifehack reports that the average fifty-year-old has $43,797 in savings, which is not a lot to retire on. However, that money can go much farther abroad, depending on which country you pick. I don’t tell Dad that Colombia is on Lifehack’s list of “10 Amazing Places You Can Afford to Retire Abroad.”

Mom comes out of the kitchen carrying her scotch on the rocks. “The pot’s on.” She must be making sauce. Mom’s convinced Dad is as healthy as he is because she gives him three square meals a day. She settles next to my father, both of them shrunken into the frame of the screen. Dad’s shoulders are hunched inward; Mom’s eyes look tired. They seem fragile.

“I’ll be home to visit in August when my contract is over.” There’s a lump pushing up my throat, making it hard to talk. When these two old people are gone, there’ll be one less place to call home.

Top photo: American Advisors Group/Flickr

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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