MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
You can spend your life working and still not have enough to retire. About half of private sector employers do not offer a retirement plan, so for about a quarter of older Americans, Social Security is not just an important part of their retirement income. It's virtually all of it. This week, NPR's Ina Jaffe is reporting on the finances of older Americans. She introduces us to two women who have meager incomes but who are building rich lives.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Country roads, take me home.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Each Friday morning, about a dozen residents at the Long Beach Senior Arts Colony gather around the piano for a little singing.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO PLAYING)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) West Virginia...
JAFFE: They're not trained singers or artists or anything like that. They live here because it's affordable, at least compared to the rest of the Los Angeles area. The art classes, writing workshops, singing groups and so on are just a bonus. One of the singers is Veronica Bryant. She came here from her hometown of Detroit six years ago at the insistence of her daughter, who lives nearby.
VERONICA BRYANT: So here I am. I couldn't fight my only child.
JAFFE: Bryant is divorced and raised her daughter as a single mom, but it seems like she took care of everyone in her family and her then-husband's family, too.
BRYANT: I helped my mom when her husband was sick. I took care of my grandmother, and I moved her in with me. When I was married, I took care of my husband's godmother, and then it went to his mom, and then it went to his stepfather.
JAFFE: Meanwhile, she worked as a respiratory therapist and then as a mental health technician, but family came first. She insisted they have an annual vacation. Her daughter went to private school and had music and dance lessons.
BRYANT: Oh, believe me, I never wanted anybody to be without in the family.
JAFFE: But in her early 60s, Bryant fell, injured a knee and eventually went on disability. Health setbacks are one of the leading reasons that people retire before they'd planned, and while Bryant had been making sure the rest of her family was all right, she hadn't saved much for herself. Now 73 years old, most of her Social Security goes for rent. She has a little bit of money coming in from retirement funds, but she still sometimes finds herself in line at the food bank. This kind of life was a big adjustment, and Bryant says she was slow to make it.
BRYANT: It threw me. Like, I can't live like I used to because at this age, to end up having a bankruptcy - I was sort of in bed for a little while trying to figure out how could this have happened.
HEIDI HARTMANN: Everything that women do in their lives is reflected in their retirement, sad to say.
JAFFE: That's Heidi Hartmann, the founding president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research. She says older women are almost twice as likely to be poor as older men.
HARTMANN: Very typically, they don't work as much as men, and they may take years off to take care of children and older parents. They also are affected more by divorce. Usually, they have custody of the children. That pretty much bankrupts them.
JAFFE: A slight exaggeration, she says, but since women worked less and generally were paid less than men...
HARTMANN: They receive smaller pensions if they have one from work, and they also receive less Social Security because their earnings were lower.
JAFFE: Hartmann seems to be telling the life story of another resident of the Long Beach Senior Arts Colony, 65-year-old Kyle Cohen.
KYLE COHEN: Seventy-nine percent of my Social Security is spent on rent.
JAFFE: That leaves how much?
COHEN: That leaves $245, I think.
JAFFE: Cohen does get food stamps, but everything else is out of pocket - utilities, cleaning supplies, transportation...
COHEN: Penny, get down.
JAFFE: ...And food for her bouncy little dog Penny. Like Veronica Bryant, Kyle Cohen was divorced and raised two children as a single mother and moved to California to be near her grown daughter. Ten years ago, she went on disability with an injured back and fibromyalgia. Before that, she almost always worked. Actually, she had lots of jobs.
COHEN: I got a job at the local radio and TV stations writing copy...
JAFFE: She also worked as a baby photographer.
COHEN: ...And worked for a uniform rental company.
JAFFE: And she put together package tours for a travel agency, and finally...
COHEN: I went back and got my graduate degree in library and became a children's librarian.
JAFFE: Cohen had a little pension from her work in libraries, but she ran through it to keep things going when she was between jobs. She was on the waiting list for two years for a nearby senior arts colony before she got her place in Long Beach. Around the country, seniors are typically on waiting lists for years to get into affordable or subsidized apartments, so despite the strain of making the rent, Kyle Cohen and Veronica Bryant feel lucky to live here.
COHEN: From the first day that I moved in, my spirits were really lifted because where I'd been living before, it really was people just sitting there, waiting to die.
BRYANT: It's exciting learning different things, like speaking Spanish or computer.
JAFFE: There's just so much to do here that they don't have to pay for.
BRYANT: The physical activities, yoga - it's great.
COHEN: Yeah, and add to that new dance class.
BRYANT: Yeah, new dance class.
JAFFE: It's a busy life, and they say it takes their minds off worrying about how they're going to keep getting by on little more than Social Security.
Ina Jaffe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.