Araceli Martínez Ortega is the Sacramento correspondent for La Opinión in Los Angeles. This is the first of two articles written under New America Media’s 2010 Ethnic Elders Fellowship program sponsored by The Atlantic Philanthropies.
A few blocks from California’s political epicenter, the capitol in Sacramento, in a neighborhood where drug sales are common, on the second floor of a dilapidated house, are three dark rooms. Living there is 82-year old don Jesus Ruiz.
"Sometimes I wish they’d just hang me from a tree,” he declared in Spanish. “I do not have hope. I cannot carry anything. I walk crawling like a cat. My neighbors do not help me, and my children turned out to be devils. They only come to take my money, and if I do not give it to them, they mistreat me. The other day, my son told me that he was going to beat me."
As don Jesus speaks, no emotion escapes his face.
Born in the United States of Mexican parents, don Jesus worked for years as a vegetable loader in a cannery. "I threw my back out. I carried 50-pound boxes. One of my shoulders is very bad. I walk and I stop. I walk and I stop,” he said.
None of his six children help him, he said. "When I had a surgery in 2006--a triple bypass--my children only looked for me to ask for money. I used to give them $60, $70 every time they came to see me. I had to give my son $120 so he could help me to move. He even threatened to hit me because I told him I did not want him to blow his horn anymore when he drives past by my home."
Don Jesus lives on $840 a month from Social Security, of which $400 goes for rent. He struggles to make ends meet. "I buy food in the dollar stores. When I need a shirt I go to K-Mart. I get a haircut for free at Cosmetology schools where students practice,” he said.
680,000 Latino Elders in Poverty Alone
According to a report released by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 680,000 California Latinos ages 65 or older live alone and in poverty. Half of those living with a spouse cannot pay for their basic needs.
However, to qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) in the Golden State, a person’s income must be below the federal poverty line, currently $10,210 per year for an individual.
That's not the case for Helen Garcia, who was born in Southern California, but whose parents are Mexicans. However her burden is heavy, and her case challenges the Hispanic belief that children take care of their elderly parents.
After 26 years working as an elevator operator at the State Capitol building, Garcia was among those laid off in June 2008 by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, due to the budget cuts that he made to close the state deficit.
"I thought I’d work until I was 86-years-old, but I was forced to retire. However, if I have the opportunity to come back to work, I will do it," she stated.
Garcia, 83, does not consider herself poor because she receives $642 in unemployment benefits every two weeks, plus $853 from the Social Security and $1,114 from her pension each month.
However, Garcia’s unemployment benefits are very close to expiring. “I am going to be in a very hard situation with $1,967 per month,” she confided. She has to pay $369 each month for the mobile home that she just bought, plus $500 to rent her space in a mobile homes park in East Sacramento – almost 45 percent just for housing.
What is more concerning is that at her age--overweigh with diabetes type 2 and arthritis in one leg—Garcia still takes care of her 50-year-old son. He cannot work because of a back injury and clinical depression.
"He does not receive any help from the state,” Garcia said. “I have to care for him and cook for him, although he helps me to run errands.”
Census figures show that the cities with the largest numbers of impoverished Latino elders living alone are Los Angeles, San Francisco, Fresno, Santa Ana, Oxnard, Riverside and Sacramento.
Steven Wallace, a professor at the University of California Los Angeles School of Public Health and associate director at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, said that the recession explains only part of the economic difficulties that confront Latino elders.
"They get work as janitors, as building-site workers and in restaurants with low salaries and no pension. They do not have savings and many don’t have Social Security," Wallace said.
Twenty percent of the Latino women ages 65 or older continue as domestic workers cleaning houses, restaurants and other locations, Wallace said.
According to Wallace, among men over 65 who continue working, 21 percent are Latino. Most of the elder Latinos work as janitors, gardeners and security guards. However, 14 percent work on transportation and six percent as truck drivers; 13 percent are mechanics and factory workers.
Fernando Torres-Gil, director of the Center for Policy Research on Aging at UCLA and former head of the U.S. Administration on Aging (1993-1996) said that on average Latinos earn lower wages that the general U.S. population.
On average, Latinos receive lower wages than the population as a whole. The median income for Latinos from jobs covered by Social Security was $22,400 in 2002, compared to $28,000 for all covered workers, a difference of 20 percent. Average lifetime income from jobs covered by Social Security was also lower for Latinos than for the entire population.
An example is Helen Garcia, who used to make $22,000 per year as an elevator operator at the State Capitol.
Wallace does not see a short-term solution for Latino elders living in poverty. "They have limited resources. They face health problems and food insecurity, while in the last two years the state government has cut help. I can see no way out of this situation in the next five or six years," he said.
Ironically, another factor against Latinos is that they live longer than the rest of the U.S. population.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) estimates that, based on 2004 U.S. census data, Latino men aged 65 can expect to live an additional 20 years, compared to 16 years for all men. SSA also shows that Latino women aged 65 or older can expect to live an additional 23 years, compared to 20 years for all women.
As a result, Latinos can expect to receive Social Security benefits over a longer period of time than general population. But Latinos also experience higher rates of chronic illness and the need for long-term care.
Torres-Gil considers that with no Social Security, more than half of Latino elders would live in poverty. His analysis of 2002 census figures shows that in that year alone, the program saved 673,000 older California Latinos from going into poverty.
Nevertheless, Social Security is not the entire solution for Latino elders. The program’s benefits are at a lower level than many advanced nations and leave many seniors living in impoverished conditions. But like don Jesus Ruiz, at least those benefits keep them off the streets and with a roof over their heads.