Norma has been working since she was a teenager. She started working as a farmworker, then became a cannery worker and now works in childcare.
Despite decades of hard work—sometimes holding down two jobs—now at 60 years old, she is unsure if she “will ever be able to retire,” said Norma, whose name has been changed.
Norma’s story is illustrative of the challenges that Latino seniors face trying to afford retirement, health care, food and housing.
Latinos are the greatest growing demographic in California, comprising 75 percent of the population growth in the state, including 20 percent of adults 65 and over and a quarter of adults in the 50-64 age group.
Despite the economic and social challenges faced by the Latino community, Latinos often live long lives. However, our quality of life and health can be improved. The experience of our grandparents, parents and the Latino elder community is key in understanding California’s most pressing health, social and economic justice challenges.
Norma, for example, has faced a lifetime of struggle trying to make ends meet.
“Sometimes I had to do two jobs and that was still not enough to pay for rent and food,” she said. The Salinas resident decided to go back to school to get her daycare license so she could earn more; however, she was not able to finish her certification.
“My husband and I worked very hard because we wanted to buy a house where we could live with our children,” Norma said. “We saved some money, but when we were ready to buy a house, our youngest daughter got very sick.”
Because the family had savings, they didn’t qualify for the state’s low-income health program, Medi-Cal. But Norma and her husband’s employers didn’t provide health insurance, so the family “ended up paying for health care until we had no more savings,” Norma said.
“That was the last time we were able to save that much money,” she said.
Historically, Latinos as well as other elders of color, have had less access to various sources of retirement income, including pensions, savings, and access to safety net services. This has been the case because many of them grew up during a time of segregation.
Because of this, we see low rates of home ownership by Latinos. Home ownership has traditionally been seen as a way for families to grow wealth and have a good quality of life.
We can also see economic disparities in the savings of Medicare beneficiaries. White seniors save on average $91,950, black seniors save $12,350, and Latinos save $9,800.
One of the other factors leading to low retirement income for Latinos is that this demographic is over represented in low-income, physical labor jobs. Many times, these jobs provide no access to retirement savings plans that can supplement Social Security income. In addition, these jobs often put workers at risk of injury, reducing their earning potential.
As a result, in California, median annual income from Social Security for Latino seniors is $14,868. Surviving in California on such retirement income puts Latino seniors at great risk of homelessness and hunger.
In California, the proportion of Latinos age 65 and older who live in poverty is 16 percent—twice the percentage of their white counterparts. The disparities are even more perverse in regions like the Central Valley, where 46 percent of elder Latinos live in poverty compared to 39 percent of Latinos living in other parts of the state.
Food insecurity among Latino seniors is unfortunately too common. Latinos are about 3.5 times more likely than other Californians in their age group to suffer from food insecurity. Not to mention that over a third of Latinos (36 percent) in the Central Valley have limited access to food, compared to 21 percent of Latinos in other parts of the state.
We also know that fewer Latinos use services that can reduce their risk of homelessness and chronic disease, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Supplemental Security Income, compared to other seniors, even though there is a great need.
In California, for example, only 18 percent of Latino seniors utilize one of the food assistance programs, CalFresh or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. When it comes to the Supplemental Security Income, which helps adults with food, medication, housing and other necessities, only 6 percent of eligible Latino seniors are enrolled in the program.
Without accessing benefits, Latino seniors may need to continue working into old age or to retrain and seek jobs in a new sector. This poverty cycle and lack of access to health care preventive services and healthy food puts Latino seniors at risk for higher complication rates for preventable diseases, leading to low quality of life.
Having policies and programs in place that address the economic and social disparities of our Latino elders is critical for the well-being of everyone. In my next op ed, I will present solutions that can help our elders age well.
These solutions can help the many Latino seniors like Norma who struggle to make ends meet.
“I don’t know if I will be able to live with my retirement payment,” Norma said. “I am always looking for an opportunity to make extra money.”
Rebecca DeLaRosa is the director of legislative affairs for the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California.