Plight of some seniors reveals tales of social insecurity
October 11, 2006
This is not the way Gladys Stancato says she planned to spend her golden years. There was a time she worked in the mortgage department of a bank. She was a real estate broker. She even owned her own beauty school. She had five children, took some college courses, survived a divorce.
She had what she considers a lot of money. But it didn’t last.
When Gladys looks back now, as she approaches age 78, it feels like a dream.
When the money didn’t last, she found herself in the place millions of older Americans wind up: relying on Social Security benefits to survive. A life spent working, raising a family, and following the rules isn’t a guarantee of security.
For the elderly poor, surviving on Social Security and trying to take advantage of confounding government programs can be daunting. Trying to make sense of the system is enough to get a person committed.
Gladys is one example of many people I meet during the year who are caught in the exasperating circle: They receive barely enough to make ends meet, and when they do receive a benefit increase their rent immediately absorbs it.
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Like a lot of older people, Gladys prided herself on being able to use her automobile to go to the store, doctors’ offices and friends’ houses. When the price of gasoline jumped, she was sunk. She sold the car to pay for groceries and necessities.
She clearly regrets her decision, but what was she supposed to do? Gasoline and insurance cost money she didn’t have.
Now she relies on a weekly apartment complex-sponsored van or an occasional haul by the CAT system to take her to get groceries. The drivers are pleasant enough, and picking her up is no problem, but the difficulty is in getting a ride back to her apartment at a reliable time. She’s waited more than three hours for a return trip.
It’s not that the drivers are dawdling, but because there are so many people just like Gladys Stancato.
For Gladys, the big issue is reliable and affordable housing. That’s not surprising given Southern Nevada’s dramatic shortage of cheap, safe apartments.
The plight of the Gladys Stancatos of the world doesn’t make headlines, not with all the wars and political scandal filling the news pages. But when we talk about affordable housing, we often focus on the most noticeable Southern Nevadans: those with no home at all. In doing so, we miss the legion of residents who are not on the street but precariously close to it.
For her part, Gladys is one of the fortunate locals to qualify for and wedge herself into Section 8 housing. Her monthly rent at the Sierra Pines complex is heavily subsidized with the rest coming from her $640 monthly Social Security check.
In truth, she says, the landlord gave her a break just so she could qualify to live there. With the average apartment rent in the Las Vegas metro area $847 per month, it’s easy to see the problem Stancato and many others have in keeping off the street and out of roach-infested conditions. Now she says the ever-changing Section 8 rules have made it harder to live in an apartment with actual bedrooms. Some people might be getting fat by scamming the government, but Gladys doesn’t know any of them.
Although she has medical issues, she tried going back to work. She worked in a department store for a few weeks during the holiday season and earned several hundred dollars, only to find that it set off alarms with her Social Security benefits. She was threatened with having to repay thousands of dollars in benefits, she says.
Every Social Security cost- of-living increase, of course, is immediately consumed by increases in rent, food and medicine. It should be called a “cost of surviving” increase.
“They’re really cutting off people at the knees,” she says. “At the rate that this government is going, you’re going to have a helluva lot more people on the street.
“I can’t afford to buy a pair of shoes. It’s buy shoes, or eat.”
Her experience illustrates a great American sin: running out of money before you run out of time.
• John L. Smith’s column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays. E-mail him at email@example.com or call (702) 383-0295.