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Retirement Challenges Facing Women of Color

The harsh economic reality for millions of Americans


Editor’s note: This article is part of Next Avenue’s 2015 Influencers in Aging project honoring 50 people changing how we age and think about aging. Here, Vickie Elisa, of Mothers’ Voices Georgiaone of the Influencers — blogs about the retirement challenges for older women of color.

Once a week, I look forward to a weekly midnight “check-in-on-life” phone call from a good friend. For women, these calls often become the free mental health counseling needed to survive life’s ups and downs. They’re the “get a glass of wine calls” where you can candidly release pent-up frustrations, complain about an inconsiderate neighbor or simply share a small victory, such as losing 15 pounds on a new dark chocolate diet.

However, ever since my friend lost her job in secondary education three years ago due to an emotionally jarring organizational restructuring, I’ve begun to tense up when the phone rings at midnight. At 50, my friend has experienced tremendous economic hardships that have severely limited her ability to prepare for a secure and successful retirement.

Economic Reality for Aging Women of Color

Unfortunately, my girlfriend’s economic reality is the same one faced by millions of aging women of color in America.

After my friend lost her $55,000-a-year position, she was unable to find another job before having to file for bankruptcy. Because she had no income or savings, her home went into foreclosure and she had two vehicles repossessed. To add to her indignity, she became the victim of predatory lending and owed $100,000 after pursuing a Ph.D. degree she never completed due to the stress of trying to save her home from foreclosure.

I’ve run out of financial advice, monetary gifts, Bible scriptures or positive affirmations to keep my friend motivated, focused and hopeful.

To survive financially, she was forced to withdraw all the money she had in her 457(b) retirement fund — a plan that’s similar to a 401(k), but is for workers at state and local governments and some nonprofits.

Now, after sending out 2,500 resumés, with only a few callbacks and jobs in the $28,000 range going to younger, prettier and “slimmer” women, she is employed as a part-time receptionist earning $12 per hour. This has created a day-to-day struggle to pay her rent, utilities, food and medical expenses.

Running Out of Motivation

As a 17-year community financial educator for the nonprofit Mothers’ Voices Georgia, I’ve simply run out of financial advice, monetary gifts, Bible scriptures or positive affirmations to share with my friend to keep her motivated, focused and still hopeful about planning for her economic future. She’s depressed, stressed and very, very angry.

The tough economic times have hit women of color, in particular, like a 50-ton sledgehammer on steroids.

Solutions to address the economic gaps and challenges must involve strategies that are holistic and comprehensive and that use policy, system and environmental approaches to address a long history of racial, gender and age biases.

What Needs to Be Done

Policymakers, advocates and economic researchers must look at issues such as equal pay, predatory lending, education, health inequities, affordable senior housing, mental health- and substance abuse care and college debt reduction, through a varied, multi-sector, gender, race and age lens.

My group, Mothers’ Voices Georgia, works with other women’s organizations to discuss and research viable solutions that aren’t easy to address but are sorely needed to ensure economic stability for older women of color. We also provide financial education to help low-income women and women of color prepare for retirement using data and research provided by the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER).

However, the work isn’t easy. And, meanwhile, it’s midnight and my phone is ringing.

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