Statistics never tell the whole story: A reflection on seniors’ poverty

Submitted by Sheryl Rooth

For three months in a row this year, February, March and April our jobless rate grew. And grew, to a whopping 7.3%. If you know anyone who is unemployed or under-employed and desperately looking for work, the disappointment continues. Statistics never tell the whole story. And they never reveal the human side of those numbers.

Only a year ago, our lower 6.5% jobless rate was greatly attributed to baby-boomers beginning their mass exodus of the working world and gliding gracefully into their retirement. At least, that’s what the investment companies and our government would like us to believe. In Canada, we have 8 million baby-boomers and their departure from the workforce will most definitely put a dent in our economy. However, what we don’t talk about is the debt seniors are retiring with and how they are re-entering the workforce to survive.

Senior citizen debt rose 6.8% in 2014. The average debt load carried by a senior entering retirement is $13 380, according to Market Business News. The average debt load for Canadians not at retirement age is $20 891. This figure is based on only material items and bill payments, not housing. At a quick glance, the numbers aren’t that far apart. However, on a fixed income any debt is another growing bill to tackle and make a sacrifice to pay. When we were hit by the recession, with job losses and RRSP income dropping significantly, a comfortable retirement was left out of reach for many.

I remember how charming I thought it was to have senior greeters at Walmart. Now I know, it’s not necessarily because they need to fill their day. They need to pay their bills. And as you look around while you do your daily errands, it’s not surprising to see retired Londoners taking the place of the youth who traditionally held the minimum wage jobs. Financially comfortable seniors volunteer. Those struggling to make ends meet are looking for work.

Every day I see the results of poverty in our community through my job. The number of seniors that access our food bank and other services increases yearly. It’s not people who have fallen through the cracks of the system. These are people who lost their jobs ten or twelve years before retirement and never recovered. Or they’ve had serious health issues that forced them out of their jobs and onto ODSP. Perhaps a spouse passed away and left the family in debt they couldn’t climb out of. The reasons are as numerous as the number of seniors living in desperate poverty in London. And I will tell you first hand, it is sobering enough to hear someone humbly ask for a bar of soap or powdered milk because they are desperate for it. It is gut wrenching to hear a 75 year old ask for it.

My grandparents lived their life virtually debt free. They were careful with their money, didn’t buy things they didn’t need and weren’t extravagant. And they were happy. Their lives and marriage lasted through the Depression and World War II and every economic up and down for almost 75 years. Theirs was a generation of needs over wants. Where did we lose that way of thinking over the last sixty years? And now, as people my age are working two and three part-time jobs to make ends meet because the traditional full-time jobs are drying up, we are unaccustomed to living with a standard of needs over wants. It’s a new way of thinking. And a long and challenging road ahead if we refuse to do it.