Ansberry’s Grim Tales of the Non-Retired

I suspect I’m not the only one who read this WSJ story about workers in their 70s and 80s scuffling to find work flipping burgers and crowding community job centers to “retrain” and found my natural feelings of sympathy laced with a vague sense of foreboding.

Written by Clare Ansberry, one of the Journal’s truly great reporters and writers, these tales of financial hardship and insecurity are more than compelling. For everyone in 401(k) Nation, they’re ominous.

AKRON, Ohio — Mary Appleby, 76 years old, lost her job in January as a cashier at a courthouse cafeteria here. She is now looking for minimum-wage work.

Mary Bennett, 80, began filling out applications for fast-food restaurants and convenience stores after she was laid off last March as a machinist. Fred Dase, 81, a bartender until last summer, also needs another job.

This is real, simple journalism—my favorite kind. It sheds light on an important social and economic reality while serving to connect the Journal’s two million mostly better-off readers with individuals struggling in a collapsed economy, and, perhaps, with their own anxieties.

With jobs so scarce, people in their seventh and eighth decades are up against those half their age in a desperate scramble for work.

Yikes. And there are real stats to back up the premise (my emphasis):

The number of unemployed workers 75 and older increased to more than 73,000 in January, up 46% from the prior January. Among workers 65 and older, the jobless rate stands at 5.7%. That’s below the national average, but well above what it was in previous recessions, including the recession of 1981, when it reached at 4.3%.

The growing numbers reflect, in part, an increase in the number of older workers. The percentage of people 65 and older who are in the work force rose to 16.8% at year end, from 11.9% a decade earlier. Among people 75 and older, the increase was even greater — to 7.3%, from 4.7%.

But it’s the anecdotes that get you. I notice that many of the stories—without intending to—illustrate how structural problems in the economy tend to reinforce each other. In the following case, inadequate pension and health care systems combine with a sputtering American jobs machine to create severe economic distress late in the life of Fred Dase.

Mr. Dase, the unemployed bartender, knows. He spent 40 years working at Pittsburgh taverns and at his own bar, never receiving a pension. Over the years, when the $1,625 Social Security check he and his wife receive each month didn’t cover prescriptions or other medical costs such as supplemental Medicare insurance, they used their charge cards. Last year, when their credit-card debt reached $29,000, they took out a $26,000 home-equity loan to pay off most of it. He still owes $5,000 on one credit card, and needs to come up with $363 a month for eight years to pay off the home-equity loan.

Mr. Dase had been working at a local Veterans of Foreign Wars club as a bartender. But he had to leave in August because it required too much standing. He looked for other jobs, applying at Big Lot stores, but he never heard back. “Who is going to hire an 81-year-old man?” he asks.

Three weeks ago, he entered a jobs-training program called the Senior Community Service Employment Program. The program pays him $7.15 an hour to stuff envelopes and greet visitors at the human-services center in Turtle Creek, Pa. “It helps quite a bit,” he says. “Towards the end of the month, we start to run out of food. But luckily my daughter comes and helps us out.”

And here’s another:

Lois Humphrey, 80, has trouble climbing stairs and suffers severe hearing loss, so she needs an amplifier on her phone. She had to leave her department-store job because it was too hard on her feet. But she must keep working to pay for rent and prescriptions. She started at Experience Works in 2000. She has moved from one community organization to another in her Mechanicsburg, Pa., community, receiving different training along the way.

She is now back with Experience Works, the nonprofit training and placement organization, which thus far has been unable to find her a private-sector job. “I’ve been stuck in here,” she says, but gladly so. “I still need to work because of medications,” says Ms. Humphrey, who has cancer, diabetes and arthritis.

These are people, as the saying goes, who worked hard all their lives, played by the rules, one assumes, and …

Ms. Bennett, the laid-off machinist, had worked steadily since she entered a dress factory at the age of 17, taking time off only for the births of her seven children and a quintuple-bypass surgery in 1995. After a divorce, she worked two jobs, assembling coffee pots in the day and working at truck stops or tending bar at night. When one factory or shop or restaurant closed, she would look for another with a help-wanted sign posted in the window.

In her mid 70s, she left the truck stop hoping to retire, but found that she couldn’t afford to. She applied at a machine shop in central Pennsylvania. Although she had never been a machinist, she got the job, and began making parts for door hinges, trucks, cranes and guns for $9 an hour. “I’m an easy person to teach,” she says.

Ms. Bennett and a few dozen others were laid off last March. She applied at restaurants, stores and the local mall, which needed a cleaning person. She had two interviews. They seemed to go well, but she never heard back. “I thought I had a good chance, but a lot of places want to hire younger people,” she says.

Man. But Ansberry, whose work on the elderly and other subjects has graced the Journal’s pages for many years, isn’t done yet. We still haven’t even gotten to Mary Appleby and her 13-year-old dog:

Ms. Appleby, of Akron, is still without a job. For 18 years, she had worked at a small snack shop in the basement of the Summit County Courthouse. She cooked, cleaned tables and served. As her knees got weak and she relied increasingly on a cane, she was stationed at the cash register.

She earned only minimum wage, but it helped supplement her $723-a-month Social Security check, and was enough to make her house payments. Five years ago, she tore down her childhood home, which needed too many costly repairs, and built a small white bungalow in its place. Ms. Appleby, who never married and has outlived most of her relatives, other than a few far-flung cousins, took out a loan — a move she now regrets.

Uh, oh, this might turn out to be one of CNBC’s “losers.”

Last year, sales at the snack shop, called Buddy’s Place, fell as more office workers began packing lunches and governments trimmed staff, resulting in fewer people stopping for coffee and soup. The owner, Aaron Hopkins, who is 36 and blind, watched labor costs balloon to 29% of sales. That put him in danger of losing his own business. Under a state program for the visually impaired that got him the snack-shop job, he had to keep labor costs down to no more than 20% of sales. Mr. Hopkins, who earned $22,000 last year, reluctantly laid off Ms. Appleby.

Her mobility and age limit her options. She doesn’t have a résumé. A local law firm organized a benefit to help her get through the winter and pay mortgage bills. “It is our way, as courthouse family, to try to do something to help her get back on her feet,” says Jonathan Sinn, an Akron attorney. Given her age and health, Mr. Sinn doubts she will be able to get another job in the court.

I pause here to add emphasis:

She is considering knee surgery, which may make her more mobile, and thus more marketable. She is applying for unemployment.

“I was waiting to see if [Mr. Hopkins] would call me back, and he hasn’t,” says Ms. Appleby. She lives modestly, with Timmy, a 13-year-old white spaniel mix, amid piles of papers, boxes and a lone black-and-white photo from her high-school graduation. “I was fine with Social Security and my job. I have to find other work.”

Tough to read, but a great story.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.