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Elderly Women Eating from Garbage Cans

It seemed she was not a homeless person eating from garbage cans to alleviate hunger, but an elderly woman working a strategy to extend her monthly budget.
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This weekend, while the right-wing continued its violent rhetoric against Democrats, I saw something that I had hoped I would never see in my lifetime: an elderly woman eating directly out of a garbage can in the middle of a crowded cafe.

At first it did not quite register. The cafe where I was sitting was busy and there were quite a few elderly women walking around the room. Suddenly, one person caught my eye: a white women in her early 70s pulling a grocery pull-cart with one hand and carrying a single piece of salmon sushi in the other hand. My eyes followed her as she passed by me, although not for any particular reason, and I watched as she bent over to look into the garbage can just behind my table, holding the sushi slightly away from the opening, stood back up, and then sat down at a bench nearby. I chuckled to myself and thought: Funny old gal. Wants to make sure she's not throwing fish in the recycling bin. I continued eating.

A few minutes minutes later I noticed her walk back the other way. The sushi was gone, but this time she stopped in front of a different garbage can opposite my table and bent forward so that her face was halfway into the opening. This time, instead of walking away she opened the front door of the wooden stand that housed the garbage can, tilted the can towards her with one hand, and then reached in with the other hand so that her entire body up to her neck vanished for a moment behind the black plastic liner. When she reappeared seconds later, she had a half-eaten chicken leg in her fingers, which she brought close to her eyes for inspection while simultaneously tilting the garbage can back into place and closing the front door of the wooden stand.

Leaning against the opening of the wooden stand, she placed the chicken leg on a plastic carry-out tray that she retrieved from the top of her pull-cart, quickly turning the leg from side to side a few times. Then she lifted it up to her nose, then closely stared at the spots that bore the marks of what looked like a single, quick bite from original owner. And before the situation quite registered, before I had a sense of how intently I was staring at this elderly woman, she jerked the chicken leg to her mouth, pulled it back, looked closely again, then placed it on her tray and disappeared around the corner. I did not see her again.

Besides the fact that she was eating garbage, the woman looked "ordinary." I live in an area with a high density of elderly women and this particular woman appeared no different than most. It was a cold night and she was dressed warmly. Her pull-cart was half filled with what appeared to be groceries. She had a scarf and eyeglasses. Her hands looked clear, her hair was combed. What was most startling was how normal she looked and the horrifying scenario her normal appearance raised in my mind.

It seemed she was not a homeless person eating from garbage cans to alleviate hunger, but an elderly woman working a strategy to extend her monthly budget.

America's Dirty Secret: Elderly Poor Women

At the end of the Clinton Administration, the White House commissioned a study looking into the retirement security of women in America. It is a startling study for anyone interested in the related questions of poverty and aging in the United States.

Some key findings from that study (full PDF of report):

  • Women Have Lower Income in Retirement than Men -- And Thus Higher Poverty. In 1997, median income for elderly unmarried women (widowed, divorced, separated, and never married) was $11,161, compared with $14,769 for elderly unmarried men and $29,278 for elderly married couples. Thus, the poverty rate for elderly women was higher than that of men: in 1997, the poverty rate of elderly women was 13.1 percent, compared to 7.0 percent among men. Among unmarried elderly women, the poverty rate was significantly higher -- about 19 percent.

  • Social Security Is Particularly Important to Women. Elderly unmarried women -- including widows -- get 51 percent of their total income from Social Security. Unmarried elderly men get 39 percent, while elderly married couples get 36 percent of their income from Social Security. For 25 percent of unmarried women, Social Security is their only source of income, compared to 9 percent of married couples and 20 percent of unmarried men. Without Social Security benefits, the elderly poverty rate among women would have been 52.2 percent and among widows would have been 60.6 percent.
  • Women Face Greater Economic Challenges in Retirement. First, women tend to live longer: a woman who is 65 years old today can expect to live to 85, while a 65 year old man can expect to live to 81. Second, women have lower lifetime earnings than men do. And third, women reach retirement with smaller pensions and other assets than men do.
  • In other words, the problem of old-age poverty in the United States is disproportionately a problem facing women. Thus, Social Security and its complex layering of benefits is disproportionately a system that American women draw upon to avoid slipping into debilitating levels of poverty.

    Of all the statistics in this report, this is perhaps the most astounding:

    Women make up nearly three quarters--72 percent--of the increasing number of Americans over 85 years old: Because women live longer, on average, than men, women make up 72 percent of all beneficiaries age 85 and above.

    This general statistic gets even more dramatic as the population ages, such that by the time the population approaches the late 80s, we see that a vast majority of Social Security recipients are women:

    The logical extension of this situation as discovered by the working group that commissioned the study: without Social Security, the number of elderly women living below the poverty line would spike to more than 50 percent:

    Why this report came into existence in the first place is just as interesting as the findings itself as it opens onto the broader discussion raised by the sight of elderly women eating out of garbage cans in America.

    A Nation Once Concerned With the Well-Being of Women

    In 1995 the United Nations convened the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. One of the key action items agreed upon at the conference was a decision to promote gender mainstreaming. Simply put, "gender mainstreaming" is a process of studying the impact that any given policy will have on women as compared to men.

    In anticipation of this recommendation by the conference, President Clinton established what he called the "President's Interagency Council on Women" (archive here) headed by then Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. The Council was charged with the task of applying the Beijing World Conference Action Agenda to the United States.

    The very first strategic objective of that Action Agenda--action item "A.1"--and hence the very top priority of President Clinton's Interagency Council on Women--was women and poverty. It is worth reading the first part of item A.1 from 1995--the actions recommended for governments--not merely for the progressive agenda it lays out for eradicating the social problem of poverty amongst women, but to get a sense of how much the United States has abandoned this agenda in the past six years [emphasis mine]:

    1. Review and modify, with the full and equal participation of women, macroeconomic and social policies with a view to achieving the objectives of the Platform for Action;

  • Analyze, from a gender perspective, policies and programmes - including those related to macroeconomic stability, structural adjustment, external debt problems, taxation, investments, employment, markets and all relevant sectors of the economy - with respect to their impact on poverty, on inequality and particularly on women; assess their impact on family well-being and conditions and adjust them, as appropriate, to promote more equitable distribution of productive assets, wealth, opportunities, income and services;
  • Pursue and implement sound and stable macroeconomic and sectoral policies that are designed and monitored with the full and equal participation of women, encourage broad-based sustained economic growth, address the structural causes of poverty and are geared towards eradicating poverty and reducing gender-based inequality within the overall framework of achieving people-centred sustainable development;
  • Restructure and target the allocation of public expenditures to promote women's economic opportunities and equal access to productive resources and to address the basic social, educational and health needs of women, particularly those living in poverty;
  • Develop agricultural and fishing sectors, where and as necessary, in order to ensure, as appropriate, household and national food security and food self-sufficiency, by allocating the necessary financial, technical and human resources;
  • Develop policies and programmes to promote equitable distribution of food within the household;
  • Provide adequate safety nets and strengthen State-based and community-based support systems, as an integral part of social policy, in order to enable women living in poverty to withstand adverse economic environments and preserve their livelihood, assets and revenues in times of crisis;
  • Generate economic policies that have a positive impact on the employment and income of women workers in both the formal and informal sectors and adopt specific measures to address women's unemployment, in particular their long-term unemployment;
  • Formulate and implement, when necessary, specific economic, social, agricultural and related policies in support of female-headed households;
  • Develop and implement anti-poverty programmes, including employment schemes, that improve access to food for women living in poverty, including through the use of appropriate pricing and distribution mechanisms;
  • Ensure the full realization of the human rights of all women migrants, including women migrant workers, and their protection against violence and exploitation; introduce measures for the empowerment of documented women migrants, including women migrant workers; facilitate the productive employment of documented migrant women through greater recognition of their skills, foreign education and credentials, and facilitate their full integration into the labour force;
  • Introduce measures to integrate or reintegrate women living in poverty and socially marginalized women into productive employment and the economic mainstream; ensure that internally displaced women have full access to economic opportunities and that the qualifications and skills of immigrant and refugee women are recognized;
  • Enable women to obtain affordable housing and access to land by, among other things, removing all obstacles to access, with special emphasis on meeting the needs of women, especially those living in poverty and female heads of household;
  • Formulate and implement policies and programmes that enhance the access of women agricultural and fisheries producers (including subsistence farmers and producers, especially in rural areas) to financial, technical, extension and marketing services; provide access to and control of land, appropriate infrastructure and technology in order to increase women's incomes and promote household food security, especially in rural areas and, where appropriate, encourage the development of producer-owned, market-based cooperatives;
  • Create social security systems wherever they do not exist, or review them with a view to placing individual women and men on an equal footing, at every stage of their lives;
  • Ensure access to free or low-cost legal services, including legal literacy, especially designed to reach women living in poverty;
  • Take particular measures to promote and strengthen policies and programmes for indigenous women with their full participation and respect for their cultural diversity, so that they have opportunities and the possibility of choice in the development process in order to eradicate the poverty that affects them.
  • These recommendations painted quite a startling picture of a world where women still face such basic problems as equal access to food within their own homes. But they also pointed to the importance of social security systems as a key factor in maintaining equality for women throughout their lives. The Interagency Council, thus, led to the report and the statistics cited above.

    Bush Dismantles the Gender Mainstreaming Put in Place by Clinton

    It should come as no shock to anyone that President Bush not only abandoned these initiatives against women's poverty, but he actually disbanded the agencies set up by Clinton. As reported in 2004 by Deborah Zabarenko on Reuters, not only did the Bush administration eliminate the Interagency Council on Women, he actually deleted from government web sites many of the resources created by the past initiatives:

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration has stripped information on a range of women's issues from government Web sites, apparently in pursuit of a political agenda, researchers reported on Wednesday [...]

    At the Labor Department's Women's Bureau Web site, the report said 25 key publications on subjects ranging from pay equity to child care to issues relating to black and Latina women and women business owners had been deleted with no explanation. Key government offices dedicated to addressing the needs of women have been disbanded [...] These include the Office of Women's Initiatives and Outreach in the White House and the President's Interagency Council on Women.

    At the Pentagon, the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services was slated to be dismantled but was saved after an outcry. However, the report said this committee now focused on issues such as health care for servicewomen and the effects of deployment on families, but not on equity and access issues.

    In the area of scientific objectivity, the report said two advisory committees recommended the Food and Drug Administration approve a contraceptive known as Plan B as a nonprescription drug but were blocked by political pressure from doing so.

    Regarding violence against women, the report said the U.S. attorney general, as of March 2004, had failed to conduct and publish a study required under the 2000 Violence Against Women Act to investigate discrimination against domestic violence victims in getting insurance.

    One way to interpret Bush's purging of information and disbanding of agencies is to place it in the wider context of Bush's efforts to strip the federal government of anything that even vaguely resembled women's equal rights vis-à-vis abortion. Many of these reports seemed to be thrown out with the anti-abortion bathwater that Bush tossed into the street in his first term.

    But the other context was a radical policy priority that Bush introduced into his policies. From the moment he took office, Bush turned government into an instrument that blocked advances in gender equality, racial equality and economic equality, while at the same time reinventing government as an advocate for "faith-based" or religious organizations.

    Where Clinton established an interagency on gender mainstreaming, Bush established a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (January 29, 2001). Interestingly, the responsibilities charged to Bush's Faith-Based office have similar elements to those addressed by Clinton's Interagency on Women, albeit with drastically different implications:

    Section 1. Policy. Faith-based and other community organizations are indispensable in meeting the needs of poor Americans and distressed neighborhoods. Government cannot be replaced by such organizations, but it can and should welcome them as partners. The paramount goal is compassionate results, and private and charitable community groups, including religious ones, should have the fullest opportunity permitted by law to compete on a level playing field, so long as they achieve valid public purposes, such as curbing crime, conquering addiction, strengthening families and neighborhoods, and overcoming poverty. This delivery of social services must be results oriented and should value the bedrock principles of pluralism, nondiscrimination, evenhandedness, and neutrality.

    Whereas the Clinton administration was concerned with understanding and ending such social problems as women's access to resources and opportunity--ending women's poverty--the Bush administration was concerned that religious institutions have equal access to government funding. The Bush administration became an advocate for the rights of faith-based organizations, while at the same time it charged ahead with plans to dismantle Social Security--the very system that was found to be the greatest barrier to poverty amongst elderly women.

    Eating Garbage

    The federal government cannot by itself guarantee the end of poverty for any group in society. But it should anger every American to learn that our government was in the process of identifying and addressing what will be the key poverty demographic for the next 50 years: elderly women.

    It would be too simplistic to say that when President Bush disbanded the Interagency Council on Women he set in motion a set of social policies that led to elderly women eating out of garbage cans. That would be too simplistic.

    But it is worth seeing how this horrific site leads us back to the great strides at dealing with women's poverty that our country was making before it was hijacked by the violent authoritarian policies of President Bush.

    And this brings us to the most frustrating aspect of this story: What happened to the poor women at the opening of my story?

    Unfortunately, she vanished before I had a chance to find her. No doubt, her strategy for feeding out of garbage cans also involved moving from spot to spot so as not to be caught by employees of the cafe. As an individual--one person--I was unable to do anything directly to remedy her situation.

    Yet, the great purpose of government is specifically to help people in these situations--to act in a way that individuals cannot act.

    What shameful chapter in American history this has become. A chapter where our government tosses our soldiers like garbage into a war they cannot win, then leave them neglected in hospitals filled with rats.

    A chapter where our government leaves people to drown in their homes and then blames them for not being prepared for a hurricane.

    A chapter where our government destroys all evidence of advocating for women, and becomes numb to the problem of elderly women feeding out of garbage cans.

    (cross posted from Frameshop)

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