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Retiring on the Edge of Poverty in Rural America

Harrison County resident Marie Shambaugh, a 94-year-old widow, inspects her monthly food box.
Howard Berkes, NPR
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Harrison County resident Marie Shambaugh, a 94-year-old widow, inspects her monthly food box.
poor women
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Harrison County is located in the southeastern quadrant of Ohio.
Doug Beach for NPR /
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Harrison County is located in the southeastern quadrant of Ohio.
Harrison County's "Silver Spade" is believed to be the biggest coal shovel still in use in the Eastern U.S., but it's about to the be retired. Forty years ago, 3,000 miners worked in this and the neighboring county, compared with about 300 today.
Howard Berkes, NPR /
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Harrison County's "Silver Spade" is believed to be the biggest coal shovel still in use in the Eastern U.S., but it's about to the be retired. Forty years ago, 3,000 miners worked in this and the neighboring county, compared with about 300 today.

Forty years ago, a third of the nation's elderly lived below the poverty line. Now, just one in 10 seniors is considered poor. That plunge in the elderly poverty rate is credited to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other assistance programs.

But the safety net they provide is fragile, especially in rural areas and among elderly women. In Harrison County, Ohio, a rural area of some 16,000 people spread across 400 square miles of rolling Appalachian foothills, a delicate balance keeps rural seniors housed, warm and fed.

For Harrison County resident Billie Leas, retirement means some reliance on assistance programs. Once a month, she receives a box filled with 35 pounds worth of free, government-commodity food -- dried milk, corn flakes, peas, peanut butter, evaporated milk and canned meat, vegetables, fruit and juice.

Leas, a widow close to 80, says she gets by on less than $250 a week. Her husband worked at a coal mine and steel mill, but he died six months short of a pension. So Leas depends on Social Security, most of which goes to rent, heat, power, groceries and medicine. A safety net of county, state and federal programs also helps. Leas says it is difficult to accept this kind of aid. She never imagined she'd still be struggling to get by in retirement. "I did think [I'd] have a pension which would help me, but I don't. And I try to do the best I can," she says.

Billie Leas is not exceptional, in Harrison County or elsewhere. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, close to 30 percent of rural seniors, aged 65 and up, are poor or nearly poor. That's five percentage points higher than urban and suburban seniors. This poverty rate rises for women, climbs even higher for widows, and continues to climb with age.

"We've never seen it so bad," says Suzanne Bauer, who directs the Senior Center in Cadiz, Ohio, the Harrison County seat. "People are doing without medications, and they're worried about trying to heat their homes. There's just more and more need."

The center distributes 186 food boxes each month. Bauer says there's a need, but no money, for at least 50 more. "Each month is just a crisis for them," she says of the seniors her center serves. "Do we buy food? Do we buy medicine? Or do we heat our house? That's their choice."

A Mixed Economic Outlook

The Harrison County economy once boomed with farming, mining and milling. But those industries have long been in decline. The area now offers young people few economic opportunities, and many have moved to make their living elsewhere. That's left the county with a smaller tax base with which to fund programs for the poor.

"What's left is the people who raised their families here and lived here. And now they're here by themselves," says Bill Lowry. He works for the mid-Ohio Food Bank, which supplies Harrison and 14 other counties with food boxes for seniors.

Many of those who remain are women. According to the Census Bureau, elderly women are twice as likely to live in poverty as elderly men. In Harrison County, 80 percent of those served by the Senior Center are women. Most are widowed or divorced. Some husbands left decent pensions behind -- until mines and mills went bankrupt. There isn't much family support, either, with children and grandchildren gone, notes the Senior Center's Bauer. Every month, she says, she gets calls from children who have relocated across the country, asking her to check in on their elderly parents.

Many of the jobs still left in Harrison County are service jobs, and they pay, on average, just $7.50 an hour -- poverty pay for a family of three. One in five people in Harrison is 65 or older. Seniors outnumber 18-to-24-year-olds almost three to one. Low wages also diminish the tax base, so the safety net seniors depend on is both fragile and threatened.

Scott Blackburn directs the Harrison County Office of Job and Family Services, the primary supporter of the Senior Center. The food box program, he notes, is federally funded. And it has no funds in the president's proposed budget. If the budget cut holds, half a million seniors nationwide will lose their monthly food boxes, according to America's Second Harvest, a food advocacy group. Federal, state and county funding for other key programs is also uncertain, Blackburn says.

There is some hope for a brighter economy, which could lead to better jobs, a bigger tax base, and more money for social programs. Harrison Economic Development Director Chris Copeland points to a $73 million ethanol plant scheduled to be built in the county. "We're hearing weekly from businesses that are interested in starting in the county," he says, "because they know there will be spin-off opportunities as a result of this project. They will employ 107 people on site. They'll have an additional 60 truck driving jobs. But I think that the added number of jobs in the community will far outweigh those numbers."

Optimism about the plant and the economy is not shared by some of the county's elderly who are dependant on a food program that could soon disappear. Seniors like Bernice Hawkins worry about their children and grandchildren growing old and facing the same hardships she now confronts. "I feel sorry for the people bringing these children in today," she says. "What have they got to look forward to?"

Marie Shambaugh, a 94-year-old widow who still lives in the same bright yellow farmhouse she was born in, shares that pessimism. She just spent close to $900, almost her entire monthly Social Security check, to fill her fuel tanks with heating oil. That's the third time she's done that since summer.

"Do you know what somebody said to me the other day?" Shambaugh says, noting the pessimism of her peers. "They thought the world was coming to an end."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.