La Opinion/New America Media, News Feature, Araceli Martinez Ortega, Posted: Mar 26, 2012
Part 1 or 2 articles. Read Part 2 here.
SACRAMENTO, Calif.– “It is a horrible thing! When I am eating is when I remember my son more than ever, and I say only God knows what they are giving him to eat. I wouldn’t wish what I am going through on anybody,” said María Solorzano.
Her eyes brimming with tears, Solorzano explained that since two years ago, when her son was brought to Pelican State Prison, she has been unable to visit him.
Solorzano, 66, lives in Bakerfield. Her income is not enough to pay for the 18-hour automobile drive to Crescent City, almost at the California-Oregon border, where Pelican State Prison is located.
Living on Social Security, Donated Food
Her son is in prison due to the Three Strikes law and faces a 25 years to life sentence for two robberies. “We live on Social Security. I receive $506 per month, and my husband $1,386. From that, we have to pay $1,200 for the mortgage on our house,” she said.
“Sometimes when we don’t have enough, and I have to ask for food at the church or the food banks,” she added.
María Solorzano is one of the thousands of Hispanic fathers and mothers ages 60 or older, who live a double struggle: They have adult children in prison, and their limited incomes, mainly from Social Security, are not enough to enable them to visit their incarcerated loved ones.
According to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, Hispanics typically work in low-paying jobs that don’t many to have a savings plan for retirement. More than half of Latinos (53 percent) depend on Social Security for 90 percent of their income. About half this group (44% percent) lives only on Social Security.
Many of those Hispanic elders, such as Solorzano, are also very sick. “I suffer from diabetes, high cholesterol, the disks from my high back are not good, and I get terrible
Social Security and Latinos
More than 6 million Latino families receive Social Security.
Men: Receive average retirement benefits of $12,815 per year.
Women: $9,605 per year.
Source: Social Security Administration, 2010
pains,” she said. She had a cataract surgery only days before her interview for this article.
Solorzano had to stop working in 1982 at a loudspeaker factory in San Fernando to take care of her husband. He was a aircraft mechanic until he began to have epileptic attacks.
She came from Mexico to California, where she worked in the fields since she was a little girl. Social Security payroll taxes were not paid for most of the years she worked, which accounts for the minimum amount she receives.
Latinos Live Longer—But Sicker
Jeff Cruz, director of Latinos for a Secure Retirement (LSR), a national organization based in Washington, D.C., observed, “Social Security has become insurance for the Hispanic community in their old age because they live longer than other ethnic groups.”
Cruz is a member of the Commission to Modernize Social Security, which published a report last fall titled Plan for a New Future: The Impact of the Social Security Reform in People of Color. The study shows that once Latinos turn 65, they live on average to 85, three more years than any other group.
But at the same time, Hispanic elders like Solorzano suffer more chronic diseases, such as diabetes, lupus, attacks, and heart diseases, prostate and kidney problems, said Fernando Torres-Gil, vice president of the National Council on Disability and Director of the Center for Policy Research on Aging at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“The good news is that we live more years–but we are also debilitated by the chronic diseases. Therefore we have less ability to compete in the labor market,” stressed Torres-Gil, who served as head of the U.S Administration on Aging under President Clinton.
So if the cuts proposed by some Democratic and Republican leaders to increase the eligibility age for Social Security or to reduce the annual cost of living adjustment (COLA) take place, Latinos would be among those most impacted.
“Social Security has not contributed with a single penny to the national deficit, so the major danger that older beneficiaries of this program face is not the privatization of the system but the cost of- living adjustment,” Cruz specifies said.
If Congress enacts proposed changes in the formula used to calculate the COLA each year, Latinos and other elders who rely mostly on Social Security would increasingly fall short of the cost of living, Cruz explained. By age 85 seniors would receive a $1,000 less per year than they do today in inflation-adjusted dollars, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
“It will lead them to live in a huge poverty,” Cruz stated.
A Son Too Far and Costly to See
Old-age poverty is exactly what has kept Oralia Cortez, 67, a Bakersfield’s resident from seeing her son, Luis Antonio Santiago, for the past six months. He is an inmate at the Folsom State Prison and sentenced to 30 years due to two thefts under the Three Strikes law.
“I am very sad because I don’t have money to go. Gasoline along would be $150, and it would cost more than $200 for two hotel nights, and at least $100 for food. What can I do? I only get $300 from Social Security, and my husband gets $ 900,” she said with desperation, her voice breaking with emotion.
According to the recent report, “Black and Latino Retirement (in) Security,” from the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, Latino elders face the highest poverty rate of all ethnic groups in the United States, 14.3 percent.
“Recent household surveys show that retirees of color, especially blacks and Latinos, rely more heavily on Social Security and have less access to other types of retirement income than their white counterparts,” said the study’s author, Nari Rhee.
Araceli Martinez Ortega wrote these series as part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media.