On her 72nd birthday, Kylie woke 10 minutes before her alarm. The room’s chill cut through her thin blanket. She shivered as she walked through the apartment she shared with three other seniors.Every bone in her body throbbed or ached. She had no money for a doctor or for prescriptions to help with her arthritis.
She walked to the bathroom sink and flicked tepid rust-colored water on her face. She knew better than to drink the tap water, though Kylie felt deeply thirsty.
“Today’s my day,” she said, out loud. “I’m going to find a job. And I’m going to get a big gallon jug of aqua.”
“Forget the treats,” said one roomie, Matt, 72, from his bed in the kitchen. “Rent’s due this week.”
“I’ll find something,” Kylie replied.
If Kylie landed a job today, she could withdraw the last few thousand from her retirement account. That’d cover her monthly share of rent and bills. With a job, she could start to save again. She was willing to do anything: scrub Mall-Mart’s bathroom floor on her hands and knees, slice mushrooms at Starbucks Pizza.
This wasn’t how she’d planned to spend her retirement years. But no sense in complaining now.
The privatized retirement accounts sounded great when Republicans came up with the idea 50 years ago. She recalled public outcries from those who feared the idea would compromise the nation’s Social Security program. Some called the president a liar and accused him of simply wanting to line the pockets of stockbrokers and investment bankers.
George W. Bush was the first president Kylie had voted for. He was a man of God, her pastor said. Kylie trusted her pastor.
Like most women in their 20s, Kylie didn’t think about retirement. As a senior in college, she dated a chemistry student named Bruce. The two graduated and married. Bruce was snapped up by a pesticide manufacturer. Kylie taught third grade. Both were healthy. They bought a home. They barely noticed the deductions from paychecks that were being invested in stocks and mutual funds. When Bruce’s account hit $15,000, he felt rich.
Then came a hazardous chemical spill resulting from the inept storage and disposal practices of Bruce’s employer. Kylie had to quit her job to take care of Bruce. She wanted to sue to make the company pay the medical bill, but she was surprised when a lawyer told her that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld legislation barring individuals from any “frivolous lawsuits” against corporations.
Medical bills drained the couple’s savings. They sold their house, rented an apartment. The day after Bruce died, Kylie went back to work. She didn’t miss a day in the next 20 years. When she turned 66, school administrators talked retirement. Kylie wasn’t sure how she’d support herself.
In the ‘30s, there’d been a market boom. Kylie’s retirement account had ballooned. But an economic downturn in the mid-'40s, when foreign governments began calling on the United States to pay its debts, left Kylie and hundreds of thousands of American workers with almost nothing.
After retiring, Kylie ran an ad for roommates and looked for work.
At age 67, she packed yard sale curiosities into boxes at the eBay warehouse in Sparks. She worked there till it closed, then spent four years as a housekeeper at a casino-hotel, stocking shelves at Safeway part-time.
Today, with any luck, she’d be coming home in a spiffy new Mall-Mart jumpsuit. She brushed her hair and slipped on her shoes, their soles worn practically through.
It felt good to take care of herself and not have to rely on the government, she thought as she walked into the cold dark morning.