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Profile: Helen

Helen, a 76-year-old retired professor, depends heavily on Social Security. Her monthly Social Security retiree benefit of $594 accounts for over 50 percent of her total monthly income (approximately $1,000). Helen earned her Ph.D. in 1964 after using her entire savings for her education. To prepare for her retirement, she enrolled in the Teacher’s Insurance Annuity Insurance of America-College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF) as a supplement to another retirement plan. Helen never realized that the TIAA-CREF benefit of $400 would come to comprise so much of her monthly income. In fact, it’s the only other steady income she has besides Social Security.

Following a legal dispute at age 46 with the state university where she was an associate professor, Helen was prohibited from drawing from her state pension. Although a small portion of her pension was granted in a lump sum, it was insufficient to provide for a comfortable retirement. She has not worked full-time since her employment at the university ended.

Retirement has not been easy for Helen. To compensate for her lack of pension benefits and savings, Helen has been forced to sell her furniture and other possessions, to cash out her life insurance policy, and to depend on food stamps. Helen has never owned a home and is currently living in Section 8 housing. “Whether they own or rent, older women spend a higher proportion of their incomes on housing than their male counterparts. Women (such as myself) account for the great majority of elderly tenants in federally assisted housing for the poor,” observes Helen.

Helen is solely responsible for her retirement, as she never married and has no children. She joins the ranks of women whose economic status has been overlooked because of assumptions that are made about women’s marital status.

“A surprising percentage of women do not get married. Most Americans assume that when a woman grows up and even if she gets a career, she will automatically get married and have children, and that is not the case. Most low-income ‘seniors’ are women. A large part of that population has never been married and can only depend on their own income and benefits for their retirement. We depend heavily on Social Security because we have no choice.”

As a longtime advocate for the preservation and strengthening of Social Security, Helen is very active in the aging community. She is a member of several advisory groups, including the North Senior Center Advisory Council, the Berkeley Housing Authority Board, and the Alameda County Advisory Commission on Aging. In addition to her advocacy work, Helen is the author of Women and Aging: A Guide to Literature. And until recently, she taught a class on “Strong Women” at the Berkeley Adult School’s Older Adult Program.

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