Public Release: 

Single, elderly women in rural America subject to poverty, isolation

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- They are the unseen Americans. While senior citizens in general have gained a higher level of economic security since the 1960s, single, elderly women living in rural areas are increasingly susceptible to lives of poverty and isolation, according to an article in the Elder Law Journal.

"These women have been part of what has been called Ôthe greatest generation,Õ " wrote Michael L. Reig, an editor at the journal published by the College of Law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "They have worked to see their country rise to prosperity and have battled for an equal place among men. Yet despite all of their accomplishments, they could not find a way to keep from growing old. Today, they are left to endure solitary lives, hidden from view and forgotten by a fast-paced digital society."

Elderly women -- either widowed or divorced -- have endured major changes in living arrangements. Whereas in the past the majority of older people lived with their adult children, by 1990 two-thirds of those above age 64 lived on their own.

This shift has been felt most heavily in rural areas where adult children tend to move away to find jobs. Statistics indicate that the poverty rate for the rural elderly is about 50 percent higher than for the elderly living in metropolitan areas. This relative poverty stems from the greater likelihood that rural residents have worked in agriculture or other industries with low pension coverage.

Widowed or divorced women who seek to generate income by re-entering the workforce must overcome the dearth of employment opportunities in rural areas. And when illness or disability makes individual driving difficult, travel becomes a major problem. Elderly women often depend on a narrowing network of friends or relatives to provide them with needed transportation.

The rural poor also are hurt because they live in aging, older houses with high maintenance costs and low resale values. "Low property values in rural areas, coupled with high replacement costs of housing anywhere else, keep elderly women in place," Reig wrote.

Despite former President Bill ClintonÕs 1999 pledge to reduce poverty among elderly single women, little has been done by the federal government to improve their lot. Nongovernmental organizations -- most notably churches and community groups -- have made the strongest efforts to assist the needy.

"The most direct and effective method to reduce poverty among single elderly women is for the federal government to boost Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits and raise survivor benefits under Society Security," Reig concluded. "It is also imperative that more research be conducted to determine the true scope of poverty among single elderly women throughout rural America."

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