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Retiring into financial insecurity

by JOSA SNOW
Staff Reporter | June 11, 2023 1:08 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — For nearly 60 years, Cheryl McTaggert has been serving others — waiting tables, cooking in restaurants, providing in-home care and taking care of her four children.

Now she's trying to plan her own retirement.

“It’s going to be tight for the rest of my life,” she said.

McTaggert’s career path has not led to the stability she hoped for in her 70s.

She started waiting tables at her mom’s Owl Cafe in Hayden when she was 14. She married and had her first child at 17, then dropped out of high school to raise her family.

The one constant for McTaggert is that she has always worked.

She divorced her husband in 1985 and has been an independent single mother ever since.

She tried to plan for the future, but she didn’t have a lot of flexibility. McTaggert thought about going to school a few times, but that didn’t work out.

“When I had the time, I didn’t have the money. And when I had the money, I didn’t have the time,” she said.

At age 73, she says the future is a little scary.

McTaggert has some savings and receives Social Security benefits. But she still works 37 hours a week as a full-time cook at Lake City Center, preparing meals for seniors. She can’t continue to work for long, she said, because it’s exhausting and starting to take a mental toll. She lies awake at night, planning meals.

When she falls asleep, she dreams about cooking.

In 1997, McTaggert moved to Florida, where wages were better. Eventually, she missed her family and her home. She moved back to Kootenai County in 2012 and was earning $8.75 an hour. Over the next eight years, she brought that paltry wage up to an equally paltry $12 per.

“When I first started working with my mother, I made $2.50,” McTaggert said. “You mean to tell me that, in 44 years, I haven’t even come up $10 an hour?”

Since COVID-19 hit, her wages have climbed to $16 per hour, allowing her to save a bit more. But money is still tight.

Her monthly income includes $669 from Social Security after Medicare is deducted plus $2,500 in wages, before taxes. Her major expenses are rent, at $764, and $200 payments on a $3,000 debt she owes at 1% interest. She doesn’t have other major bills.

McTaggert said that, as a great cook, she has very marketable skills to get a job, but can’t work for much longer. Lake City Center will be her final employer.

When she stops working, her savings will quickly dwindle and she doesn’t want to become a burden to her children. She’s in line to receive rental assistance from the Idaho Housing and Finance Association, which she will be eligible for when she has no employment income. But, if her health changes, she won’t be able to afford long-term care, should she need it.

Three of McTaggert’s friends and neighbors are in similar situations — single women of retirement age paying rent and trying to plan the rest of their lives.

Her coworker and neighbor, Dennis Painter, 80, works part-time as a security guard at Lake City Center to cover rising food costs. He buys the same things each week, but grocery bills are climbing.

“Three dollars, four dollars, all [of] that matters,” he said. “It puts a burden on the $1,800 a month I get out of Social Security. And, to correct that, I come and work so that I have that cushion to keep me going.”

In 2021, the average cost of rent in Idaho was about 84% of the average Social Security payment, according to data from the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, up from 69% in 2020.

“Our analysis makes clear that Social Security benefits do not cover retirees' basic housing costs,” Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy analyst May Roberts said.

For people who were able to buy a home or combine incomes in one household, average Social Security payments can cover expenses. But for people who didn’t, it can be a very different story. Nearly a quarter of seniors have monthly housing costs totaling more than 30% of household income.

“According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, households that pay more than 30% of their income for housing are considered cost-burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities,” Roberts said.

And nearly a quarter of seniors in Kootenai County are cost-burdened, according to census data.

Cost-burdened seniors do have safety nets, but many agencies providing those nets are also burdened by things like staffing shortages or strained resources.

“We do home-delivered meals, to keep people eating,” Area Agency on Aging North Idaho Director Sage Stoddard said.

The Area Agency on Aging contracts with local senior centers to deliver meals to seniors — meals McTaggert makes. Funding for meal home delivery through the Agency has gone down from seven to five days a week, not because the need has dropped, but because the Agency’s funding can’t keep up with the need, Stoddard said.

Lake City Center has reduced in-house meals to three days a week and only delivers meals twice a week.

“All of the senior centers need volunteers,” Stoddard said.

The Agency’s mission is to provide services that keep seniors in their homes for as long as possible, but there are new obstacles in the market. The aging population is facing reduced access to resources and rising costs.

Even seniors who own their homes are seeing their tax assessments, utilities and bills go up, Lake City Center senior Yuki Sacra said. It’s becoming harder to stretch their income to meet their bills. Her friends are selling plasma to pay their food bills, Sacra said.

Over 32% of seniors are also either widowed or divorced, and over 36% of seniors live alone.

And as the cost of rent goes up in Kootenai County, people on a fixed income have to cut costs in order to afford to stay in their hometown, and near their family. But often people on a fixed income have nothing left to cut.

Many seniors are no longer able to work.

In Kootenai County, 36% of those over 65 are disabled and 85% are not even in the labor force, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

But McTaggert plans to work, while she can, and tries to enjoy any spare time she has with her family.

“I have worked a lifetime and I have nothing to show for it, nothing to leave my children when I pass,” McTaggert said. “That just wasn’t in my cards.”

photo

JOSA SNOW/Press

Dennis Painter works part-time at Lake City Center to cover the rising costs of food in his budget. His weekly menu hasn't changed but his budget has.