The front page story on today's Los Angeles Times describes, in extremely painful detail, exactly how that will work out for you. I don't find anyone in the story who was trying to game the system. It seems to me that they all tried to play by the rules and what did them in were forces far outside of their control, or ability to anticipate.
Read on and don't ever say you weren't warned. And look carefully at the photographs of what your life will look like if Paul Ryan gets his way.
In Gold Rush country, golden years lose their luster
For seniors who arrived in the Sierra Nevada foothills with retirement plans and enough money to buy homes, a dreary economy has turned everything upside-down. Now many are scraping by on a fixed income, a tough task in a place so isolated.By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times
January 4, 2012
Reporting from the Sierra Nevada foothills -- It was a dream to retire here — in a quaint little town atop a hillside, among the pines and the quail and the Main Street shops. When Kate Hamon arrived more than a decade ago, she had it all.
Now she is on the phone with Kmart, hustling to get a job.
"Please, please keep me in mind," she tells the manager. "I can start any time you like."
Work is hard to find around these parts, especially when you're 78 years old.
PHOTOS: Lean times in Gold Rush country
For many retirees such as Hamon who came to spend their golden years in California's Gold Rush region, life has not turned out the way they'd hoped. Prospectors once came chasing riches; seniors arrived with retirement plans and enough money to buy homes. But a dreary economy turned everything upside-down. Now many scrape by on a fixed income, a tough thing to do in a place so isolated.
Across Amador, Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, seniors make up 20% of the population, twice the state average. About 1 in 3 gets by on less than $20,000 a year.
They count on churches, senior centers and outreach groups for the most basic needs: food, heat and rent.
At the Interfaith Food Bank of Amador County, 600 retirees collected food this year, double the amount of 2007.
"Seniors who once used to donate are now standing in line," said director Kathleen Harmon.
In Tuolumne County, food bank workers are finding more people 60 and older living in trailers on private land or in the woods. Some are forced to move every few weeks.
Hamon, a great-grandmother of 11, knows others have it far worse. She's a proud woman, an Army veteran, trying to avoid public assistance.
The retired purchasing agent moved from San Jose to Amador County in 1997. She bought two homes, one for herself and one to rent. She also invested money and opened a gift shop in the cozy town of Jackson, next door to the busy deli.
But about three years ago, her homes went underwater, the investment turned out to be a Ponzi scheme and business was so slow that she had to close her shop.
Now she has to somehow survive on her Social Security check of $800 a month.
"I figured I had it all set up," Hamon says. "I'd be OK for the rest of my life."
Gold can still be found in the foothills. In Jamestown, tourists pay $5 to try their luck at unearthing flakes and nuggets. They come from all over to camp, golf, antique-shop and, in the summer, ride the steam train west to the old Rock Quarry.
Just up the road from Main Street, with its wooden Victorian-style buildings, Lee Kimball serves more than 9,000 people at the local food bank, the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency.
On a recent weekday, morning temperatures dipped into the 30s as several hundred people lined up outside the building for the bimonthly food giveaway — many of them with white hair and backs hunched over from old age.
Many had once vacationed in these mountains, with their parents and, later, their children. They skied and hiked and encountered their first deer, first mountain lion. They fell in love with the area.
They left behind fast-paced San Francisco, San Jose and Sacramento to live their retirement years in towns often too tiny and secluded for even the postal carrier. Roads are gravel, water is pumped from wells and heaters are powered by propane.
For years, real estate agent Jo Ann Stump helped retirees find perfect cabin-like homes — tucked along winding roads, near riverbeds and mountaintops.
"They often invested everything in their house," Stump said. "It was their nest egg."
Many seniors enjoyed the lifestyle — until a partner died or they became ill or grew restless, tired of icy winters and long drives to the doctor. They sold their home and moved away.
Now, more and more have no choice but to stay put.
"They can't sell and they struggle to make monthly payments," Stump said. "They feel very stuck, trapped in a dream."
Gerri Conway resisted the move to Calaveras County. But her husband, Steve, fell in love with nine sweeping acres in a place called Mokelumne Hill. It reminded him of his childhood home in Atascadero.
He built their retreat atop a hill in 1995: a wooden ranch-style house with vaulted ceilings, a wrap-around deck and big picture windows so they could enjoy the countryside from every room. He bought a tractor and tended to pigeons, roosters, emus and horses.
"It was a constant circus," Conway, 67, remembers. "He'd sit out back for hours and look out at the trees. That's where he was most at peace."
In 2006, shortly after he began to build a barn-like workshop on the land, Steve died of a heart attack. He was 60.
After his death, Conway was left with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. The home also lost half its value.
The couple used to make good money negotiating union contracts for public employees, but now Conway can hardly keep up. She's $30,000 behind on property taxes and in danger of losing the house.
Her advanced diabetes keeps her there much of the time. The two guest rooms are empty, the pigeon house is falling apart and the deck is worn out. Many days, Conway hardly leaves her bedroom.
Still, she can't think of another place she wants to go.
"This was it," she says, looking at the sunlight shining through the window of her dining room. "This was where we had it all."
Getting seniors to ask for help often isn't easy.
Across the Mother Lode, greater numbers are seeking aid with foreclosures and bankruptcies. But just how many more are struggling is unclear.
"These are people who grew up in an era where you don't ask for help," said Kimball, director of the Jamestown food bank. "They've lived through the Depression, and a lot of times they're too proud to ask for anything."
Many also fall through the cracks.
They don't qualify for food stamps because they make more than the federal poverty limit of $10,800 per year. But they make far less than the $22,000 they need to sustain themselves, according to a study released in October by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development and UCLA.
"They make tough decisions each month," said Susie Smith, director of the Oakland-based center. "Do I cover my housing or my healthcare? Do I forgo a meal each day? Do I split my pills to make them last longer?"
The study's findings helped spur passage of the Elder Economic Planning Act of 2011, which requires public agencies to measure senior poverty through a new elder index, not the federal poverty level.
"Now agencies will have a greater understanding of the problem," Smith said. "They'll be able to better manage state and federal dollars."
The line at the Jamestown food bank winds through the parking lot. Seniors stand shivering next to young families. They wait for the same winter relief: onions, carrots and frozen spinach.
Bobby Huffstetter, 80, went home with two paper bags, filled to the brim.
The technical writer from Cupertino moved to the mountain town of Groveland in 1994. He bought a big house in a gated community with a golf course and a lake. After a divorce and the housing crash, he couldn't sell the home. He lost it in a foreclosure and had to file for bankruptcy.
"Everything just tanked," he says.
Now, he and his second wife, Barbara, go to the local Catholic church in Sonora twice a week for a free breakfast.
It's this kind of resourcefulness that helps many, like Yvonne Kennedy, get by.
The 66-year-old, with large pineapple-shaped sunglasses and an easy smile, follows the queue with a foldable shopping cart.
She takes home canned tuna and lots of soup to get through the next few days. She saves on bills by shutting off her water heater between uses. She insulates her mobile home in Sonora by hanging blankets on the windows and stuffing clothes in the cracks of each door. She won't drive unless she has to. Gasoline is too expensive.
The former warehouse manager from San Leandro began having money troubles in 2007. She suffered several strokes and her healthcare bills skyrocketed. Her rent went up and so did the rest of her expenses. Within a few years, her $60,000 in savings was gone. She was left just with her Social Security checks, totaling $16,000 a year.
"I thought I'd financially be able to coast through life, and now I can't even go buy milk," Kennedy says.
As she sits in her living room later in the evening, she reaches for a cigarette. The space is empty except for a few old sofa chairs, a TV that gets no reception and a side table stacked with bills.
Her backup plan, in case she loses her home, is to live in the woods. She'll use an old RV she bought a long time ago, and a generator.
"I'm not going to let myself go down," Kennedy says, pushing back tears. "Not until I'm dead."
Back in Amador County, Hamon feels the same way.
On a recent afternoon, she moved from room to room emptying her house in Pine Grove, a tiny forest community anchored by an old town hall that once hosted temperance meetings.
Facing a $400,000 mortgage, Hamon unloaded the home in a short sale. She sold her furniture: her beloved four-post bed and her 1800s-era dining room set. She bid farewell to her giant bathtub, where she would spend hours reading.
She plans to live in her other home in Jackson, which she owns free and clear. But her monthly Social Security check falls short of what she needs for property taxes, home insurance and food.
So she's put in more than a dozen job applications, including one at an agency that cares for elderly people, some younger than her. She'll submit as many as she needs to until she finds work.
When she dials Kmart, the manager offers little hope. He has 72 other people to interview.
"Well, I guess that one's out," she says with a sigh. "He'll probably hire some high school kid who doesn't need the money half as much as I do."
PHOTOS: Lean times in Gold Rush country