Discuss as:

Boomer women -- courted by candidates -- struggle in recession's wake

Marc Piscotty / for NBC News

Despite a resume that includes three decades as a payroll processor, Patti Di Pino, 56, has been looking for work for three years since her divorce from her husband of 30 years,

 

Meet Patti Di Pino, 56. She's single, she's unemployed and she lives in an RV. She's one of the many women voters being courted by President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney in the waning days of the presidential election campaign.

If she's being courted, she's wondering: Where are the flowers and chocolates?

"I listened to the speeches by the candidates for president and I hear them talking about college kids, finding jobs for them and helping them with their student loans and such," Di Pino told NBC News in a recent interview. "I hear them talking about helping vets get jobs. Not once have I heard about helping baby boomers getting jobs."

A generation of women who flooded the paid labor force in the 1970s has spent the past four decades overcoming a host of obstacles to win its fair share of the American economic pie.

Down the Ladder:An occasional series on Americans struggling to hold onto a middle-class life. Connect with us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter or send us email.

But for many women now approaching what was to have been the end of their careers, the Great Recession has turned out to be the biggest obstacle of their lives.

Di Pino has been looking for steady work for three years since her divorce from her husband of 30 years. In 2009, her employer of 15 years, a construction company, closed its doors and laid her off.

Despite a resume that includes three decades in office administration, potential employers continue to pass her over because she has been out of the work force for so long, she says. Relying on a small savings account, she lives in an RV in Aurora, Colo., trolling the Internet for job leads and working odd jobs to pay the bills.

Di Pino is one of millions of boomer women whose finances and economic well-being have been shredded by the Great Recession. Since 2007, some 3.5 million women over the age of 18 have fallen below the poverty level, bringing the total to nearly 18 million and raising the poverty rate for women from 12.5 percent to 14.6 percent.

Many left the work force in better economic times to raise families, expecting to return later in life to resume careers that have been upended by the recession. Now after long stretches of unemployment they face a bleak future with little retirement savings and meager Social Security benefits diminished by fewer years of payroll tax credits into the system.

Candidates offering to help older women voters have provided only vague promises, they say. 

Marc Piscotty / for NBC News

Patti Di Pino, 56, lives in an RV near Denver, working odd jobs to make ends meet.

Romney has promised "better access to higher education, and better retraining programs” but hasn’t said how he would provide them or who would be eligible. Obama cites gains of more than 5 million new jobs since he took office and his signature of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to help women fight back against pay discrimination.

“For some of these workers, I don’t think there's much hope in the way of recovery,” said Sara Rix, a public policy analyst at AARP. “Their jobs are gone and they don’t have the skills for emerging jobs. We haven’t been willing to invest what we need to invest in training.”

The future looked brighter when boomer women first entered the work force in the 1970s, buoyed by the equal rights movement, and began to advance their careers in the economic boom of the 1980s. In doing so, they left behind the postwar American ideal, promoted heavily by Hollywood and Madison Avenue, that men were breadwinners and women were housewives.

“You go to college and find a nice man who will do well,” said Carroll Metzger, 65. “That’s the culture I came from.”

One of the lucky few
Metzger considers herself one of the lucky ones. In 1976, divorced at 28, with two small kids, she experienced single motherhood at a relatively early age. It wasn’t easy. But it brought home the reality of raising a family while having to generate an income. After returning to school, she earned her registered nursing degree and, two years later, embarked on a lifelong nursing career. 

Her generation of women was determined to have both career and family – by leaving work temporarily to raise their children and then picking up those careers when the children were grown. But it didn't always work out as planned.

“That was the great deception for women of our generation,” said Metzger. “That I can leave the work force for a number of years to stay home and raise my kids and rely on the husband's income. What happened is that not every man does well. And not all marriages work.”

Women are also more likely to outlive their husbands. Metzger, who eventually remarried, retired in 2009 from a paid nursing job to care for her ailing husband, who died in 2010. Today she’s rebuilding her life, shoring up her retirement investments and finding part-time work in nursing.

“I’ve been very fortunate that I ended up in this point in my life not having to work full time,” she said.

Many single boomer women aren’t as lucky. When they do find work, it will pay less, on average, than a similar job performed by a male colleague. That “wage gap," which begins as early as graduation, increases as women get older, according to a study on pay equity released in April by the American Association of University Women.

Some 50 years after President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963 into law, the researchers found that a woman aged 20 to 24 can expect to bring home 94 cents for every dollar earned by a man her age. By 55, the pay gap for women widens to 75 cents for every dollar earned by men.

Incomes for single boomer women have lagged even further behind other households. Since 1970, median incomes for married couples with both spouses in the paid work force have risen steadily – up more than 40 percent to nearly $86,000 (as of 2009). One-income couples and households headed by single men saw little improvement, with median incomes rising to less than $50,000. For single women, the median income, after rising slowly since 1970, barely hit $29,000 in 2009.

Adrienne Esposito, a 53-year-old widowed mother of three, never imagined she’d have to fend for herself 14 years ago when, after 20 years of marriage, her husband died. Her children were 8, 10 and 19.

“I really counted on things that I probably shouldn’t have,” she said. "I know what I was doing was better for the children. I knew it was a sacrifice, and I would have to do something to make up for what I lost by not working. In that case, I thought that with an education I would be able to re-enter the work force in a better position to advance myself.”

With her husband survivors’ benefits, and $35,000 in student loans, Esposito completed a master’s degree in family therapy in 2007 and found a job with a social services agency for $33,000 a year. After three years, she was laid off when the agency was hit with funding cuts. Ten months later, she went to work for a Texas state agency for $27,000 a year. After nine months, that job ended earlier this year.

Despite her recent training and work experience, Esposito believes her job prospects are narrowing. She said one recent interviewer explained, in stark terms, why.

“I was basically told, in the nicest way, that I’m too old for the job,” she said. “Because they want someone who -- and this is how they put it  -- ‘We need someone who can give presentations to the public.’  They did not want a 53-year-old doing that. It’s not a bonus being an older woman in the workplace.”

'What do you do about food?'
Age discrimination, often less overt, has left many boomer women with few alternatives beyond minimum wage work. Di Pino figures that if she took a full-time job at minimum wage, she'd still have to draw on her savings to make ends meet. 

“It’s going to net me $320 (a week), which means I might get $250 after Social Security, state and federal taxes, and unemployment," said Di Pino. "That’s $1,000 a month. (In the Denver area), even a one-bedroom apartment is $650 – minimum. That leaves you $300 for gas, electric, Internet and gas in the truck. And food? What do you do for food?”

Retirement savings? That's something to dream about.

Years of lost paychecks while working at home raising children left many boomer women with a large hole in the retirement safety net their male counterparts generated through 401(k) contributions and payments into the Social Security system. Boomer women also face late-in-life events like divorce and widowhood that “can have devastating effects on (their) income and asset levels,” according to a GAO report issued in July.

For those who have saved, or acquired savings in divorce settlements, the financial collapse of 2008 tore a large hole in many retirement accounts. For those in and out of work since, any remaining savings have been farther depleted to pay expenses.

“I haven’t put into Social Security, so I’m not entitled to benefits,” said Esposito. “I have zero retirement savings.”

It’s no surprise that a recent AARP survey found older women much more worried about retirement than their male counterparts. They have reason to be concerned, said Rix.

“It’s going to be extremely difficult for people to catch up to where they were before the recession,” she said. “They're going to have to make do on a lot less. And they’re going to find it very difficult to make up the savings they've exhausted.”

The outlook for boomer women depends heavily on whether the job market continues to improve. But even once employers begin hiring again, many of the economic obstacles older women face likely will remain.

Few employers, for example, have shown a willingness to pay the cost of retraining older workers of either gender. With Congress under intense political pressure to cut federal spending, further government assistance will be a tough sell.

Still, the longer the job market remains bleak, the further boomer women's meager savings will be depleted.

“I cannot believe that many policymakers are going to relish the sight of huge numbers of impoverished constituents sitting on the steps of their state houses,” said Rix.

Sandra Fluke joins MSNBC's Thomas Roberts to talk about the candidates' stances on women's issues and how President Barack Obama can convince undecided women voters to choose him.

More business news:

Follow NBCNews.com business on Twitter and Facebook