Navigating Inflation: Some older workers in Blair County say retirement is out of reach
Kathy Dodson, 67, has been working at the Poof-Slinky factory in Hollidaysburg for 30 years. She said she still hopes to retire soon, but she recently suffered a blood clot that sent her to the hospital and into debt.
Dodson said she needs to quit working in order to move into low-income housing, her most affordable living option, but with the rising cost of living along with her new medical bills she feels farther and farther from retirement.
“I would like to. But financially I know I can’t, even though I need to to get into low-income housing. I'm 67. I want to retire.” Dodson said. “But I still have the energy and I still have the drive to get out there. That's. That's me. I'm lucky. I've been very lucky. I didn't get sick till I was 60. That's when my health plummeted.”
The economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rising cost of living is causing some older workers to put off retirement.
Last June, the U.S. inflation rate hit 9.1% over the previous year, the largest increase in 40 years.
The cost of gas, food and rent skyrocketed.
The economy is still seeing those effects. In March, inflation was at nearly 5%, still higher than the long-term average of 3.28%.
For some retirement age workers in Blair County, the only option is clear: keep working.
Twenty minutes northeast of the Logan Valley Mall is the American Eagle Paper Mills in the small town of Tyrone. Barry Christine, the head of the mill’s security office, said he could retire this year but doesn’t see himself going through with it.
All of Christine’s kids and grandkids live out of state, and he can’t help but think that the cost of going to see them coupled with the rising costs of necessities would not be covered by his Social Security benefits.
Social Security is tied to the Consumer Price Index to keep inflation from eroding the buying power of benefits. Payouts went up 8.7% in January, the biggest increase in 40 years. Even so, many seniors still say it’s not enough.
With inflation, Christine said his grocery bill has doubled in the last two years. His utility bills have gone up by almost 50%.
Christine said if he retired there would be no vacation money and he would have to “scrape and save up” just to see his grandchildren.
“That’s not what I’m retiring for,” he said.
Christine cited his friends’ experiences after retirement as a reason he doesn’t think retiring is a good idea for him. He said all of his retired friends have joined the workforce again with part-time jobs. The only thing is, they all hate their new jobs.
Christine said he sees no point in retiring if he isn’t going to be able to live the life he wants.
Back inside the Logan Valley Mall in Altoona, on a cold Sunday morning, married couple Regina, 68, and Ron Ponchione, 70, are taking their daily laps. They live 25 miles west of Altoona in Ebensburg. They both worked in education and retired in their 50’s. Ron retired in 2004 at 51 and Regina in 2012 at 57.
Even though already retired, the Ponchiones say they have noticed a big difference in how much money they spend on groceries and other necessities.
So far, these changes don’t affect their way of living. Because of this, the Ponchiones choose to help those who are affected by inflation.
They have dedicated their retirement to doing things they love, including volunteering. Their biggest worry for Blair County and surrounding areas is food insecurity.
About 11% of Blair County was food insecure in 2021, according to Feeding America’s most recent survey.
Regina said if she and Ron needed to support their kids right now, they would barely be surviving. This makes her worry for families who have more people to feed.
The couple donates regularly to food pantries and their local church to combat the effects of the economy on people in need. With healthy options often being more expensive, Regina especially worries about people who need a strict diet but have an income that won’t allow them to follow it.
“My biggest concern is that when people have allergies, or those kinds of things, and you have to pay more for those groceries. I worry about that for them, too. Like it's hard to live healthy on a small income,” Regina said.
Older adults are more likely to face food insecurity because of the fixed income that often comes with retirement. According to Feeding America, in 2021, 5.5. million seniors, 60 and older, faced hunger and there is little to indicate that is changing anytime soon.
For now, across Blair County and nationwide, many older workers are simply choosing to defer retirement.
Find more stories of how people and businesses in Blair County are navigating inflation. In addition to feature stories, you’ll find 12 web-only mini-profiles from businesspeople, workers, retirees and young people talking about how the economy is affecting them.