No Spare Change for the Woman on the Corner

Waiting for the light to change as I walked through downtown Minneapolis to my gym, I saw her out of the corner of my eye: a frail woman, about 80 years old, bundled in a hat and raincoat. She was leaning against a building, a dollar bill clutched in her hand.

Suddenly she was at my side. "Do you have some change?" she asked softly. I bent closer to hear her. "We seniors don't get our checks 'til Thursday," she continued.

I had no change. I did have two dollar bills in my gym bag to buy some yogurt for lunch. As the light turned green and I entered the crosswalk, I pondered the strangeness of a senior panhandler. What was she talking about? Should I have given her one of the dollar bills?

I realized I could stop at my husband's office and get yogurt money from him. But when I turned back, she had disappeared into the shadows. I looked again on my way back to work. She was gone.

She was telling the truth. According to the Social Security Administration, monthly Social Security checks are received the third day of each month. On this month, the third day was a Thursday - and the woman on the corner didn't have enough to get by.

This year, the average Social Security check received by retired workers is $698. The average check received by older widows or widowers living alone is $656.

According to the Minneapolis State of the City Directory for 1994, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city is $404.

As of July 31, the Minneapolis Star Tribune Rent Sampler reports that the average rent for a one bedroom apartment is $474.34. If the woman on the corner receives an average check and rents a one-bedroom apartment at the average rate, she is left with $181.66 to spend on everything else.

If she is thrifty, she will still need about $86 for food, according to United States Department of Agriculture figures from 1993, leaving her a not-so-grand total of $95.66 a month for all her other needs: electricity, gas, telephone, transportation, toothpaste, toilet paper, soap, and stamps. There will be no money left for what she wants.

If her Social Security check is average, what she receives is little more than what the federal government has deemed necessary to exist at poverty level: $7,470 a year. Well over 2 million women 65 years old and older live below the poverty level.

The Social Security Administration now says it is considering changing its policy and "scattering" checks throughout the month to be less of a burden on the postal service.

THE woman on the corner mustered the courage to ask for help. She had the humility to approach a stranger and the wisdom to identify me as someone who would not spit in her face.

I failed her.

Tonight, when I leave work, I'll look for the woman on the corner. If I find her, I'll hand over all the cash in my wallet.

If she's gone, I'll be haunted by her and what she represents - the millions among us living in poverty who daily disappear into the shadows.

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