The Little Old Lady at the Checkout Counter: Preserving the American Dream

By Bill Ayres, WhyHunger Co-Founder and Executive Director

I recently went to a large food store, bought a few items and stood on the checkout line.  I have noticed that since The Great Recession there have been more older checkers in all kinds of stores.  This store was no different but the checkout lady was.  She was clearly a senior citizen but stood less than five feet, weighed about a hundred pounds and had arthritic gnarled hands that moved with difficulty as she lifted heavy items into bags. As I bagged my items I said to her that it must be a relief to go home soon but she said she had to work until ten.  “It gets better in the last hour because I can move around the store to clean up.  Standing in one place for long periods of time is hard for me because I have scoliosis and flat feet.”

Why is she working such long hours at a hard job in her condition?  There may be many reasons but if I had to guess I would say that she needs the job to survive.  Maybe she is a widow or a single person trying to live alone in a high rent area of the suburbs. Maybe she lost a better job in the last ten years or lost her home.  Maybe all of her medical bills were not covered by Medicare and she has no supplementary insurance.   Maybe she is one of the millions of Americans who have no pension or retirement funds.

A growing number of seniors have little saved for retirement and no pensions.  Millions of slightly younger people cashed out their retirement funds when they lost their jobs in The Great Recession. Many others lost their homes which they were counting on to help them grow old without destitution.   So now they are taking entry level jobs usually given to younger people like me when I was a teen.  They are desperate, in fear they will lose their jobs or worse their health which would also mean losing their jobs and being dependent on someone.

There are millions of seniors who are doing very well. They have their pensions or retirement funds, their mortgage-free homes and Social Security as well as Medicare and a supplemental health plan.  They go on vacations, frequent restaurants, often during the early bird specials and even help their struggling children and grandchildren.  Good for them!  They have worked hard all their lives and now they can enjoy time off and experiences they could not afford when they were raising a family. They are living the final act of their American Dream.  However, they are not the majority of retirees and their numbers will diminish as more baby boomers retire, more pensions disappear or are defunded and the jobs picture does not significantly improve.


So called “policy experts” blame seniors and the programs that serve them like Social Security and Medicare for bankrupting our economy, ballooning the federal deficit and hurting our children. Seniors are an easy target because of the large expensive federal programs and as the percentage of seniors grows the problems will worsen.  Unless!

 Unless we decide to move from being a low wage economy that gives massive tax breaks to the super rich and mega companies that have more of their business revenue and employees outside of our country, we will continue to grow the federal deficit and our debt ceiling.  Unless we bite the bullet and invest in our infrastructure so we can create higher paying jobs, reduce our dependency on foreign oil, begin to make things and services that people want again and be competitive in the world economy, we will not retain our place as a dynamic, creative and just society.  Unless we stop allowing banks and other major institutions to put themselves in financial disaster and then expect to be bailed out by the government and the taxpayers, we will continue down the road to an oligarchy.  We already have a small highly organized group of economic aristocrats buying government officials and becoming richer and richer instead of a true functioning democracy in which everyone has a chance to lead a good life.

Most of us grew up with and have pursued the ideal of The American Dream.  What we are moving toward now is the American Nightmare in which little old ladies and men will have to work beyond their health and abilities and take the jobs of young people who need those jobs to start up the ladder to the American Dream.  We do not have to become that kind of society. We do not have to blame the seniors like the checkout lady I met. Instead, let’s reinvest in America and keep the dream alive for every American.