Pension Tension

For Leonard Hope's grandchildren, the safety net is mighty fragile.

Just about the time that life is supposed to get easier, Jacqueline Hope's got harder.

After her husband died in December, and his pension and Social Security benefits were cut off, Hope was faced with the prospect of supporting herself and four grandchildren on just over $400 a month. Like thousands of grandparents across Colorado, she is raising her children's children at a time when many of her peers are slowing down or dreaming of retirement.

At 53, Hope spends much of her day changing diapers and Pull-Ups, washing pint-sized clothes and making sure the older kids get their homework done. A baby's highchair dominates the dining room of her Cole neighborhood home; a jumble of children's coats hangs near the front door. Most of Hope's grandchildren call her "Granny," although three-year-old Janea calls her "Mommy." Everybody--children, grandchildren and step-grandchildren--called her late husband "Daddy."

Leonard Hope had put in twenty years as a bus driver for RTD until his retirement on April 1, 1995, at the age of 56. When he left RTD, he had the choice of taking a pension that would pay $694 a month to him and, after his death, to his widow, or a single life annuity payment of $900 a month that would cease at his death. He picked the latter.

Leonard was plagued with diabetes and other health problems, and at one point suffered food poisoning at the pancake restaurant where he was a regular, says his wife. "He was never right after that," says Hope. Leonard had weighed 250 pounds, but his weight plummeted; his gallbladder had to be removed; when his kidneys failed, he had to begin dialysis.

Last December, just after his 59th birthday, Leonard went to the hospital. His flulike symptoms kept him there for more than a week, but no one thought his condition was fatal, says Hope. On December 23, she and her son visited Leonard, and the three laughed and talked about the family's Christmas plans. Early the next morning, Christmas Eve, the hospital called Hope and told her Leonard had died.

Hope remembers signing Leonard's pension form, which requires both spouses' signatures. "But I didn't really know what I was signing," says Hope, a warm and personable woman. "You know, you're married to someone for 38 years, and they put a piece of paper in front of you, and you sign it. I'm not sure he understood what he was signing, either. But I can understand why he would opt for that because of the kids--and because we didn't get much money from social services."

That kind of confusion isn't uncommon, says Earl Nichol, a union officer at the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001. Some retirees choose the larger pension amount and immediately funnel it into a life insurance policy; Hope's husband did not.

After her husband's death, Hope also discovered that the automatic withdrawals from their checking account to pay for Leonard's life insurance policy had stopped in July. Why that happened is still a mystery to her. "I thought it was pretty much intact," she says, but speculates that "maybe the account was overdrawn once that month" and that stopped the automatic withdrawals. "It wasn't that much money, but it could have helped."

Leonard's burial cost $7,000, and "that was a modest funeral," says Hope. "I know he wasn't planning on dying that early, that abruptly," Hope adds, or the couple might have made other arrangements for the family's livelihood after Leonard's death. She says Leonard didn't like to admit he was sick and never complained. "He was determined that he wouldn't be any trouble to anyone. He may have been a little more out of it than I realized."

During his retirement, Leonard had received Social Security checks along with his pension, which boosted the family's income to $2,600 a month. Those payments stopped when he died, and his widow won't receive retirement benefits for another seven years. Hope now plans to adopt her four grandchildren so that they can be considered Leonard Hope's "children" and receive survivor benefits. For now, though, she is the legal guardian of her grandchildren, not their adoptive parent, and therefore ineligble for such benefits.

So she makes do with $615 a month--recently increased from $422--in "child only" assistance payments from the state's Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. After reforms this winter, Denver County enacted the state's most generous benefit plan for kin raising children who are in the TANF system, ranging from $372 for one child to $666 for five children. Although foster parents receive much higher payments, many grandparents don't want to see their grandchildren placed in the foster system, where the state has guardianship and social workers become part of everyday family life.

Hope is qualified to hold plenty of jobs: She's a certified nursing assistant and has worked as a teacher's aide, cleaned houses, worked in daycare and catered parties. To receive payments for herself under TANF--which took the place of "welfare" under welfare reform--Hope would have to enroll in approved classes or get an outside job. Her benefits would be $500 a month for a limit of two years. "It's better for me to opt for the $615" for her grandchildren, she says.

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