Pension Tension

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.

Colorado's welfare rolls have dropped faster than anywhere else in the country. Only 850 households in Denver County receive child-only TANF benefits, although the need is thought to be far greater. "A lot of people don't even know they can receive TANF if they're serving as a caretaker relative," says Joseph Rivera, a staffer for the county's Welfare Reform Board. "They're dipping into their own Social Security checks and savings accounts. We're just trying to help families have more income and more food."

Many of the children come with heavy baggage: "behavior problems, attention deficit, sexual acting out, a lot of rage and uncontrolled behaviors," says Hazel Heckers of the Denver Victim's Service Center, who leads workshops for "caretaker relatives," most of whom are grandmothers or great-aunts.

"A lot of these kids the grandparents are raising are crack babies, so they have a lot of health and mental problems," adds Hope. The 28-year-old mother of Hope's grandchildren first got pregnant when she was in high school. Later, despite a gift for math and a four-year scholarship to Metro, she developed a drug problem and became "a 'free spirit,'" says Hope. "Those little kids don't fit into the picture."

Hope's other grown children lend her a hand when they can. Her 76-year-old mother, who lives across the street, helps out with babysitting. But Hope doesn't want to ask too much of her children, who are in their thirties. "They're young people, they work full-time, and they have lives," she says. "And my mother is at the time in her life where she should be able to travel and enjoy herself."

Hope attends--and has been the featured speaker--at a monthly grandparent support group sponsored by Catholic Charities. Participants exchange resource ideas: how to get cheap clothing for kids, where to turn for help. Some grandparents don't qualify for food stamps because of the assets they've accumulated through a lifetime of work, such as a life insurance policy or a decent car. Others may run into trouble because they live in a subsidized senior-citizen high-rise that doesn't allow children, yet they can't afford to rent another apartment.

Hope does receive food stamps and Medicaid coverage for the kids. But diapers don't come cheap, and her growing grandchildren go through a gallon of milk a day. So when the furnace went out on a cold day this winter and she couldn't pay for repairs, Hope and her grandchildren collected kindling in the backyard and built a fire in the fireplace. The family speared some hot dogs and marshmallows for roasting and turned their misfortune into a party.

"I wouldn't change it for the world, no matter how tough it gets," says Hope. "I would never give up on my grandkids. If we had to sleep in a cardboard box, we'd do it together."

"These grandparents," Heckers points out, "are really doing our society a huge favor by raising these kids who otherwise would be in foster care. One hundred percent of the grandparents that we see have such a healthy, positive attitude about raising their grandchildren."

But child-rearing still costs money--and state assistance doesn't fill the gap when the worst happens unexpectedly. Hope says Leonard did all the bookkeeping and bill-paying for her family. "One thing I would tell all wives: Pay a little more attention to the business stuff," she says.

Now she's making sure her grandchildren will be provided for if anything happened to her. "I want everything to be in place. You need to get things set up for the grandchildren," she says. "At our age, you really don't know what could happen."

Leonard's union local is working with RTD to set up classes for retiring employees and their spouses so they can discuss their pension options thoroughly before selecting a plan. "Once they sign that dotted line," says union officer Nichol, "it's a done deal.

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Gayle Worland

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