The little shed behind Joy Whitehouse's modest home is filled with aluminum cans--soda cans, soup cans and vegetable cans--that she collects from neighbors or finds during her periodic expeditions along the roadside. Two times a month, she takes them to a recycler, who pays her as much as $30 for her harvest of castoffs. When your fixed income is $942 a month, an extra $30 here and there makes a big difference. After paying rent, utilities and insurance, Whitehouse is left with less than $40 a week to cover everything else. So the money from cans helps pay medical bills for the cancer and chronic lung disease she has been battling for years, as well as food expenses. "I eat a lot of soup," says the tiny, spirited 69-year-old, who lives in Majestic Meadows, a mobile-home park for senior citizens near Salt Lake City, Utah.
Whitehouse never envisioned spending her later years this way. She and her husband Alva Don raised four children. In the 1980s they lived in Montana, where he earned a good living as a long-haul truck driver for Pacific Intermountain Express. But in 1986 he was killed on the job in a highway accident attributed to faulty maintenance on his truck, as his company struggled to survive the cutthroat pricing of congressionally ordered deregulation. After her husband's death, Whitehouse knew the future would be tough, but she was confident in her economic survival. After all, the company had promised her a death benefit of $598 every two weeks for the rest of her life--a commitment she had in writing, one that was a matter of law.
She received the benefit payments until October 1990, when the check bounced. A corporate-takeover artist, later sent to prison for ripping off a pension fund and other financial improprieties, had stripped down the business and forced it into the U.S. bankruptcy court. There the obligation was erased, thanks to congressional legislation that gives employers the right to walk away from agreements with their employees. To support herself, Whitehouse had already sold the couple's Montana home and moved to the Salt Lake City area, where she had family and friends. With her savings running out, she applied early (at a reduced rate) for her husband's Social Security. She needed every penny. For health reasons, she couldn't work. She had undergone a double mastectomy. An earlier cancer of the uterus had eaten away at her stomach muscle so that a metal plate and artificial bladder were installed. Her children and other relatives offered to help, but Whitehouse is fiercely self-sufficient. Friends and neighbors pitch in to fill her shed with aluminum. "You put your pride in your pocket, and you learn to help yourself," she says. "I save cans."
Through no fault of her own, Whitehouse had found herself thrust into the ranks of workers and their spouses--previously invisible but now fast growing--who believed the corporate promises about retirement and health care, often affirmed by the Federal Government: they would receive a guaranteed pension; they would have company-paid health insurance until they qualified for Medicare; they would receive company-paid supplemental medical insurance after turning 65; they would receive a fixed death benefit in the event of a fatal accident; and they would have a modest life-insurance policy.
They didn't get those things. And they won't.