As our many defunct mills remind us, Maine was once part of a robust industrial economy.  Today’s seniors — who make up over 20% of Maine’s population, more than in any other U.S. state — spent their working years in the tail-end of New England’s industrial era. Compared to today’s working generations, they enjoyed more access to high-paying union jobs and liberal social welfare programs. This industrial welfare state should not be glorified: our rivers were heavily polluted; the economy powered America’s expanding military presence around the world; and, like today, the working class was stratified along racial, gender, and heteronormative lines. But unlike today, a relatively broad base of the American working class was able to build a modicum of wealth, represented primarily in the form of home-ownership often made possible by federal programs incentivizing and subsidizing first-time home purchases. 

Lewiston Mills

For today’s working generations, by contrast, paths to building economic security are mostly blocked by the insurmountable costs of student debt, health care, and especially housing. Housing prices are so high in Maine, even though it has the oldest housing stock in the U.S., that a majority of Maine families cannot afford to buy a home, a problem only intensified during the pandemic with out-of-state buyers driving a sharp rise in home values. After decades of neoliberal capitalism eviscerating union jobs and social welfare programs, and with the ability to save for retirement declining, the last vestiges of working class wealth exist primarily in the form of older Mainers’ homes.

This dynamic puts a target on Maine’s seniors, making their physical and mental decline an opportunity for clawing back the modest wealth that older generations of the working class struggled for. The most well-known examples are scams targeting the elderly, which make good subjects for news stories, government reports, and educational campaigns. But such scams are actually only a small share of elder exploitation.

Far more of Maine’s elders have their assets improperly taken by family members, often by their children. As a provider of free legal services for the elderly, I see this dynamic play out frequently. A common pattern is a child persuades an aging parent to sign over the house, promising to provide care so the parent can live at home for the rest of their life — a promise that is broken when the child places the parent in an assisted living or nursing facility. 

It is easy to react with outrage and ask, “How could a child be so cruel? What is wrong with people?” But the child’s motives need not be malicious. Broader social conditions lead many families into a trap. Private-pay elder care is so expensive, and public-pay elder care so underfunded, that many seniors cannot access it without ultimately losing their home. Federal law in fact requires liquidation of the elders’ assets to reimburse care costs paid by public programs such as MaineCare. With housing such a valuable commodity these days, far less affordable to today’s working generations, public health law therefore gives the child an incentive to divest a parent of their home to keep the precious asset in the family. And when the parent begins to decline physically or mentally, the child cannot afford to work an extra unpaid job of providing elder care, and home health workers are unavailable due to systemic low wages, then placing the parent in a facility may seem the only option. 

But even if seniors manage to avoid long-term care facilities and instead age at home, capitalists have invented many other ways of preying upon aging to extract wealth. Although elders may have paid off their original low-interest mortgages decades ago, their fixed incomes often cannot keep pace with the rising cost of everything else. Many elders take on credit card debt with exorbitant interest rates or, worse, they put their house up as collateral for a home equity loan or reverse mortgage. When their physical or cognitive health takes a turn for the worse, their aging home needs repairs they can no longer perform themselves, or their property tax bill unexpectedly jumps, they can easily fall behind on debt payments — leading to the bank taking ownership of the home through the foreclosure process. And in Maine, a municipality can foreclose on a home for failure to pay property taxes, or even the water or sewer bill, and then sell the home for a profit. Mercifully, the pandemic has paused most foreclosure proceedings, but the debts are still accruing and foreclosures will no doubt resume in time.

In short, by looking at the plight of Maine’s elderly, we can see a systemic process of upwardly redistributing the modicum of wealth that was once more broadly shared among the working class. By taking advantage of elders’ physical and mental decline, the underfunding of elder care, and the rising costs of both housing and health care, the gains that older generations struggled for throughout the twentieth century are day by day extracted into the hands of finance capitalists profiting from the real estate and health-care industries.

What can be done? First, we must understand that the threats to Maine’s elderly go far deeper than age discrimination. They are symptoms of systemic conditions affecting all of the working class, foremost among them the for-profit health care and housing markets and precarious low-wage employment. And we cannot return to the industrial welfare state that raised living standards but was premised on the white patriarchal heteronormative family, imperialism, and environmental degradation. 

Rather, we can fill the void left by lost industrial jobs with well-paid, ecologically sustainable care jobs. Care work in Maine is disproportionately performed by young immigrants of color, so funding this sector can help advance racial, elder, and environmental justice at once. And we can leave behind predatory health care practices by delinking home-ownership from health care funding, and ultimately by embracing universal health care, including home and community-based long-term care. We can eliminate housing insecurity by adopting current proposals to expand rental assistance in Maine and ultimately by building social housing. Beyond fighting individual instances of elder exploitation or waxing nostalgic for a problematic past, we can organize to fight for systemic changes that benefit the diverse, multi-generational working class.

Andrew Milne is co-chair of Maine DSA’s Political Education Committee and a poverty lawyer for seniors in the Lewiston-Auburn area.