Success, Then Poverty: William McPherson’s Story

I recently wrote a post that alluded to the struggles of the working poor after they reach retirement age. It’s not just the working poor that spend their last years mired in financial difficulties, though. Consider the lot of a Pulitzer-winning journalist who now is elderly and impoverished.

William McPherson. Image by Matt Roth, Chicago Tribune

William McPherson. Image by Matt Roth, Chicago Tribune.

William McPherson had a successful career as a journalist, working steadily for over 25 years and intermittently for another 8 years at the Washington Post, earning a Pulitzer Prize in the process. You would think that, at age 81, he would be established in a comfortable retirement. Instead, as he detailed a few months ago in an article in The Week (excerpted from the Hedgehog Review), he is penniless. He does receive a  Social Security check and a  pension from the Post, but both are quite small. In midlife, he wanted to work on projects other than those at the Post, and so took several leaves of absence. Here’s what happened then:

“As the last leave rolled on, the Post suggested I come back to work or, alternatively, the company would allow me to take an early retirement. I was 53 at the time. I chose retirement because I was under the illusion — perhaps ‘delusion’ is the more accurate word — that I could make a living as a writer, and the Post offered to keep me on its medical insurance program, which at the time was very good and very cheap.”

That was in 1986. McPherson had a retirement account and a margin account that he invested in the stock market. He also anticipated drawing a pension at age 65. He didn’t think he had to worry about money:

“I’d wanted to explore and write about Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which I did for several years. It was truly a great adventure: It changed my life, and it was a lot more interesting than thinking about what it cost, which was a lot. There’d always been enough money. I assumed there always would be.”

While he was overseas, he turned his margin account over to someone else to manage, eventually losing that money. He had a major heart attack and developed COPD. He did start receiving pension payments on schedule, but inflation has eroded over half of the value of what he receives.

McPherson lives in a rent-subsidized apartment, and is able to write a little to make ends meet. Still, life uncushioned by any savings is difficult:

“If you’re poor, what might have been a minor annoyance or even a major inconvenience becomes something of a disaster. Your hard drive crashes? Who’s going to pay for the recovery of its data, not to mention the new computer? I’m not playing solitaire on this machine; the hard drive holds my work, virtually my life. It is not a luxury for me but a necessity. I need dental work. Anybody got $10,000? Dentists are not a luxury. Dental disease can make you seriously ill. Lose your cellphone? What may be a luxury to some is a necessity to me. Without that telephone and that computer, my life as I have known it would cease to exist. Not long after, so would I….. My daughter and son-in-law paid for the dental work. Sometimes, I find it deeply humiliating that I am dependent on such kindnesses when I would prefer that the kindnesses flow the other way. Most of the time, though, I am just extremely grateful for the help of family and friends.”

Many elderly adults are much worse off than McPherson. Still, his story is a reminder that professional success and years of work for a fairly generous employer don’t guarantee that one won’t wind up poor. The lesson to learn from McPherson’s story is probably not that we shouldn’t take risks, for much of what is most rewarding in life involves risk. Perhaps, though, we should be more aware of where risks lurk and careful in deciding which of these risks are worth taking.

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About bobritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to my parents' home and provide them with assistance. I maintain part-time therapy practices in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. I currently worship at Square Inch Community Church in Grand Rapids. I can be reached at bobritzema@hotmail.com.
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