Former Oregon Sen. Margaret Carter was sitting among several others outside a cafe on NE Broadway Street in Portland. She was huddled under a bright orange umbrella. Raindrops began to fall.
An elderly couple approached and the man struggled to push his wife’s wheelchair through the door of the coffee shop.
Carter noticed the difficulty. She also noticed that no one rose to help the man.
She immediately got up. “Watch her foot,” she said, cautioning the man as she helped him push the wheelchair through the door.
“That young man sitting there (at a nearby table) didn’t do anything to help.” Carter says of the incident, then pointing to herself, “he let this old woman do it.
That spontaneous occurrence perfectly punctuated this former Oregon senator’s concern about generational insensitivity.
At age 81, Carter feels youthful, energetic and poised to bridge the generational gaps. Her plan is to organize the collective voice of the senior population that she feels is underserved and undervalued, and to help the younger generations be more aware of the contributions made by their elders.
What this one-of-a-kind woman deplores is the lack of leadership in support of “the greatest generation,” that “saved to send their children to college and that the younger generation is still traveling on our shoulders today,” Carter says, blaming today’s poor wages, and the high cost of living and healthcare for her generation.
“We need this generation to step up to the plate and to take care of us,” Carter says of the boomer generation. “I see irresponsibility, a lack of leadership in this regard. Each generation should take care of the one before it. Instead, most of us are on a fixed income and cannot afford the high cost of medicine and health care. Seniors deserve good medical care.”
Instead, she says, state leaders are only concerned with the bottom line, connected around economics, and she believes there is a vast separation between the middle-class and the well-to-do.
The senior middle-class can hardly afford rent, food and living expenses, Carter says, and live with economic insecurity. “The baby boomers have forgotten their way,” she adds.
Carter grew up as the daughter of a minister in Shreveport, Louisiana, and witnessed the plight of the poor. “We live in the wealthiest country in the world,” she says. “I was born in 1935, six years after the Great Depression, and my mother and father worked hard and saved. I knew I would have to work hard and save my money so my kids would not have to endure the strain of my mother and father.”
She remembers the lessons learned about frugality. “My mom said if you earn a dime, save a penny,” Carter says. “If you earn a dollar, save 10 cents. I have a treasury bond that will send a great-grandchild to college for the first year.”
As she looks at the desperate situation many seniors face, her passions rise up. “It is the spirit in my heart that motivates me,” she says. “I have a home and a car and work. But thinking about all those who have no place to sleep keeps me awake at night.
“We need to speak with one voice,” Carter continues. “Seniors are having mental health issues because they worry about the next day, putting food on the table. One lady made me cry when she told me she eats the food she gives to her dogs. Seniors have to have good food in their bodies for fuel.”
Carter was the first African-American woman elected to the Oregon Legislature, where she remained a senator until she retired in 2009. During her tenure, she was co-chair of the powerful Joint Ways and Means Committee.
“I served for 27 years in the legislature,” Carter says. " It’s nobody’s fault but mine, but am I now a bad person?"
She believes in keeping anger directed in a positive way. “We did our job,” Carter says. “We are a sharing generation, a sensitive generation, and the generation that wanted our kids to have a better life than we did.”
As a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, she remains active in the lives of her progenies. Right now, her focus is on a great-grandson who’s excelling both academically and athletically.
She also owns Margaret Carter and Associates, a lobbying firm that has come under criticism for interests that are said to be contrary to her reputation – including pharmaceutical, tobacco and medical marijuana companies.
And she will continue fighting for the rights of today’s older adults. She intends to vigorously organize seniors into an army of political voices that rises up to fight for good quality healthcare. This group will seek to elect lawmakers who support their interests, thus removing from office anyone who doesn’t support them.
“We will have a mission statement of clear intentions and a strong agenda to elect people who do care about the living conditions of seniors in our country,” she says. “I will not sit at home and do nothing. Time is too precious. As long as I have a voice, I will use it. As an old Negro spiritual says, ‘I ain’t tired yet.’”
She believes one of the answers is to more closely examine the amount of national funding spent on the military-industrial complex, as well as legislators who have investments in those businesses.
“Working class people are unable to save money,” Carter says. “The lack of family wages and the high cost of living are causing suffering. The difference in executive pay and the working class is selfishness. They want to keep so much and live so fabulously and that’s why the government has to pay so much for food stamps and childcare and other programs. Living wages would make America great again.”
To that end, she believes there needs to be better programs to help people save money. “We are losing economic security,” she says. “We are in a position to see a revolution that pales in comparison to the ‘60s.”
This is the legacy Carter has fought for and hopes she’s remembered by. “My mother always said that a ‘legacy worth having is one where you can show your work rather than just talk about your work.’”