Patti Miller was a typical middle-class American success story.
After high school, she put herself through college to earn a master’s degree, landed a good job in the Florida school system, and lived in a comfortable home with her husband and son.
Life was good. Until at age 58, Patti found herself with no home, just $10 in her pocket, and desperate for a job.
How Patti’s life went from the American dream to the American nightmare—and then back again—demonstrates how fragile economic security can be, and the power of government programs to support people when they need it the most.
“I’m a true example of how services helped me get out of the hole I was in,” Patti says. She found help in many places, but the true lifesaver, she says, was the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP). “I don’t think I’d be alive today without it.”
Created in 1965, SCSEP is the nation’s oldest program to help low-income, unemployed individuals aged 55+ find work. For most participants—including Patti—the program starts with community service work and leads to a full-time job. SCSEP is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, and NCOA manages 27 offices throughout the U.S.
The path to insecurity
Patti’s challenges began when she lost her husband to cancer. Then came the 2008 financial crash. Working around the clock to support her son, help family members who also lost money, and pay the bills took their toll. Her home went into foreclosure, and at age 55, she was diagnosed with extreme exhaustion and an immune disease.
“I had 30 years of service in the school system, but I had also lost half of my retirement savings in the crash,” Patti says. Due to health concerns, she had to take early retirement. After a year of recuperating, an opportunity came up to open a general store near her family in Kentucky.
Patti decided to take the leap. For the first year, the store did well serving families in the area, many of whom were coal miners. But as the coal mines dwindled, so did her business. After a year, she was lucky to make $5 in sales per day.
Patti immediately began looking for different work. “I applied for all types of positions, but everyone said I was overqualified or they would look at my age and say no,” she explains.
Meanwhile, the bills mounted. Patti was going to sleep each night bundled in hoodies because she couldn’t afford the heat, and she went three years with no Internet or TV. She sold her lawnmower to pay her electric bill, and soon found herself at a local agency applying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps).
“It was mortifying and very depressing,” she recalls.
The road back to stability
Things turned around one day when Patti was at a local food pantry. A woman asked if she could pray for her. Patti’s reply: “Yes. I need a job.” Another woman overheard and gave her the address for the local SCSEP office managed by NCOA—Big Sandy Area Community Action Program, in Paintsville, KY. When the SCSEP director called Patti and asked when she could come in to be screened, she said, “How about right now?”
“When I entered the program, I might have had $5 in my wallet and $10 in my bank account,” Patti says.
She qualified for SCSEP and was hired as a part-time assistant at the office to work with new clients. “The program was a perfect fit for me. Because of what I had gone through, I could relate to people in the program. And the money I earned meant I could buy healthy food and gas to get where I needed to go.”
Working with SCSEP, Miller also got to know the nonprofit organizations in the area, including the local Head Start program. When a position there opened, it matched all of her qualifications.
“The biggest thing SCSEP did for me was help me get this job,” she says. “I had the academic qualifications and the degree, but if people don’t know you, it’s hard to take a risk to hire someone you don’t know.”
Patti now works full-time at Head Start, complete with insurance, paid holidays, and other benefits. She bought a new car and found an affordable house to rent.
“It’s nothing fancy or big, but I’m happy and secure,” she says. “I’m in a job that I absolutely love, and I’m helping people.”
“When I exited SCSEP, I said I wanted quality of life, to be able to eat healthy, and to not worry about paying for my medicine. Now all of that has come together.”