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Confronting Poverty
Confronting Poverty
August 12, 2010
In This Issue
The Truth about Older Americans in Poverty
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The Truth about Older Americans in Poverty

Throughout the most recent recession, much of the focus has been on children, families, and workers. But poverty among seniors remains a serious and continual problem in this country. Economic stability issues facing low-income seniors have gotten worst over the years. While some progress has been made prior to the recession, beginning in 2006, just like every other subset of the population, older Americans have been harmed by the recession. We also have an ever increasing senior population, with baby boomers approaching 60+ in record numbers. From 1946-1964, 78 million baby boomers were born. Now they are starting to reach retirement age. By 2030, when the first baby boomers reach 84, the number of Americans over 65 will have grown by 75percent. At that time, 20 percent of the population will be over 65.

One cannot assume that all of these seniors currently live in economically stable households. Quite the contrary-nearly one in ten adults age 65 and above live in a family with income below the official U.S. poverty line, or federal poverty level (FPL). The AARP Public Policy Institute released a report, Older Americans in Poverty: A Snapshot , in April 2010 that details the various factors that contribute to seniors living in poverty and the services on which they rely. The report states, "The fact that 3.7 million older adults do not have sufficient cash income to meet their basic expenses too often escapes attention."

The study found that poor older adults rely on a number of social services in order to make ends meet, but even this is sometimes insufficient. The majority (59 percent) of poor older adults depend on Social Security for all or nearly all (90 percent of more) of their family income. Social Security was never meant to be the sole source of income for the elderly, but over the years as savings accounts have been depleted and pensions have disappeared, more and more retirees are depending on Social Security to cover their monthly costs.

There are also three other key areas that cause problems for low-income seniors, more so than seniors who have higher incomes: healthcare, housing, and food. Seniors living in poverty struggle significantly with these three common human needs. According to the AARP study, "Poor older adults tend to be in worse health than adults who are not poor." This takes a tremendous toll on their monthly income. "In 2006, the typical poor adult age 65 and older spent 19.6 percent of income on health care, compared to 6.1 percent for older adults with incomes above 400 percent of poverty." Although Medicare provides almost universal health care coverage for the elderly, it also requires cost sharing from its beneficiaries. This creates a significant burden for seniors who are low-income, especially those who have chronic or frequent health problems. Seniors who have financial struggles often times make decisions that could be detrimental to their health, including skipping medications and doctors visits because of the costs.

The affordability of housing actually is one of the most costly issues in low-income seniors' lives. "More than half of poor older households have extremely unaffordable housing costs (with expenditures on housing and utilities exceeding half of household income); housing costs absorb more than 30 percent of income for 80 percent of poor older households." The high costs of housing are an issue for renters as well as those who own their homes. Even though their costs are lower than renters or those with mortgages, almost half of the elderly who are poor and own their homes free and clear still spend more than half of their annual income on housing costs (including home maintenance and utility costs).

Finally, food costs continue to be a major issue for low-income older Americans. In 2008, 22.1 percent of low-income elderly households (with incomes below 130 percent of the poverty line) were "food insecure," meaning they had limited or uncertain availability to nutritious foods. Most of these individuals qualify for federal food and nutrition assistance programs, but only 30-40 percent of eligible elderly individuals actually receive SNAP benefits. There are a number of successful food service programs, like Meals on Wheels and food pantries, but direct service providers know they are not reaching all the low-income seniors who could be receiving assistance. Some seniors do not know how to sign up for these services, don't have the means of transportation to access the programs, or have feelings of shame when it comes to their personal finances-all of these issues prevent older Americans from receiving the nutrition they so greatly need.

The AARP's report provides a number of changes that lawmakers can make in order to improve the lives of low-income seniors including:

1.    Make improvements to Social Security and SSI (the Supplemental Security Income)

2.    Enhance retirement savings opportunities

3.    Ensure access to affordable housing and nutrition and food programs

4.    Strengthen health insurance coverage

5.    Enact the supplemental poverty measure (http://halfinten.org/webinar-on-the-supplemental-poverty-measure)

In the coming year the Jewish Council for Public Affairs plans to become more active in issues impacting seniors, including the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act. For more information please contact Elyssa Koidin at ekoidin@thejcpa.org

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