On June 17, 2014, the Senior Coalition of Solano County held the first summit on Senior Poverty, to discuss the current problem of seniors living in poverty (a follow up summit to discuss solutions will be held on October 16, 2014). Among the speakers and presenters at the summit was Kevin Prindiville of the National Senior Citizens Law Center (NSCLC). His topic, the “State of the Issue of Senior Poverty in California and Across the Nation”, presented some staggering facts about the current state of seniors living in poverty in the United States.
In 2012, the government released a report to the nation detailing the condition of older adults in the United States (Federal Interagency Forum on Agency Statistics, 2012). Notable from this report was the shift in demographics of the national population, specifically the older population, and the aging “Baby Boomers” –those who born between 1946 and 1964– made up 13 percent of the population in 2010, or roughly 40 million people. By 2030, this number is expected to grow to nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population –or approximately 72 million Americans.
According to the AARP, official data showed 8.7 percent of older Americans live in poverty (AARP Public Policy Institute, 2013); a more accurate finding from the U.S. Census Bureau showed those statistics to be closer to 15.1 percent nationally, or approximately 6.3 million older Americans. In places like Washington D.C and California, where the cost of living is much higher, those numbers are closer to 24 and 20 percent, respectively. Women and minorities are even more likely to be impoverished among an already vulnerable population.
One may ask why the disparity between the official numbers and the more accurate Census findings are so large. The answer is complex. The official poverty measure, created in the 1960s, is outdated and has not been updated to reflect changes in the modern economy. It fails to take into account rising living standards, available resources, or geographic differences in cost of living. It also ignores allowances for out-of-pocket expenses such as healthcare or taxes. The result is a wildly inaccurate depiction of the wealth of Americans, and an understated poverty rate for the elderly in particular.
While social security provides many retirees a steady monthly income, and helps shield them from some of the effects of an economic downturn, it does not increase to match the increase in cost of living. There are a persistent population of seniors who experience abject poverty, homelessness, inability to afford transportation or access to the most basic necessities including food and healthcare.
Most older Americans living in poverty have serious medical problems. Physical ailments, impaired mobility, depression, and isolation can exacerbate those issues. However, many cannot afford nor have access to see a physician regularly. Medicare patients often pay co-pays, co-insurance or some sort of deductible to receive medical care. While Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California) can provide assistance, not every senior meets the criteria for qualification to be Medi-Medi (Medicare and Medicaid covered). For many, the cost of an office visit or prescription is simply too much. The choice may come down to food versus medical care.
Like their younger counterparts, many older people live paycheck to paycheck. Small emergencies, such as a blown tire, rent increase or reduction in income can tip the balance between just making it or catastrophe. Money experts talk about creating savings, 401Ks, Roth IRAs and other retirement plans. The fact of the matter is that a large majority of Americans were affected by the last economic recession and lost their savings; or many have simply outlived it.
Many Americans 75 years or older cannot work due to poor health. While those in the 65 to 70 year range may still be able to physically work, they often face fewer opportunities in the workforce. When combined with outdated guidelines for programs such as Social Security and SSI, many find their options for escaping destitution to be extremely limited.
While programs such as Social Security have helped in decreasing the overall numbers of destitute seniors from those seen in the 1950s or early 1960s, the issue continues to be an increasingly understated problem in the United States. It’s only getting worse. As more people age and their health declines, they are forced out of the workforce before they’ve secured enough to retire or be able to collect benefits. While some counties and cities have resources available to help, these programs and resources are growing increasingly scarce as they’re forced to make tough budgetary decisions. As a result, programs intended to help the elderly often suffer from budget cuts.
Thankfully, a growing number of non-profit organizations are available to help. The problem is often that even though these agencies are available, their intended population—aging adults and seniors—either don’t know they exist or how to navigate the complicated maze of finding resources.
The first step is to contact a free directory such as 2-1-1. Regardless of location, 2-1-1is a community service that has trained specialists to assist the caller in finding the right service for them whether it be for food, transportation, health and respite care, legal, housing, etc.
Additionally, there are other resources available such as advocacy, health education and forms assistance through various state, federal, county, and non-profits.
A select few include:
AARP (focused on senior citizens in general) – www.aarp.org/statepages/ca.html
California State Retirees (an organization that is focused solely on state retirees and their pension and health concerns) – www.californiastateretirees.org
Congress of California Seniors (non-profit organization focused on advocacy and legislation for seniors) – www.seniors.org
National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (dedicated to protecting the earned pay, retirement and health care benefits of federal employees, retirees and their survivors)- www.narfe.org
Franchise Tax Board (CA state tax board) – www.ftb.ca.gov
National Senior Citizens Law Center (non-profit national organization focused on aiding seniors with legal issues concerning healthcare and housing) – www.nsclc.org
Meals on Wheels (delivers healthy meals to senior citizens and indignant populations) – www.mowaa.org
HICAP: Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program (non-profit focused on helping seniors understand their options with Medicare and resolve issues) – www. hicapservices.net
Social Security- www.socialsecurity.gov *with an online account, you can save time and have access to a range of services without going to the social security office.
For more information on programs and agencies near you, please call 2-1-1.