‘Close to the line’: why more and more seniors are living in poverty | ET REALITY


It has never been easy for Mary Cole to support herself and her 19-year-old grandson who lives with her in Bristol, Virginia, with her monthly $914 Supplemental Security Income check.

But it’s getting more difficult. “I’ve been struggling a lot,” Ms. Cole said.

Because benefits counselors at her local agency on aging have helped her apply for various types of public assistance, she pays only $158 in rent for her apartment in a Section 8 subsidized building.

A federal program helps Ms. Cole, 69, with heating costs. The state covers your Medicare premiums, and a Medicare savings program allows you to fill prescriptions for heart disease, hypertension, lung disease and diabetes.

But benefits that rose in the early years of the coronavirus pandemic have shrunk since the federal government ended the public health emergency this year. Ms. Cole’s heating assistance dropped from $900 in 2021 to $600 last year.

Her benefits through SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps) had increased to $351 per month; They have since dropped to $140 a month. “That’s not going to feed us both,” she said. He long ago spent the federal stimulus checks mailed in 2020 and 2021.

By the last week of the month, you often run out of money and consider visiting a nearby food pantry. “I don’t like doing that,” Ms. Cole said. “I figure I’m taking something away from other people.”

Poverty among older Americans increased sharply in 2022, the Census Bureau recently announced. Using the supplementary poverty measure, which economists say is a more accurate reflection of income and expenditure than the official poverty rate, the proportion of people over 65 living in poverty rose from a modern low of 9.5 percent in 2020 to 10.7 percent in 2021. .

Last year, the figure reached 14.1 percent, representing more than eight million older Americans.

“It’s pretty alarming,” said Ramsey Alwin, president and CEO of the National Council on Aging. “It’s really unacceptable.” Poverty among children also increased sharply and median family income decreased.

In southwest Virginia, where District Three Government Cooperative provides senior services and has helped more than 3,000 low-income residents like Ms. Cole apply for benefits this fiscal year, 20 percent of senior residents live in poverty.

“We see it increasing,” said Debbie Spencer, director of senior and disability services for the cooperative. She described customers “trying to decide whether to eat, buy gas or buy their medicine.”

How poor is poor? The supplemental measure defined poverty last year as an annual income of less than $15,998 for single adult renters ($22,624 for a two-adult household), with regional variations; the threshold was somewhat lower for homeowners, regardless of whether they had mortgages.

Older black, Hispanic, and indigenous Americans have higher poverty rates; so do women and those who are not married.

He Elderly index, devised by gerontologists at the University of Massachusetts Boston, also estimates how much money older adults need to cover their basic needs. In the Chicago metropolitan area, for example, a single renter over age 65 in good health needed $2,481 per month last year for housing, health care, food, transportation and other expenses, according to the calculator.

The same tenant in Cole’s hometown of Bristol, Virginia, needed $1,794. At the national level, the average Social Security retirement benefit Last year it amounted to $1,792 per month.

“Poverty rates fell in the early years of the pandemic because of the stimulus payments many seniors received,” along with increases in other benefits, said Richard Johnson, an economist at the Urban Institute.

When those payments and benefit increases ended, inflation soared, eroding purchasing power before beginning to decline.

“Social Security has cost-of-living increases, but they come with a delay,” Dr. Johnson said. Monthly inflation peaked in June 2022, but the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security benefits, a hefty 8.7 percent increase, was not factored into recipients’ checks until January.

“Many older people live close to the line, so it doesn’t take much to fall” into poverty, said Teresa Ghilarducci, an economist at the New School for Social Research. Her studies also show the The effect of the pandemic on the employment of older workers.; So many retired early or were laid off that about a million fewer seniors are now in the workforce.

Even if senior poverty rates stabilize or decline next year, eased by the increased benefits some states offer, the overall numbers hold up stubbornly. high compared to those of other industrialized countries with stronger public safety networks.

The proportion of older Americans living below the official poverty level fell sharply during the 1960s and 1970s, largely due to Social Security expansions and increases. But since then there has been a stalemate.

“It’s not fully appreciated how persistent senior poverty has been,” Dr. Johnson said. “The decline really slowed in the 1990s and has not improved significantly since then.”

Economists and advocates have suggested solutions: increase the minimum Social Security benefit; increasing Social Security payments after people turn 85, when health care costs typically rise; and improve SSI benefits for seniors and people with disabilities who lack the work history to qualify for Social Security. Those steps would require congressional action.

For now, however, enrolling more seniors in existing programs could have a real impact. Federal benefits go a long way toward reducing poverty. Social Security alone lifted 20 million people over age 65 above the poverty level last year, according to census data. SNAP, housing subsidies, and SSI prevented another 1.6 million seniors from falling into poverty.

But only about half of seniors eligible for food stamps have signed up, meaning five million are missing out, Alwin said. Considering all public programs, “about $30 billion is left on the table each year that could help with food, medicine and other basic needs,” he said. “It’s amazing”.

Although most seniors recognize that they qualify for Social Security, they are often less aware of housing and energy assistance, Medicaid and Medicare programs for low-income beneficiaries, state property tax rebates, or vouchers food. “They may think it’s not for them but for someone else who needs it more,” Ms. Alwin said.

Additionally, applying for these programs can be complicated and time-consuming; some require digital access and skills. Some applicants simply give up.

“We failed to ensure that no person gets benefits they are not entitled to, and we sacrificed many people who are eligible,” Dr. Ghilarducci said.

The National Council on Aging online Benefits check The tool shows which public and private programs seniors qualify for; The council also operates a toll-free helpline (1-800-794-6559) staffed by benefits experts. With federal and foundation funds, it supports 84 benefit enrollment centers through local senior and family service agencies, senior centers and United Way programs.

Although these benefits counselors helped Ms. Cole receive assistance with housing, heat and food, she still does not feel safe and is dependent on another source of support.

“God will take care of me,” he said. “I have faith that he will take care of my needs.”

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