Poverty Among the Elderly: Seeking Justice in Aging

Poverty Among the Elderly: Seeking Justice in Aging

Elderly Economic Insecurity

Elderly Americans are victims of today's growing inequality. Income inequality is rising and the wage gap is widening for American workers, especially senior citizens. In fact, the income inequality numbers among the elderly in the U.S. resemble a report of a developing country than what would be expected of the U.S. There are millions of older individuals who face the threat of hunger, and the numbers continue to increase at a rate faster than the growth of the senior population.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a study that found that Mexico and Chile both have wider gaps among seniors than the United States. The OECD found that the average income of the richest 10 percent of the population is about nine times that of the poorest 10 percent. Emerging economies, such as China and India, have sustained a period of strong economic growth that has helped lift millions of people out of absolute poverty. But the benefits of growth have not been evenly distributed and high levels of income inequality have increased. In the U.S., higher inequality is also driven by the fortunes of the richest 20 percent, whose incomes are eight times higher than those of the poorest 20 percent. On average nearly 19 percent of single older adults are living below the federal poverty level (FPL), and another 34 percent live in "the gap" between poverty and economic security, according to the Insecurity in the States 2016 report.

The average monthly Social Security retirement benefit was $1,366, which amounts to $16,392 per year. A senior from Reno, Nevada, stated, "Here I am at an age when I should be thinking about retiring, desperately trying to find a job. I have used my savings…I'm seeking a court injunction to try and save my home." Seniors, ages 65 to 74, who are home owners are still burdened with monthly mortgage payments, with an average balance of $118,000, according to the Federal Reserve Board. Some retired seniors tend to have other forms of income to supplement their Social Security income. In addition to the cost of living, seniors rely on transportation services as one of the main sources of transportation. The prices of each service vary since most counties across the U.S. offer free or low-cost public transportation services designed for seniors who need door-to-door rides.

Even though payments from Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) play a critical role in enhancing economic security and reducing poverty rates among the elderly, 90 percent of elderly income is provided by Social Security.

Food Insecurity

Nationwide, 2.8 million households with at least one adult aged 65 or older face food insecurity. Food security is the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. Older adults experience food insecurity based on where they live, lack of retirement savings, reliance on Social Security as their primary income source, increased health care costs and high housing costs. Race, ethnicity, employment status and income are some of the factors associated with senior food insecurity. Seniors with disabilities are almost one-third of food insecure seniors are disabled.

The National Council on Aging (NCOA) cites that there are over 25 million Americans ages 60 and over who are economically insecure. More specifically, elderly women, elderly persons of color or in poor health have higher the odds of being in poverty. Maria Oquendo-Scharneck of Age Options in Illinois shared with the AARP the three factors that often cause women to fall into poverty: “widowhood, withdrawing from the workforce to care for children or other family members and declining health.”  A resident from Laurel, Maryland, shared the hardships that come with ageism in the workplace: “I am over 60, and I was pushed out of my job because of my age. My rent, car note, and electricity are all two months behind. I can barely get food. Utilities will be cut off soon.” 

Seniors considered more at risk for being food insecure are those who are living in southern states such as Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, North Carolina, Texas, South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia. Food insecurity is most prevalent in rural areas because southern counties often lack robust networks to meet the need.

Data represented from NCOA shows that nearly one in every five seniors living with their grandchildren is food insecure. Data shows that 17 percent of African American seniors and 18 percent of Hispanic seniors are food insecure, compared to seven percent of Caucasian seniors. This is due to food stores located in communities of color are often further away and have fewer healthy high-quality options.

Health Risks

The Spotlight on Senior Health: Adverse Health Outcomes of Food Insecure Older Americans research project found that food insecurity among individuals aged 60 and older living in the United States has a negative impact on seniors' health, nutrition, and overall well-being. In addition, the "increase in senior food insecurity is particularly concerning given the growing proportion of the population that is comprised of seniors; an estimated 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 every day until 2030, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau."

According to the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL), lack of proper nutrition among seniors often leads to health deterioration and higher medical costs. Because of economic inequality among seniors, seniors often times have to decide whether to pay for food or pay for their medication to keep their health stable. Consequently, food insecurity is associated with increased risk of developing negative health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma. When compared to food secure seniors, food insecure seniors are 60 percent more likely to experience depression. Seniors who are food insecure consume, on average, fewer nutrients and calories compared to food secure seniors.

Food insecure seniors are 40 percent more likely to report an experience of congestive heart failure, 53 percent more likely to report a heart attack and 52 percent as likely to develop asthma. In addition, due to lower nutrient intake, food insecure seniors are 22 percent more likely to experience limitations in their activities of daily living (ADLs), which are fundamental activities - such as eating, dressing and bathing - that individuals can typically perform independently. Additionally, food insecure seniors also experience decreased resistance to infections and lengthened hospital stays, which can result in higher medical costs.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) offers nutrition assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families, provides economic benefits to communities and is a key component of the social safety net to address hunger in the United States. Over 4.8 million low-income adults over age 60 rely on SNAP. Many of the nation's most vulnerable seniors rely on SNAP, along with Social Security, SSI and other state and federal assistance to help afford an adequate diet. SNAP has provided an estimated $6.6 billion to SNAP households with seniors in 2016, two-thirds of which went to households in which seniors lived alone.

Meals on Wheels is the largest national provider of senior meal services. It is composed of 5,000 nutrition programs found in towns and cities across the country. In some counties, Meals on Wheels is the only service that distributes meals to the homebound. Seniors threatened with hunger and social isolation make up the core of Meals on Wheels clients. Each local program works with to provide a community-specific solution, including a safety check and much-needed human connections.

The largest hunger-relief organization in the United States is Feeding America. Through its nationwide network of more than 200 food banks and 61,000 food pantries and meal programs, Feeding America provides more than three billion meals annually to an estimated 37 million people in need, including three million adults age 65 years and older. The organization helps older adults access federal programs that may help them make ends meet. "Strategies to consider would include policies that encourage greater levels of savings among the working age population, facilitating cooperative living arrangements among the elderly, establishing fair terms with respect to reverse mortgage programs, and strengthening the Social Security and SSI programs. All of these changes have the potential to reduce the extent of economic insecurity facing the elderly."

Posted or updated: 4/11/2018 12:00:00 AM
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Take Action

CONTACT your local congressional representative at Capital Switchboard (202-224-3121) or their district office. Take action to address the root causes of elderly food insecurity. Urge your representative to support:
  • H.R.1276 - Closing the Meal Gap Act of 2017 - A bill to amend the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008, requiring that supplemental nutrition assistance program benefits be calculated with reference to the cost of the low-cost food plan as determined by the Secretary of Agriculture and for other purposes.
  • S.427 - Social Security Expansion Act - This bill amends Title II (Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance) of the Social Security Act to: increase the primary insurance amount for all eligible beneficiaries, beginning in 2023; revise computation of cost-of-living adjustments to use the Consumer Price Index for elderly consumers; and increase the special minimum primary insurance amount for lifetime low earners based on years in the workforce.