14 April 2010

Older Women, Poverty, & the Elder Economic Security Initiative

Despite The Safety Net - Many Elders Struggle to Survive

Recently the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts and the organization, Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW), developed an Elder Economic Security Standard Index (Elder Index) in order to provide a framework to help in shaping programs and policies affecting the economic security of elders and their families.

It is helpful, first, to examine the context of, and need for,  the index:

1.  Over 39-million Americans live in poverty, with 9.7 percent of those over 65 living in poverty.
2.  Women (11.8%) are much more likely to live in or near poverty than men (7.2%)
3.  These percentages worsen for those elders living alone: Women = 23%, and Men = 16%.
4.  Older women of color are hit disproportionately by poverty; 21.4% of Hispanics, 23.9% of African-Americans, and 12.7% of Asians compared to 10.1% of non-Hispanic white women.

As dreary as is this picture, it is misleading and based on out-dated projections and underestimations of the high-cost of even a bare-boned life of mere subsistence.  The federal poverty level for an elder living alone in 2008 was $10,400.  Consider the realities of life facing older persons as medical care, medicine, long-term care, spousal care-giving, housing, food and transportation costs increase, almost of a daily basis.

The Elder Index provides a much sharper focus on just how dire it is for all too many of our elderly persons.

For example, a single elderly person who rents would face monthly costs of $700 for housing, $222 for food, $297 for transportation in a private auto, $237 for health care and miscellaneous costs of $226.  Annualized, that is $20,248 and twice the Federal Poverty Level.  Similar disparities exist for those who own their lodging and couples rather than singles.

Social Security provides 90% of retirement income to three out of ten retirees and two out of five older women rely on Social Security alone.  Those populations (women and people of color) who had lower earning power during their work years earn less in Social Security benefits and thus must struggle even harder than their better off counter parts to even survive. As inadequate as is Social Security to fully meet the needs of today's elders, without it they face utter destitution.

The problem becomes clear when one considers the Federal Poverty Level versus reality.  It simply is an unrealistic and outdated benchmark obfuscating  the real need for increased federal and state supports and assistance for our elderly poor.

The Elder Economic Security Initiative expects that by 2012 WOW will have built the partnerships in up to 20 states to develop and implement the initiative at the state level.  As you read this, the initiative is already ongoing in twelve states; Massachusetts, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Jersey, Michigan, New York, West Virginia and New Mexico.

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