Realities of senior poverty are alarming

Senior poverty is not created equal.

The Elder Index tells us half of all senior women in California lack enough money to meet their basic needs. Retired men report annual income 75 percent higher than women ($24,794 to $14,225). Only 36 percent of women, compared to half of men, report any income from a retirement plan.

The numbers grow even starker when ethnicity is considered: 77 percent of Latinos, 72 percent of African-American and 41 percent of Asians, male and female, don’t have resources to adequately care for themselves. That means they struggle every day to just pay their rent and necessities necessary for survival.

So what is the Elder Index and how is it computed? It was developed by Wider Opportunities for Women in Massachusetts and applied in California by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the Insight Center in Oakland.

Researchers use data from each county to determine what a senior needs to meet basic needs for housing, food, health care and transportation.

This contrasts sharply with how the government computes poverty. The Federal Poverty Level (FPL) was created in 1964 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty initiative.

Remember, this was the height of the Cold War and Johnson wanted a measure where he could show success, but not give a propaganda victory to the Soviet Union by showing large numbers of Americans in poverty.

With that mandate, the Social Security Administration created the FPL by pulling data from 1955 that showed the average American family spent one-third of its income on food, then multiplied by three.

The FPL computation has never been substantially modified — except that it is now increased annually by the Consumer Price Index. Our country’s measurement of poverty is based on flawed methodology that reflects no geographical, gender, racial or age differences. It was purposefully designed to show lower poverty numbers than there really are.

Want proof? Let’s do some arithmetic.

The current FPL for an individual is $11,670 per year. The Elder Index, based on real data, tells us a California senior needs $23,317 a year for basic needs. The annual gap between Elder Index and FPL is $11,647, almost 30 percent more seniors who can’t pay their bills than the government acknowledges. These gap seniors often need help, but are considered to “make too much money” for help.

So why aren’t real numbers used to measure poverty? Using actual poverty levels to determine need among seniors would highlight the gap and put pressure to spend more on assistance. In the meantime, organizations like Serving Seniors and other charities try to plug holes in the safety net for these at-risk seniors.

For perspective, Serving Seniors’ clients have an average income of $850 per month — $123 below the FPL and not even half of the Elder Index. The services provided — meals, case management, health services, civic engagement, permanent housing and emergency housing for homeless — keep seniors stable and from falling through the safety net.

This isn’t the way we envisioned our grandparents, uncles, aunts and ourselves living their golden years. Seniors should not have to forego life-sustaining medications in order to put food on the table. They should not have to miss doctor’s appointments because they don’t have transportation. And they should definitely not have to worry about where their next meal is coming from.

Not using actual data to make decisions is shortsighted. Data show that providing seniors with access to affordable food, housing, health care and transportation can actually save taxpayer dollars by lowering police/fire, EMS and health care costs. Providing assistance is a wise investment, not a handout.

We are at the start of another election cycle. Ask questions of politicians at every level about how they plan to address “income adequacy” for our seniors. Get their commitment to adequately fund important programs like the Older Americans Act, which feeds nutritious meals to tens of thousands of seniors each day.

Most importunately, tell them that millions of seniors need their help, and need it now.

Downey is president and CEO of Serving Seniors, a nonprofit agency dedicated to increasing the quality of life for San Diego seniors living in poverty. Learn more at

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