Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Friday June 7th, 2013, 4:38pm

Half Of America’s Seniors Have Dangerously Low Incomes, New Report Shows

Nearly half of the country’s senior citizens are economically vulnerable, a new report from the Economic Policy Institute finds.

About 19.9 million, or 48 percent, of America’s seniors have incomes that are less than two times the supplemental poverty line, according to the report.

Jo Reed, director of the Elder Economic Security Initiative at Wider Opportunities for Women, said it is often poorly understood just how economically vulnerable older adults are, particularly women and people of color. Senior debt levels are also reaching record levels, she explained.

“We want to call attention to this reality, and based on this do everything we can to ensure that there are programs and policies in place that bolster the economic security for our elderly,” Reed said.

Seniors age 80 and older have an economic vulnerability rate of a little more than 58 percent, which is much higher than the 44.4 percent rate among individuals in the 65 to 79 age group.

More than 63 percent of elderly blacks and about 70 percent of Hispanics are economically vulnerable, the report found. Those figures are far higher than the nearly 44 percent of elderly whites considered economically insecure.

Blacks and Hispanics make up just 15 percent of the senior population, but they represent 21.9 percent of those who are economically insecure, the report noted.

And overall, women are more susceptible to becoming economically vulnerable compared to men.

Jennifer Clary, research associate at the Social IMPACT Research Center, a program of the Heartland Alliance, said women are particularly vulnerable to economic hardships across their lifespan, but even moreso in later years.

This is due to a number of reasons, including being paid less at work and having more caregiving responsibilities that may limit work availability or take them out of the workforce all together. These factors ultimately result in a smaller retirement cushion, she said.

Married senior women typically fare better up until they become widowed, when their Social Security benefits are typically cut by anywhere from one-third to one-half, Clary said.

“Women who outlive men really face a reduction in their income, and the longer they live, the more the purchasing power of their income is eroded by inflation,” she said.

Proposed changes to programs such Medicare and Social Security, which seniors rely on, need to take into account these economically-vulnerable seniors, the report noted.

U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher system, for example, would result in 3.5 million more seniors having dangerously low levels of income, according to the report.

And 132,000 more seniors would become economically vulnerable if the calculation of cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) to Social Security is changed to a chained consumer price index (CPI), the report reads.

Increased health costs for seniors are not factored into official poverty statistics, according to the report. And this can lead to an inaccurate look at the true economic vulnerability among seniors.

Clary said the traditional measure used to come up with poverty figures is outdated and “is a measure of severe material deprivation, rather than an accurate reflection of what it really takes to get by and make ends meet.”

For the report, the researchers used the Elder Economic Security Standard Index developed by Wider Opportunities for Women and the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The Elder Index factors in costs for housing, health care, transportation, food and other miscellaneous essentials.

Clary explained that in Illinois, seniors need an income of about three times the poverty level to meet most basic needs.

And the senior income levels the Economic Policy Institute’s report highlights on the national level is very similar to what seniors earn in Illinois and Chicago, she noted.

In Illinois, about 33 percent of the total population is either living in poverty or near it. Illinois' seniors as a whole have a poverty rate of 8.5 percent. For senior women, the poverty rate is 13.8 percent, Clary said.

While seniors ages 65 and older have a lower poverty rate compared to the state’s overall population, many Illinois seniors are struggling to make ends meet and provide for some of their most basic needs, Clary explained.

She said seniors need programs such as Medicare and Social Security to meet those basic needs.

For example, Social Security is the only source of income for 1 out of 5 retired seniors in Illinois, Clary added. And nationally, Social Security provides more than 90 percent of income to 1 in 4 seniors, Reed added.

Basic annual living costs range from about $17,000 for a senior living alone to about $33,000 for senior couples, Clary noted.

“Social Security payments annually are really insufficient for both men and women, and particularly so for women,” Clary said.

Social Security payments are about $13,000 for women and $17,000 for men annually.

“We can dispel the myth that most seniors are ‘greedy geezers’ with lavish retirements. Almost half are either in poverty or close to it,” said David Cooper, an economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute and co-author of the report. “We shouldn’t be cutting the benefits that are barely adequate as is, effectively legislating more of them into poverty.”

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