Certainly more are struggling to stay afloat. According to a recent AARP survey, 60 percent of Americans 65 and older are having a tougher time paying for food, gas and medicine. More than 10 percent have been forced to turn for help to families or charities.
Experts also worry about the effects of persistent undernutrition, especially among the very young and the very old. Even before the nation’s recent economic woes, a 2002 study by the Department of Agriculture found that lower-income older people consume fewer calories and fewer servings of the foods recommended on the official food pyramid. New research confirms that chronic nutritional deficiencies jeopardize health in many ways, including weakening the body’s immune defenses.
In his 1969 book, Let Them Eat Promises: The Politics of Hunger in America, journalist Nick Kotz called hunger “a scar across an affluent nation.” For a time that scar was healing. Now it has returned, deeper and rawer than before because it has come at a time of unprecedented prosperity—for some—but a widening of the gap between the richest and the poorest Americans.
At the same time, the safety net set in place to prevent people from going hungry has frayed. Food banks and meal programs have seen their shelves grow bare as the value of federal surplus food donations has fallen from $242 million in 2003 to $59 million in 2007. The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging reports that half of the organizations it represents have cut back on home-delivered meals and nine of 10 expect to cut back in the coming year. And the food stamp program, which was created to keep Americans from going hungry, has failed to keep pace with rising food prices.
Meanwhile, all across America, older people like Carole Drew count their pennies. It’s the end of the month that worries her.
“I don’t drive unless I absolutely have to,” she says. ”I read the market ads and clip the coupons. But I’m still falling behind. If I run through my savings, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
Peter Jaret is a freelance writer in Petaluma, Calif.