Older Americans who live in poverty “cannot avoid its consequences. They wake up to that reality each and every day,” AARP Foundation President Lisa Marsh Ryerson said at the Aging in America conference March 23 in Washington. “Poverty is fundamentally America’s problem. A solution needs to come from all of us.”
The issue of poverty emerged again and again in remarks by experts and advocates at the five-day conference, hosted by the American Society on Aging. Some 6.4 million older Americans live at or below the federal poverty level of $11,800 a year. And being a woman, a person of color or a person in poor health increases the odds of poverty.
Women in particular are subject to fall into poverty because of widowhood, withdrawing from the workforce to care for children or other family members and declining health, said Maria Oquendo-Scharneck of AgeOptions, an agency that assists older adults in Illinois.
“We’re seeing an increase in extreme poverty,” said Kevin Prindiville, executive director of Justice in Aging, an organization that fights senior poverty through legal channels. The nonprofit also projects that among older Americans:
- Homelessness will increase 33 percent by 2020 and 100 percent by 2050.
- By 2025, after the youngest boomers reach age 60, the number of food-insecure people will increase by 50 percent.
- By 2030, about 72 million will be living in poverty.
Among the factors that could drive increases: a shrinking safety net of programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid; rising costs that affect everything, including college tuition for children, long-term care and health care; and the sheer number of aging boomers who are living longer.
Regardless of the bleak outlook, innovative ideas are emerging to address the issue and help older adults live better. The use of senior housing as a care management hub is one. “It is not only shelter but a fabulous place where we can begin to organize low-income seniors” in terms of health education and access to food, nutrition, medication and more, said Robyn Stone, executive director of the LeadingAge Center for Applied Research.
Building partnerships to help the community and entrepreneurs is another idea. Attract social entrepreneurs to invest in service-related hubs, said Atif Bostic, executive director of UpLift Solutions, which helps grocery stores open in low-income, underserved areas. The nonprofit has assisted in developing health care clinics in supermarkets, which have been a win-win situation for the businesses and residents.
Neera Tanden, president and CEO of the Washington think tank Center for American Progress, said poverty among older Americans is high on the list of important policy issues at her organization despite that “it’s almost like the millions of seniors living in poverty are invisible.”
Some legislation over the years has helped fight poverty to the benefit of older adults. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act led to home- and community-based services and accessibility, and the Older Americans Act provides support to the poorest elderly.
Also, protecting programs like Medicare and Social Security is essential to preventing more seniors from falling into poverty. “We have to fight for these programs and make sure they’re strong for the seniors we care about,” Prindiville said.