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Why More Older Adults Are Living in Poverty — and How You Can Help

Author Matthew Desmond says we can ‘abolish’ poverty

spinner image Matthew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer prize-winning book "Evicted," is interviewed after speaking in a Habitat for Humanity luncheon at Julia Morgan Ballroom in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018
Matthew Desmond is the author of the Pulitzer prize-winning book "Evicted."
MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Poverty is on the rise among the oldest Americans. The number of people 65 and older who were experiencing poverty increased by nearly 1 million between 2020 and 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That brought the total to nearly 6 million people in that age group living in poverty. The increase is particularly troubling because that 65+ group was the only age group to see the numbers of people living in poverty increase.

What would it take to eliminate poverty among older Americans and in the nation overall? The solutions might be closer than they would seem, according to Matthew Desmond, author of the new best-selling book “Poverty, By America.” Desmond, a sociology professor at Princeton University who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” recently met with AARP Foundation staff to discuss ways to address poverty. He also answered questions about older Americans and poverty in an exclusive interview with AARP.

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The following excerpts from that interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

What are some of the reasons that poverty has slightly increased among older Americans in recent years?

Desmond: The question about the increases in elderly poverty that we’ve been seeing in recent years is still unresolved, and I think it’s really an issue of great importance that we need to get to the bottom of.

One thing that’s driving the increase, according to the supplemental poverty measure, is the rise of medical costs. If you don’t take into account the rise of health care and medical costs, things look much better than they are in reality for a lot of elderly Americans.

[Another thing] I think we need to account for is the fact that many elderly Americans are not getting connected to anti-poverty programs that are designed to ease hunger and hardship. Most elderly Americans who qualify for food stamps do not receive them, and the reason for that seems to be administrative burden [of applying for these programs] and red tape and regulation. Finding ways to better connect elderly Americans to those programs, making applying and reapplying for those programs simple and easy, I think should be a top priority.

Many older Americans who are eligible for SNAP benefits/food stamps don’t enroll in the program. Why is that the case and what are some ways to get more adults this assistance when they need it?

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Desmond: There are some very simple and effective methods. One study showed that they [could increase enrollment] by sending the older adult a mailing informing them of their eligibility for food stamps and including a phone number. When they dial that phone number, a real live human being picks up the phone and spends half an hour walking them through the process online. That process can greatly increase uptake of SNAP [enrollment] among elderly adults.

It's not rocket science, but we have to be intentional about making sure we market these programs [such as SNAP] in a way that’s attractive and simple, making sure that when folks  apply for this program, it's easy and seamless. For elderly adults, it seems like there’s a big benefit just from walking through the process on an individual basis.

According to research from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in summer 2021, roughly 10 percent of renters 65 and older were behind on their rent, which meant that nearly 800,000 older adults were in danger of eviction when the pandemic moratorium ended. How does eviction and the poverty that leads to it affect older Americans?

Desmond: I remember doing a survey in eviction court in Milwaukee a few years ago for my last book, and we asked people their ages. The youngest person getting evicted wasn’t of age yet, but the oldest person getting evicted was well into their old age. I think they were in their 80s.

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We typically think eviction affects families and kids, and that’s certainly true, but there’s a nontrivial share of the American [eviction] population that are elderly Americans.

Eviction really does affect people across their life course, including elderly Americans. When you think of the stress and health consequences of eviction, including homelessness, but also the link that we know of between eviction and things like depression, I think [those health issues] could be compounded by over ability, disproportionately affecting elderly Americans.

What would it take to end poverty in the United States?

Desmond: We have the power and resources to abolish poverty in the United States. We used to have those moral ambitions. When President Johnson launched the War on Poverty in 1964, they actually set a deadline for it. I think that we as a nation can rekindle our sense of urgency.

We need to do two things. We need to deepen our investments in fighting poverty. A study a few years ago showed that if the top 1 percent of Americans paid the taxes they owe [without tax breaks], we can raise an additional $175 billion a year, which is almost enough to raise everyone above the official poverty line. We have the resources to do that.

But the second thing is, we don’t just need deeper investments, we need different policies and policies that address exploitation in America. We need policies that do a better job of empowering workers, raising wages, providing families with more choice about where to live, and also ending financial exploitation in banking and other lending.

Five Ways You Can Help End Poverty

Matthew Desmond, author of the bestselling book “Poverty, By America,” argues that we can abolish poverty if more people take action. He offered these steps as ways you can take action to reduce poverty in your community and the nation at large.

  1. Shop and invest differently. When possible, consider using stores and financial services that have commitments to fair wages or other ways of fighting poverty in the community. “We can vote with our wallets,” Desmond says.  “And you know a lot of us do this with environmental issues.”
  2. Ask what your community is doing. “We can start where we are,” he says.  “All of us have a little bit of influence somewhere, in a faith community, book club, a school board. Ask how you’re connected to the problem and the solution. I work at a university, so I might start asking, ‘Is my university doing right by adjunct professors, what are we investing our endowment in?’”
  3. Reach out to your elected officials. Desmond says you might consider how benefits such as tax breaks may come at the cost of funding for antipoverty programs. Letter campaigns and phone calls in support for such programs could help influence lawmakers’ decisions.
  4. Speak out against segregation. Racial segregation in housing and schools can trap some families into cycles of poverty. Desmond says that building more inclusive communities is one way to break that cycle.
  5. Support antipoverty organizations. Volunteering and donating to such nonprofit organizations is one way to take direct action to fight poverty. In addition to recommending AARP Foundation as one such organization, Desmond has built the website that connects users to ways they can get involved locally or nationally, along with providing information for resources for people who may be experiencing poverty.


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