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Low-Income Living in America: A Story of Adversity and Resilience

AARP National Survey of Adults with Low Incomes

Americans with low incomes often struggle to cover basic living expenses as well as financial setbacks — and for many, the struggle only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. An AARP national survey reveals the multiple challenges, as well as a deep resilience, of low-income adults in the U.S.

The study explored the attitudes and experiences of nearly 2,000 adults whose household income is below 250% of the federal poverty level. In dollars, that translates to individuals who make less than about $32,000 a year and couples with annual income of $43,000, representing the financial reality of about one in ten Americans.

Between spring 2021 and spring 2022, about 90% of those considered to be low-income reported hardships such as not being able to afford rent, groceries, health care, or medication. Such hardships arose despite most (76%) receiving public benefits intended to serve as a safety net.

During the first year of the pandemic, 29% experienced an unexpected, nonmedical expense, and 20% suffered a job loss or other decline in income that set them back.

Yet, results from the AARP poll found that many of the people who confront such challenges hold a reservoir of fortitude that helped them persevere. Nearly three of four low-income adults consider themselves to have at least moderate resilience when confronting life's challenges, including two in five who indicated a high level.

More broadly, 65% say they are very or somewhat satisfied with their life, with older respondents slightly more satisfied than those under age 50.

On an imaginary 10-step ladder leading to their "best possible life," AARP finds low-income Americans typically place themselves on Step 6 or 7. Just what constitutes that ideal life? Financial freedom and security topped the list, followed by a good career or job, and having family and friends around them.

In the survey, low-income Americans indicated having several financial goals, but about one-third are not confident they are doing what is needed to meet them. Those closest to retiring (ages 50 to 64) are least confident, according to the survey results.

To improve the standard of living for low-income adults, AARP suggests better informing policymakers about their needs and improving efforts to connect people with available public services.

More than half (55%) of low-income adults say they always vote in presidential elections, while one-third (32%) say they always vote in local elections.

The poll reflects a varied demographic snapshot. Around 37% in this group are working, 23% are retired, and 17% said they are unemployed and looking for work. The majority (53%) own their home or live with the homeowner. Most identify as a Democrat (38%), while 23% are Republican and 23% independent.

Methodology

The online survey of 1,919 adults in the U.S. for AARP was conducted in the spring of 2021. The respondents were all low income, defined as at or below 250% of the federal poverty level.

For more information, please contact Alicia Williams at ARwilliams@aarp.org. For media inquiries, please contact External Relations at media@aarp.org.

Suggested citation:

Williams, Alicia R. Pushing Forward with Resilience: AARP National Survey of Adults with Low Incomes. Washington, DC: AARP Research, August 2022. https://doi.org/10.26419/res.00474.001

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