When we talk about fighting poverty in the United States, the conversation is often focused on preventative measures such as education or jobs. Thanks to this focus, poverty prevention programs, policies, and corresponding social movements have made significant progress in raising wages, empowering people, reducing poverty levels and changing lives.
However, when it comes to an increasing population of low-to-no-income seniors, many preventative measures come too late. Education and retraining initiatives, savings plans, and job creation programs won’t help someone in her 70s or 80s who is struggling just to cover room and board after a lifetime of low-wage labor.
But it’s not too late to protect the rights of seniors to a basic living.
For this growing demographic of aging poor, we cannot hold up our hands and say we should have helped them 50 years ago, or helped their parents a century ago. We must, and we can, take action. By updating the federal safety-net programs we already have in place, we can move towards an economically stable future for people as they age.
Here is a 5-step plan to fight senior poverty:
Strengthen the existing safety net. Senior poverty would be much worse without Social Security, the Supplemental Security Income program, and Medicare and Medicaid. These programs are almost single-handedly responsible for reducing the official measure of senior poverty from 35 percent in 1960 to 9 percent today. But seniors today are rapidly losing ground. Proposals to cut Social Security benefits, increase Medicare cost-sharing for beneficiaries, or limit Medicaid coverage should all be rejected. Instead lawmakers must advance proposals to ensure that these benefits meet the growing need.
Improve the Supplemental Security Income program. The poorest two million people over age 65 receive SSI payments, but the rate of seniors in extreme poverty is increasing in part because this program — originally intended to lift all seniors out of poverty — has not been significantly updated since it was first passed in 1972. As a result, SSI essentially still leaves millions of the country’s most needy seniors in poverty. The maximum federal benefit for an individual is $721 per month (though some states kick-in a small supplement), but to be eligible a senior must have less than $2,000 in savings. In addition to the limit on savings, the SSI income disregard limits the amount of income someone can have from another source, such as from a pension or Social Security benefit, and still receive SSI. But the current SSI income disregard allows for only $20 of additional general income or $65 of earned income before there is a reduction in benefits. Updating the SSI income disregard would mean just a little more money for people for whom every dollar counts. The Supplemental Security Restoration Income Act, poised for reintroduction in Congress this spring, offers an opportunity to modernize the program.
Increase the availability of programs that provide assistance with healthcare and long-term care costs. One of the drivers of seniors’ economic vulnerability is the rising cost of health care. Proposals that would shift more of those costs to seniors will only drive more seniors into poverty. Instead, the health care programs that are designed to help the poorest seniors afford their health care – Medicaid, Medicare Savings Programs, and the Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy – should be expanded, and out-of-pocket costs should be reduced or eliminated.
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Push for federal support for the long-term care safety net. With 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day, the number of people needing long-term care coverage is projected to rise from 12 million today to 27 million in 2050. Few seniors are prepared to pay for the costs of long-term care. For poor and economically vulnerable seniors, proposals that rely on them to save more of their already inadequate incomes in order to cover these costs are simply unrealistic. Public programs must be strengthened and modified to meet long-term care needs and to encourage the provision of more home- and community- based services.
Reauthorize the Older Americans Act (OAA). The OAA provides funding for critical services that seniors rely on to remain independent and healthy. Services include meals, benefit counseling, caregiver support, transportation, health promotion, legal services, and more. While these services are not always limited to poor older adults, seniors in poverty rely on them heavily to make ends meet and to ensure that their basic needs are met. It is time for Congress to renew its commitment to providing seniors with essential social services by reauthorizing the Older Americans Act.
We have done a great job reducing senior poverty in our nation. The next steps we must take are clear, and millions of seniors are relying on us to do the right thing and take action now.