Older Americans who are living in poverty often suffer in silence, living in the shadows while trying to make ends meet. A single life change—a costly illness, loss of a job, or death of a spouse—can quickly threaten the financial stability of seniors. This has become especially true during the most recent recession.
Older Americans are sometimes reluctant, ashamed, or challenged to reach out for help or connect themselves with important services that could help them secure shelter, feed themselves, or buy medicine. It is also not uncommon to hear stories about moderate- and low-income seniors having to make difficult decisions about their personal finances: deciding between paying for heat in the winter or an entire month’s worth of medication.
In 2008 the poverty rate for older Americans was 9.7%. Higher poverty rates exist for subgroups of older adults, such as women (21.6%), Hispanics (21.6%), African Americans (22.8%), Asians (25.3%), and those over the age of 80 (22.7%). The challenges associated with poverty are even grimmer for those who are widowed, living alone, or in poor health. Approximately two million Older Americans who are 65 years of age and older with limited income and financial resources are eligible to receive SSI (Supplemental Security Income); however, the monthly SSI benefit is below the federal poverty line.
Nearly 6 million older low-income Americans face food insecurity. Seniors living in a food insecure household have trouble providing regular, nutritious meals at times throughout the year. Even though there are a number of food assistance programs that could help seniors suffering from hunger, studies have found that significant numbers of older Americans do not access these programs on a regular basis. The AARP has found that there are potentially $2 billion in unused SNAP (The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps) funds for seniors. Seniors who access SNAP benefits receive an average of $102 per month. There are a number of different reasons older Americans don’t access SNAP or other assistance programs (including food pantries and meal delivery services). Older Americans may be embarrassed or think there is a stigma attached to asking for help. They may be unaware of potential eligibility or do not know where or how to apply. And some older Americans find the process confusing or might not be able to access materials in their native language.
The means for caring for older Americans is another significant issue facing seniors and their families. According to the AARP Foundation, 30 million households in the U.S. provide care for adults over the age of 50. This number is expected to double over the next 25 years with the aging of the Baby Boomer generation. The Jewish community is one of the fastest aging demographics in America, making it even more important that certain support systems and programs be put in to place in order to aid this segment of the population.
There is also a special concern for the rapidly aging Holocaust survivor community in the United States. Besides being more likely to experience poverty than other older Americans, this community has unique issues that require special attention in regards to housing, food, healthcare, and mental health services.
The JCPA believes that:
- Older Americans should live a life of dignity, free from having to struggle in isolation with the challenges of poverty, hunger, homelessness, illness, and vulnerability.
- No Americans, and especially no older Americans, should be forced to choose between essential needs like food, safe and affordable housing, heating, and medical care.
- It is important to improve the quality of lives for older Americans and improve the care provided to them through family caregivers and networks of service providers.
- Additional supports to assist caregivers and those they serve should be provided through legislation and community programs.
- Holocaust survivors deserve particular consideration due to the higher risks they face for poverty, isolation, physical and mental illness, homelessness, and hunger.
The community relations field should:
- Advocate for robust funding of anti-poverty and service delivery programs at the local, state, and federal level that properly benefit older Americans, particularly those in high-risk categories.
- Advocate for effective outreach programs to ensure access to housing, healthcare, dental care nutrition, home energy, and financial assistance, as well as other human needs programs.
- Actively promote programs to decrease isolation, provide for basic social needs of seniors, and foster opportunities for community-based integration.
- Participate in coalitions around advocacy and service delivery that promote providing assistance to low income older Americans.
- Advocate for robust assistance needed for Holocaust survivors.
- Educate the field and raise awareness about the challenges associated with senior poverty and the opportunities to address these challenges.