Aging & Poverty
Millions of elders in the United States live below the poverty threshold, a fact that can have severe negative consequences for their quality of life. In particular, women, racial minorities, individuals with lower educational levels, and the very old are at greatest risk for living below the poverty threshold. These groups are also the fastest growing subgroups among the elderly within the United States. There are, however, a number of governmental programs available to help elders in need. These include Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and reverse mortgages. Unfortunately, as the birth rate dwindles and longevity increases, these programs as we know them may be in jeopardy and need to be quickly rethought in order to provide for the projected needs of elders in the foreseeable future.
Aging & Elderly Issues
It has been observed that "old age is not for wimps." Certainly this is true as one's body passes its peak of fitness and it becomes increasingly hard to not only do the things that one once did in one's youth, but also to perform the activities of daily living that are necessary for health and hygiene. This situation may be further complicated in some cases by declining cognitive abilities and a resulting difficulty in dealing with the important decisions that need to be made regarding one's health and quality of life. This situation can be even further complicated by the fact that the cost of living keeps rising while many elders are forced to live on fixed income. Responding to this situation is not a mere matter of eating hamburger instead of steak: As one's body continues to age and require more medical care, it does not matter that there are advances in medical science if one cannot afford to pay for them. In addition, numerous observers have noted that poverty actually increases the probability of physical and mental illness among the elderly.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the 2007 poverty guidelines state that for one-person households, the poverty threshold is $10,210 in the continental United States and $13,690 for a two-person household (http://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty/07poverty.shtml). In 2013 the threshold increased to $11,490 for one-person households and $15,510 for a two-person household (http://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty/13poverty.cfm). As of 2005, millions of elders met the qualifications for poverty while even still more were considered to be financially vulnerable. As is shown in Table 1, women, racial minorities, and the very old are at greatest risk for living below the poverty threshold. These groups are also the fastest growing subgroups among the elderly within the United States (Richardson & Barusch, 2005).
Table 1: Poverty Rates by Age, Gender, and Race, 2009
All races White Black Asian Hispanic Total 14.3 12.3 25.8 12.5 25.3 Male 13.0 11.2 23.9 12.3 23.4 Female 15.6 13.5 27.5 12.6 27.4 Age 65+ 8.9 7.5 19.5 15.8 18.3 Age 65-74 8.0 6.9 15.5 13.9 17.5 Age 75+ 10.0 8.2 24.9 18.1 19.5
Reasons for Elderly Susceptibility to Poverty
What causes so many elders to be forced to live below the poverty threshold? Some people argue that elders who are forced to live below the poverty line were improvident in their younger years, failing to save for retirement. However, this hypothesis does not take into account a number of societal causes for poverty in old age such as restricted opportunities for education and employment, gender bias in the workplace, ageism, or lack of financial security for family caregivers. According to conflict theorists, this situation is caused by the impact of social structure on patterns of aging. For example, less affluent people may have to learn to live within the constraints of a fixed income and depend heavily on Social Security and Medicare; a less than ideal situation if one wants a reasonable quality of life. When this situation is compounded by other economic factors such as inflation and recession, it can be particularly difficult and seniors may find it a struggle just to purchase food, utilities, medication, and the other necessities of life. Further, conflict theorists note that elders are often the victims of age stratification as a result of ageism and the inability to get jobs with the same income level as they could in their youth. This results in a reduction in social status. Conflict theorists are not the only ones to observe and theorize about the deleterious effects of modern society on the age stratification and concomitant standard of living of many older individuals. Modernization theorists observe that many of the jobs in which elders were previously employed have become redundant and obsolete due to automation and technology and that postindustrial jobs tend to be based on new technologies. Such loss of employment can lead to a lowered income. Even if elders do change careers or acquire new skills, they may often experience a reduction in status as they no longer have a long history of experience in their career and are forced to compete with young people who are willing to work for lower wages and who will stay on the job longer. In addition, modernization theorists note that the general migration to urban areas coupled with the contemporary tendency for married people to move out from their parents' homes and start a nuclear family of their own results in increasing residential segregation where one generation is less able to help another generation, thereby compounding the effects of poverty.
According to data from the 2000 to 2012 American Community Survey, poverty increased in the United States from 12.2 percent in 2000 to 15.9 percent in 2012 (Bishaw, 2013). The Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 increased poverty rates to 14.3 percent in 2009 and 15.1 percent in 2010, the highest rate since 1993. The poverty rate remained elevated in 2011 and 2012 at 15.9 percent overall and 9.1 percent for people age sixty-five and older (Bishaw, 2013; Gould, Mishel, & Shierholz, 2013). The poverty rates would have been higher, however, without federal programs such as unemployment insurance, which kept 1.7 million people out of poverty, and Social Security, which kept 15.3 million older Americans from poverty (Gould, Mishel, & Shierholz, 2013). Research has found that those elders at highest risk for living beneath the poverty threshold are those who have lower levels of education, held low paying jobs that did not have pensions, women, minorities, and those living in nonmetropolitan areas. General events that placed elders at greater risk for poverty included leaving a paid job and (in the case of women) becoming widowed, separated, or divorced.
McLaughlin and Jensen (1995) performed a longitudinal study of existing data from the annual Panel Study of Income Dynamics to analyze poverty transitions among older adults aged 55 and above in the United States. The study data included information from 5,023 individuals who were within this age group between the years of 1968 and 1987. The data analysis indicated that factors affecting transition into poverty tend to be the similar for both women and men. Having been poor in the past tends to be a predictor of being poor again at some time in the future. However, the longer the period of nonpoverty after being poor, the less likely the individual is to become poor again in the future. Other findings of the study included the fact that blacks are twice as likely to become poor than are other elders. On the other hand, being educated beyond the high school level tends to decrease the probability of one experiencing poverty in later life. However, this finding tended to be more descriptive of the situation for men than it was for women. Being single is a risk factor for poverty for both sexes, but being widowed was found to be a risk factor only for women. Individuals living in situations in which the head of the household either did not work or was decreased, his/her work hours also increased the risk of poverty. In general, the study found that men living in nonmetropolitan areas are at higher risk for becoming poor in a given year than are men living in a metropolitan area. This finding also holds true for women with the exception that those women living in metropolitan areas are at higher risk of poverty than married women living in either metropolitan or nonmetropolitan areas.
No matter its cause, poverty is a fact of life for many older individuals. For those individuals who have lived in poverty all their lives, old age can actually improve their condition because it makes them eligible for resources and programs that are not available to younger individuals in the same economic situation. For example, under the Older Americans Act, older individuals may be eligible for senior housing, the services of senior...
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