Seniors are the only age group with more poverty. Here's why
- A million more seniors fell into poverty last year. It was the only age group that saw a rise.
- It's likely to get worse as inflation soars at the fastest pace in 40 years.
- Congress needs to act with targeted help now and adjust future COLA calculations, advocates say.
The seniors are not all right.
A million more seniors age 65 years and older fell into poverty last year, boosting the percentage in poverty to 10.3%, from 8.9% in 2020 and the highest level since 2002, according to the latest Census Bureau data.
That’s in stark contrast to the 4.5-percentage point drop in child poverty to a record low 5.2%. And even more telling, older adults are the only age segment that experienced an increase. In total, almost 6 million older adults live below the poverty level.
And it’s only likely to get worse because the data is from 2021 before inflation skyrocketed this year. August consumer inflation was still running at a blistering 8.3% annual pace despite multiple mega interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve to make borrowing more expensive and cool spending.
“We think rising poverty data will be even worse in 2022,” said Mary Johnson, policy analyst at The Senior Citizens League. “Surveys that The Senior Citizens League conducted in 2021 suggest a sharp rise in the number of older adults seeking low-income assistance and this is the first confirmation of government data to show that is in fact occurring. “
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Some, but not enough, say advocates who believe Congress should offer immediate help to seniors to offset the effects of soaring inflation.
“Short-term, targeted payments for Social Security recipients to help offset rising inflation,” are needed, Johnson said. “Expand SNAP eligibility temporarily, expand rental subsidies temporarily. Congress recently expanded eligibility for Medicare Extra Help under the Inflation Reduction Act, effective 2024.”
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP or formerly food stamps, helps low-income people and families buy the food they need for good health.
Longer-term, Congress needs to address how the government calculates cost-of-living adjustments to better align with how seniors spend money, analysts say.
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“This increase shines a glaring spotlight on the fact that Social Security and Medicare, the bedrock of retirement security for so many, are not sufficient to lift all older adults above poverty,” said Ramsey Alwin, president and chief executive of the National Council of Aging, in a statement.
Why do senior citizens have a high poverty rate?
Social Security has become a primary source of income for many, and it just isn’t enough, analysts say.
“Social Security was originally designed to form a three-legged stool of retirement income which also included savings and pensions,” Johnson said. “However, recent surveys by the Senior Citizens League of retirees indicate that they don’t have adequate savings at retirement and that pension income is becoming scarce.”
Among elderly Social Security beneficiaries, 37% of men and 42% of women receive at least half of their income from Social Security, while 12% of men and 15% of women rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income, the Social Security Administration said.
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Is COLA tied to inflation?
Social Security’s annual cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, is based on the average third-quarter year-over-year increases in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers, a subset of the overall consumer price index. The Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers index only tracks prices for urban hourly wage earners and clerical workers instead of all urban workers.
The problem with that is that it lumps young people with seniors, and they just don’t spend on the same things, Johnson said. For example, older people tend to have more medical costs.
Medical care services costs jumped 0.8% in August from July for a 5.6% year-over-year increase, and analysts expect this to rise even more in the coming months.
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Should Congress use CPI for seniors?
Using an inflation index specifically for seniors would help, advocates say.
Bureau of Labor Statistics has been calculating and researching the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly, which Johnson says regularly puts spending inflation for seniors at two-tenths of a percentage point higher than the Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers index.
“That may seem like an insignificant amount, but over a 25-year retirement, COLAs do compound significantly,” she said. She estimates the average benefit from thirty years ago would have received nearly $14,000 more in retirement if Consumer Price Index for the Elderly had been used.
Alwin advocates using The Elder Index, developed by the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston and mentioned by the Congressional Budget Office in a 2017 report as a “relatively simple way to evaluate retirement security.”
It measures the income older adults need to meet basic needs and is specific to household size, location, housing tenure, and health status. It currently “shows that it costs about $1,000 more for an older adult to afford daily costs (with housing and health care taking the biggest chunk) than the average Social Security retirement benefit, which was $1,670 per month in January,” Alwin said.
Medora Lee is a money, markets, and personal finance reporter at USA TODAY. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and subscribe to our free Daily Money newsletter for personal finance tips and business news every Monday through Friday morning.