Elders in Poverty-A Policy Challenge for Professionals
Binstock, Robert H., Aging Today
When policies on aging have received public attention during the past five or six years, the spotlight has largely focused on Social Security and Medicare. In the case of Social Security, the issues have been whether it's possible to maintain the traditional program for the aging baby boomers, or whether to privatize it. In the case of Medicare, attention has been given to adding prescription-drug coverage and providing program participants with vouchers they can use to shop for private health insurance. Way down the list, barely discernible, are reform measures to expand public financing of long-term care or encourage purchase of private long-term care insurance.
Totally off the radar screen is the of what to do about alleviating the plight of impoverished older people. Largely because of Social Security, great progress was made in reducing poverty among elders from about 30% in 1960 to 10%-12% in the late 1970s. Since then, the proportion of older people living in poverty has remained about the same. Consequently, because the number of those 65 and older has grown by 10 million since 1980, the actual number of impoverished older people has increased by about 1 million. Today, altogether, 3.3 million are living in poverty in the United States.
WHAT POVERTY MEANS
Impressive as that figures is, it is an abstract statistic. People-even professionals in aging-often lose sight of what it means to live below the poverty line. Consider for a moment the actual budget of an elderly couple whose income is right at the poverty line. The current poverty treshold set by the federal government for an elderly couple, for example, is an annual income of $10,705. The assumption that the government uses in constructing a poverty-line budget is one-third of the amount will go for food, one-third for shelter and one-third for everything else. This means that the elderly couple has $37 a week per person for food, $297 a month for shelter, and $297 a month for clothing, utilities, household supplies, furniture, taxes, transportation, entertainment and all other expenses-including perhaps the largest of all for many of these elders-out-of-pocket medical costs.
It's important to remember that this amount, as inadequate as it may be, is the budget of a couple that has made it up to the poverty threshold. There are 3.3 million, elders who have a budget that is below this threshold-and there are several million more whose budgets are not sinificantly better.
Alleviating the plight of the elderly poor is not a difficult technical problem. A number of excellent policy analyses have developed redistributive proposals for reforms to deal with poverty among elders. As far back as 1987, for example the Commonwealth Fund's report, Old, Alone and Poor: A Plan for Reducing Poverty Among Elderly People Living Alone, proposed raising Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits up to the poverty-line level, and it recommended methods for increasing participation in SSI, such as by those who might qualify but are unaware of the program. More recently, Eugene Steuerle and Adam Carasso of the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., put forth a plan to reformulate spousal and survivor benefits, and to redirect a higher share of Social Security benefits to the oldest retirees. Many other excellent proposals have been floating around for years.
The barriers to reform, of course, are political. The subject of alleviating the predicament of low-income is not even in the earliest stage of what political economist Anthony Downs has termed "the issue-rattention cycle." The challenge of dealing with poverty in general, let alone among older people, has not had a major place on the public agenda since former President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty in the mid-1960s. …