National Poverty Awareness Month is observed annually in January. So, it seems appropriate to follow up on the Topline Findings from the U.S. Administration on Community Living (ACL)’s 2021 Annual Profile of Older Americans blog post by focusing on poverty among older adults and its relationship to homelessness.
Poverty, defined and measured
Poverty’s simple definition is the state of not having enough possessions or assets to fulfill a person’s basic needs. Poverty has several causes, including a lack of access to basic needs such as food, water, and housing, as well as access to education and healthcare. It is also caused by systemic inequities such as gender, racial, and ethnic discrimination. Interpretations of progress against poverty and how social policies affect poverty depend on how poverty is measured.1
How does poverty vary by select demographic characteristics of older Americans?
According to ACL’s profile, in 2020, 55.7 million people in the U.S. were over the age of 65 and represented 17% of the population. Five million people aged 65 and older lived below the poverty level. At least 2.6 million were classified as “near poor,” meaning their incomes were between the poverty level and 125 percent over the poverty level. The 2020 median income of older persons was $26,668.
To illustrate, here’s a demographic breakdown of older adults living below the poverty level in 2020:
- Gender: Men had higher median incomes ($35,808) when compared to women’s median income of $21,245.
- Gender disparities are also present in who experiences poverty: the poverty rate for women was 10.1 percent, while the poverty rate for men was 7.6 percent.
- Race: Clear racial disparities exist among older adults experiencing poverty. The rate of White (non-Hispanic) older adult population living in poverty was 6.8 percent, compared to 17.2 percent of Blacks or African Americans, 11.5 percent of Asian Americans, and 16.6 percent of the Hispanic population (any race).
- Marital Status: More men were married (69 percent) when compared to women (47 percent). Three times more women (9.1 million in total) were widowed when compared to men (2.7 million).
- Living Arrangement: 15.2 million older adults lived alone, which equated to about 10.1 million women and 5.2 million men. It’s important to note the proportion living alone increases with advanced age: for example, 43 percent of women aged 75 and older lived alone. When considering ACL’s profile, it is evident that women, especially women of color and those living alone, are more likely to age into poverty than men.
Why does this matter?
The older adult population is growing: according to ACL data, the population of people aged 65 and older is expected to grow from 55.7 million in 2020 to 80.8 million by 2040. Poverty affects older adults differently than other groups because they are more vulnerable to economic instability when their physical health, cognitive abilities, and social networks decline.
Further, older Americans are finding that their pensions are inadequate to meet their basic needs, which include housing. According to the Harvard Joint Center on Housing, more than 2.2 million older adult renters with very low incomes had “worst case housing needs,” which is defined as having severe cost burdens, living in severely inadequate housing, or both. This means low-income older adults may be more likely to struggle to afford basic medical care and their housing costs.
Since the majority of older adults live with chronic conditions, this often leads to increased out-of-pocket medical expenses. One serious health crisis could impact their ability to pay their usual bills, as many older adults live on fixed incomes. For example, social security is a primary source of income for most older Americans, and in 2020, the average monthly benefit was approximately $1,500. As medical needs increase, costs can be hard to keep up with, leading to a reduced ability to pay for other vital needs.
Homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked: when economic instability increases, so does the risk of homelessness. Thus, older Americans living in poverty are at increased risk of becoming homeless or experiencing housing instability. Preventing homelessness through the eradication of poverty cannot be done through isolated interventions: addressing homelessness of older adults (which includes eliminating the racial gap in poverty in this population) requires lifelong approaches to systemic and structural discrimination.
The All In: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness has a focus on prevention under its solutions pillar. With that in mind, here are some considerations to addressing the socioeconomic condition of older Americans, which can help to prevent their homelessness:
- Check out the National Council on Aging’s Benefits CheckUp® which is an online tool to connect older adults and people with disabilities to benefits.
- Advocate for an increase in the benefit for single individuals since the maximum Supplemental Security Income benefit is more generous for married couples when compared to single individuals. See Justice in Aging SSI Policy.
- Prioritize older adults for housing assistance. According to the Harvard Joint Center on Housing, only 36 percent of income-eligible older adults receive federal housing assistance.
- Review whether using the SPM, which takes into account the cost for out-of-pocket medical expenses and geographic location, can be a viable measure to use for poverty guidelines. The OPM serves as the nation’s source for official poverty statistics and for determining federal poverty guidelines produced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- Address the underlying high costs of health care.
- Provide affordable, accessible housing with universal design concepts.
1 Each year, the U.S. Census Bureau counts people in poverty with two measures: the Official Poverty Measure (OPM) and Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM). The OPM compares pre-tax cash income against an income threshold that determines how many people are in poverty. The income threshold is set at three times the cost of a minimum food diet in 1963 and adjusted for family size and age of householder. Because of its limitations to reveal the true nature of poverty, the SPM was introduced in 2011. It adjusts for government programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and includes geographic differences in the cost of living and whether the family is paying rent or mortgage. It also tends to paint a more accurate picture of older adults’ economic situation.