More Than One-Third of American Seniors Live in “the Gap” Between Poverty and Economic Security

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Vanessa Sink
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In every state, more than 4 in 10 are at risk of being unable to afford basic needs and age independently in their homes

Arlington, VA – Economic security is a lifelong goal defined by the ability to buy food, live safely in a community, afford health care, and not worry about heat or other daily essentials. Yet, more than half of American adults aged 65+ who live alone, and one-quarter of couples, cannot pay for these basic necessities.

This is a key finding from the newly released Elder Economic Security StandardTM Index (Elder Index) and Insecurity in the States 2016 report, which calculates the Elder Economic Insecurity Rate across the country. Developed by the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Wider Opportunities for Women, and currently maintained in partnership with the National Council on Aging (NCOA), the Elder Index defines economic security as the income level at which older adults are able to cover basic and necessary living expenses and age in their homes, without extra financial assistance.

On average in the U.S., nearly 19% of single older adults are living below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), and another 34% live in “the gap” between poverty and economic security, according to the Insecurity in the States 2016 report.

“So many older adults across this country, even those in our own neighborhoods, are just one unexpected bill away from economic insecurity,” said Maggie Flowers, NCOA Associate Director for Economic Security. “The Elder Index is a more realistic look at the economic reality for older Americans and the true costs of aging. The findings are also a great way to start a discussion about the programs across the country that can help people on fixed incomes deal with rising costs.”

The Insecurity in the States 2016 report also found:

  • 53% of older adults living alone, and 26% of older couples, have annual incomes below the Elder Index value.
  • In every state, more than 4 in 10 single people aged 65+ are at risk of being unable to afford basic needs and age independently in their own homes.
  • A large majority of couples avoid poverty, but many are “in the gap,” unable to afford daily expenses of living as reflected by the Elder Index.
  • On average, half of older adults who live below the Elder Index rely on Social Security for at least 90% of their income.
  • The threat of economic insecurity is an issue for a large portion (ranging from 34% in Mississippi and 15.3% in the District of Columbia) of every state’s older adult population.

“Being economically secure means having the financial resources to afford what is needed without forgoing the necessities of life,” said Jan Mutchler, Director of the Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “The Elder Index can help older adults, policymakers, and caregivers understand what income threshold will actually lead to economic security in their communities.”

The Elder Index is part of the Economic Security Database, which was recently updated to reflect 2016 calculations. The Elder Index is unique in measuring the income that older adults need to achieve economic security by specific cities, counties, and states.

“The database is a snapshot of what we have to expect in the future, and it is today’s reality for our parents, grandparents, and aging neighbors,” said Flowers. “The important thing to know is that it’s never too late to find programs that can add to an annual budget, which means less worry and stress about making ends meet.”

Older adults and their loved ones seeking information about how to get the most out of their money can take a free, confidential EconomicCheckUp® at www.EconomicCheckUp.org. Managed by NCOA, the website can help visitors set a budget, save money, and set financial goals.

Individuals also can find out if they are eligible for more than 1,500 state, federal, and private benefits programs by taking a BenefitsCheckUp® screening at NCOA’s website www.BenefitsCheckUp.org. To date, the free and confidential service has helped more than 5 million people find more than $17 billion worth of benefits.

About NCOA

The National Council on Aging (NCOA) is a respected national leader and trusted partner to help people aged 60+ meet the challenges of aging. Our mission is to improve the lives of millions of older adults, especially those who are struggling. Through innovative community programs and services, online help, and advocacy, NCOA is partnering with nonprofit organizations, government, and business to improve the health and economic security of 10 million older adults by 2020. Learn more at ncoa.org and @NCOAging.

About the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston

Created by the Massachusetts Legislature in 1984, the Gerontology Institute conducts research and policy analysis in the field of aging, and offers lifelong learning and pension protection services to older adults. The Institute has four priority areas—(1) productive aging; (2) economic security; (3) social and demographic research on aging; and (4) long-term services and supports—with special emphasis on low-income and minority elders.

The Institute is located within the McCormack Graduate School of Policy & Global Studies at UMass Boston, whose aging studies program (offering PhD, Master’s and undergraduate degrees) is one of the oldest and largest in the world.