Recently released data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the overall number of older adults living in poverty has increased. Even more significant is the number of seniors who have experienced an increase in economic insecurity—or those simply living on the edge.

Seniors with incomes below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) rose from 33.7% (13,023,000) in 2009 to 34.6% (13,549,000), and those living below 100% of the FPL saw a modest, yet significant, increase from 3.4 to 3.5 million. Numbers do indicate that some individuals aged 65 and older have seen a rise in their incomes, mostly due to Social Security, as more and more Boomers reach retirement age.

“What the numbers have shown us is that economic insecurity for older adults has definitely increased,” said Sandra Nathan, senior vice president for Economic Security at the National Council on Aging (NCOA). “We need legislative and policy changes that take into account the needs of all age groups in poverty—while not forgetting those who are living on the edge, struggling every day just to pay for food, medicine, transportation, and a place to live.”

The current official poverty measurement system also needs an update, NCOA believes. Developed in the early 1960s, the Federal Poverty Level measures poverty by comparing a family’s income to a threshold level of need, which is based on food consumption patterns of 1955 and does not reflect current living standards. The measure of income evaluated against this threshold does not reflect tax liabilities, out-of-pocket spending on health care, and other significant costs, nor does it account for important forms of public assistance. As a result, it does not adequately reflect who is poor.

If a more modernized measure of poverty were used, there would likely be an even larger proportion of older individuals living in poverty. This data was reflected in the National Academy of Sciences Panel on Poverty and Family Assistance released in 1995.

“The reality is that there is an unseen crisis occurring in this country today,” said Nathan, “and that is rising economic insecurity among older Americans.”

More than 13 million older adults live in or on the edge of poverty, on less than $22,000 each year. These seniors live one bad break, one accident, or one layoff away from economic disaster. And with continued cuts in federal, state, and local programs serving older adults, we can expect to see even more seniors struggling to make ends meet.


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