New poverty figures show large increase in number of poor older Americans nationwide

New poverty figures released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau show a large increase in the number of poor Americans nationwide, specifically older adults. The criteria by which poverty is measured was expanded for this study to include a more accurate reflection of a person's overall economic needs and vulnerability, including out-of-pocket health care costs.

According to AP, if "broken down by groups, Americans 65 or older sustained the largest increase in poverty under the revised formula – nearly doubling to 15.9%, or 1 in 6 – because of medical expenses that are not accounted for in the official rate. Those include rising Medicare premiums, deductibles, and expense for prescription drugs."

On average, Medicare households in 2009 spent three times more of their household budget on health expenses than non-Medicare households (14.9% versus 4.8%). Median out-of-pocket health spending as a share of income for Medicare beneficiaries increased from 12% in 1997 to an estimated 19% in 2011 and is projected to reach 26% in 2020, according a Kaiser Family Foundation study. 

The National Council on Aging (NCOA), and other aging service advocates who work on behalf of vulnerable seniors, fear that the congressional "Supercommittee" may propose even greater increases in Medicare out-of-pocket costs on the backs of those who can afford it least.

"Increasing Medicare copayments or deductibles would be devastating for low-income seniors who are already suffering with unaffordable costs to meet basic needs, without adequate help," said Howard Bedlin, vice president of policy and advocacy at NCOA.   

"We've seen more and more older adults falling behind and really struggling to catch up," said Sandra Nathan, senior vice president for Economic Security at NCOA. "We have tested solutions that can help – increased access to benefits, employment and training assistance, better self management of health issues – but we need more systemic change from our elected leaders to help make these increased poverty numbers head back in the other direction."

NCOA's policy recommendations are detailed in, "A Blueprint for Increasing the Economic Security of Older Americans: Recommendations for the Older Americans Act" which can be found at

NCOA Offers SolutionsSince many low-income older adults face multiple challenges, NCOA launched a pilot program in 2009 to provide one-on-one economic assistance. At 12 locations nationwide, NCOA's Economic Security Service Centers have helped almost 3,000 older adults develop personalized "economic action plans." These plans outline the public and private community supports available and the steps necessary to secure assistance, which may include:

  • Employment and training assistance, including the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) and Senior Environmental Employment (SEE).
  • Financial and legal counseling, including bankruptcy, eviction, and debt counseling.
  • Health insurance counseling, including help with prescription drugs and Medicaid.
  • Housing assistance, including foreclosure mitigation, reverse mortgage counseling, and property tax relief.

According to Nathan, "Through NCOA's national demonstration, we are building the network's capacity to better assist the increasing number of older adults struggling in this climate."

NCOA also offers a portfolio of programs to help seniors build their economic security by finding and accessing the benefits and services for which they are eligible, including:

  • BenefitsCheckUp®, a free online screening tool that searches over 2,000 federal, state, local, and private programs to help seniors pay for prescriptions, utilities, meals, and more.
  • Job training and placement, through the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) and Senior Environmental Employment programs, offering low-income people age 55 and over the training to build their skills and the confidence to find jobs and supplement their incomes.
  • Home equity and reverse mortgage counseling to help millions of seniors make prudent use of the equity in their homes and "use their home to stay at home."

National Council on Aging


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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