New report paints a grim picture of older women in poverty

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

Photo: MartinHots via Flickr

A significant percentage of older women are struggling to stay out of poverty, according to a new issue brief from Justice in Aging.

The report looks at reasons more women are aging into poverty than men, discusses the support systems that are in place to help older women, and recommends ways to strengthen and expand those support systems.

According to the report from the nonprofit legal advocacy group, of the 7.1 million older adults living in poverty in the U.S., nearly two out of three are women. The Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) estimates that 16 percent of women age 65 and older live at or below the poverty line. In comparison, 12 percent of men over 65 live at or below the poverty line. Older women of color experience poverty at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts, with the SPM indicating that Black, Hispanic, and Native American women are almost two times more likely to live in poverty than older white women.

LGBTQ older women also experience high rates of poverty due to historical discrimination, the report said. “This variation is magnified by oppression based both on sex and gender identity and only recent access to legal recognition and marital protections” according to the report’s authors. Nearly half of bisexual and transgender women live below 200 percent of the federal poverty limit.

The report points to structural inequities that appear to impact women more than men, such as:

  • Caregiving responsibilities
  • Wage gap and low-wage work
  • Higher health care costs
  • Death of a spouse or divorce
  • Wealth gap
  • Discrimination
  • Domestic violence

Women earn 80 cents for every dollar paid to a man. While the wage gap has been narrowing, an American Association of University Women report on gender pay gaps predicts that pay equivalency won’t be realized until 2059. Women of color fare worse: Black women earn 61 percent, American Indian or Alaska Native women earn 58 percent, and Hispanic women earn 53 percent of white men’s earnings. Lower wages, lower lifetime earnings mean women save less for retirement. Yet, women generally outlive men — 81.1 years vs. 76.1 years, according to 2016 CDC mortality data.

Additionally, women move in and out of the workforce more often than men, because they are still the primary caregivers of children and aging parents or spouses. Becoming a caregiver increases women’s risk of aging into poverty. The typical female caregiver is 50 years old. When women leave the workforce or reduce their hours to care for a family member or friend, it is more difficult to reenter the workforce.

Women who are caregivers also tend to take lower-wage jobs that may offer more flexible or part-time hours to better enable them to meet caregiving demands, according to the report. Low-income women and women of color are even less able to absorb the loss of income that comes with fewer hours of work.

Lifetime health care costs tend to be higher for women due to pregnancy and postpartum care, plus women also have a longer life expectancy. The report noted that a woman who is now 65 years old would spend approximately $47,000 more in retirement for health care expenses than her male counterpart. These health care costs increase with age. Women 85 and over spent an average of $8,574 in 2010 on services and premiums while men ages 85 and over spent an average of $7,399. This disparity is likely to widen in the future.

Married women generally fare better economically than single (never married, divorced or widowed). However, the report pointed out that single women make up half of U.S. households. That statistic increases with age. Only 15 percent of women over 85 are married, compared with 54 percent of men in that age group. Women also tend to rely more on social safety net programs, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, Medicaid, and Low-Income Home Energy Assistance program (LIHEAP) which provides states with grants to help homeowners with heating and cooling bills.

Moreover, older women receive SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) at nearly two times the rate of older men. SNAP helps to supplement senior’s available income to buy food and maintain adequate nutrition. Malnutrition in older adults can lead to serious health issues, including diabetes and congestive heart failure.

The report (and accompanying videos) profiles older women who struggle to stay afloat. Some must work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Some, despite long and successful careers, find they must work multiple jobs well into their so-called “golden years.”

The authors noted that “older women have cared for us and worked hard all of their lives. It’s imperative that we enact policies, so they don’t have to struggle to make ends meet.” They recommend:

  • Updating the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Program
  • Provide Social Security credits to caregivers
  • Increase income eligibility for tax credits
  • Adopt paid leave policies
  • Expand eligibility for 401(k) participation
  • Expand eligibility for Medicare savings programs
  • Add dental, vision, and hearing to Medicare
  • Maintain pre-existing condition and age Protections
  • Develop a long-term care benefit
  • Increase funding for HUD and other housing programs
  • Utilize Medicaid to increase access to housing
  • Increase funding for LIHEAP and other energy assistance programs
  • Improve access to SNAP
  • Designate LGBTQ older adults as a “greatest social need” group
  • Increase funding for legal services

Here are some questions to ask in your reporting:

  • How are some of the above programs working in your communities?
  • Is your state increasing or decreasing spending on programs and services for older adults in 2019?
  • What are they doing to meet seniors’ increasing needs for social supports?
  • Are there any programs or services specifically geared towards older women?

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