The Elderly Poor — There Are A Whole Lot Of Them

Digby

This report by the Kaiser Family Foundation about elder poverty is shocking. I don’t think people realize just how many millions of people are barely subsisting in their old age, but it’s many more than the government likes to admit to. Just as with the Chained-CPI, we’re dealing with how they are accounted for rather than the actual numbers these people are forced to live on.

Dylan Matthews explains why elder poverty is so much worse than we realize:

While the SPM takes transfer payments into account, it does the same with out-of-pocket medical costs. If you’re an unmarried senior with no dependents, make $15,000 a year, and spend $10,000 of it on medical care, under the official poverty measure you’d most likely not count as poor, as $15,000 is above the 2012 poverty threshold for a single senior ($11,011).

But under the SPM, you’d count as poor as $15,000 – $10,000 = $5,000, which is below the relevant SPM threshold. And despite having Medicare, many seniors struggle with out-of-pocket medical bills. As my colleague Michelle Singletary pointed out over the weekend, the Employee Benefit Research Institute has found Medicare only pays for about 60 percent of seniors’ total health costs. Sarah has written about how out-of-pocket costs tend to pile up particularly at the end of seniors’ lives.

Can you believe that we’re actually talking about whether or not $15,000 counts as poverty in America in the first place? And then it turns out they aren’t counting what these old people have to lay in medicare costs! That’s just mind-boggling.

In any case, the article is very interesting and shows that some of the places with the highest elderly poverty are in places like California where 20% of SS recipients are in poverty.

And yet, the president and members of both parties have been talking about cutting benefits. Unbelievable.

As always when I read about the necessity of a guaranteed old age pension that keeps people living in dignified circumstances after they are too old to work, I’m reminded of this great article by Arthur Delaney and Ryan Grim from a few years ago:

An employee of Associated Charities, a private organization dedicated to alleviating poverty in the District of Columbia, met an old black woman carrying a basket of cinders near the dump in Southeast D.C. on a bitterly cold day in December 1896.

The woman “could not give street and number, but could ‘fotch’ the agent to her place,” according to a case study labeled “Aunt Winnie” in one of the organization’s annual reports from near the turn of the century. “Old age, with a heavy load on top and a strong wind blowing, made the walk a trying one. At last the 8×10 cabin was reached. In it was a stove in many pieces held together with wire, a bedstead with rags for mattress and rags for covering. From the leaky roof the floor was wet through and through.”

Aunt Winnie, the report said, had no income save the 50 cents she made every two weeks for taking in wash. In summertime she raised herbs and greens, but in winter she “suffered for food and fuel.” Her children had all been sold away to slavery, and a nearby niece was too poor to offer any support. Her neighbors helped, providing money for the stove and cot, and a “colored friendly visitor was found to carry broth and other comforts to her.” The neighborly charity wasn’t enough to persuade the agent, who was essentially a private sector version of a social worker, that the old woman should be on her own.

“In the fall of ’98 agent asked her to go into the almshouse, but she would not consent. During the storm in February ’99, she was kept from perishing with a great effort. Every visit, and they were many, had to be made through snow up to the waist. It was during these visits that the promise was made that before another winter she would take refuge in an almshouse.”

When the weather warmed, Aunt Winnie backed off her promise to go to the almshouse. The social worker started to play hardball.

“It would be hard to say which, the agent or the applicant, suffered the more, because through all this distress had sprung up a loving confidence and perfect trust that seemed cruel to deceive. Attention and assistance were withdrawn gradually.”

It worked: In July, Aunt Winnie relented and said she’d go to the almshouse as soon she could sell her cabin. Nobody would buy it, so the social worker told her to tear it down and sell it for kindling. At 2 p.m. on Aug. 23, 1899, the social worker showed up in a wagon.

“[S]he was sitting on her trunk, without a stick of the cabin to be seen. Without a murmur she dropped a courtsey to the bare spot where once stood the cabin and turned away. After an affectionate separation in the almshouse the agent came away feeling that for such a balmy day in August it was a trying task to perform, but for winter’s blizzards, a blessed relief. In case of her death a promise has been made to her that the general secretary of the Associated Charities will keep her body from potter’s field.”

Aunt Winnie, whose story is preserved in the archives of the Historical Society of Washington, had been sent to an American institution that was by then some 300 years old and went by a variety of names: the county farm, the poor farm, the almshouse or, most often, simply the poorhouse. She would probably have been surprised to learn that more than a hundred years later, after the virtual eradication of elderly poverty, a powerful political movement would materialize with the mission of returning to the hands-off social policies that made the poorhouse the nation’s only refuge for the jobless, the aged, the infirm and the disabled.

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