Fifty years ago, the War on Poverty brought about a range of policies that have improved the well-being of our country’s elderly.
Medicare brought health insurance to nearly all adults 65 and older. The Older Americans Act established Area Agencies on Aging, which provide an array of services to seniors. Social Security benefits were also increased in the late 1960s.
Since that time, poverty among older Americans has declined substantially, from nearly 30 percent in 1966 to just under 10 percent today. While this is a great success, we know many older adults still live just above the poverty line, which is $11,700 per year for an individual and $15,930 for two. In Maine, we have done relatively well at keeping our older residents out of absolute poverty. Our official senior poverty rate of 5 percent is one of the lowest in the country. But these statistics don’t include those with incomes just above the poverty line. And thousands of these elders will be harshly affected by Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget.
Last summer, a survey sponsored by Maine Equal Justice Partners asked respondents what they believed caused poverty and what they thought the Legislature could do to reduce it.
Among the 941 survey respondents, one-eighth were 65 and older. They were all living at 200 percent of the poverty line or below, and more than half were living on less than $15,000 per year. Many were receiving government assistance. More than half received food stamps, and nearly six in 10 received Medicaid to help them with their health expenses.
Despite this assistance, these older Mainers continued to experience severe consequences from economic insecurity. One-third said they had not always had enough to eat in the past year, and one quarter had not been able to pay a utility bill. When asked what they thought led people to live in poverty, nearly four in five attributed poverty to structural causes such as low wages, lack of good health care and education, and the high cost of living. Only 21 percent thought people lived in poverty because they made bad decisions and were irresponsible.
Younger and older respondents had very similar ideas on what the Legislature could do to reduce poverty. Both groups picked creating jobs and increasing the minimum wage as their top choices. After all, older adults, even if no longer working themselves, are concerned for the economic security of their family members and neighbors. They also know that their own poverty is most often a result of insecure employment and low wages throughout their working lives.
Reducing property taxes and increasing access to health care were also among the top five choices of older survey respondents for how government could reduce poverty. Similar to several bills currently before the Legislature that seek to expand the Property Tax Fairness Credit, the governor’s proposed budget also provides some property tax relief, which would especially benefit older Mainers who were hard hit by the elimination of the “Circuit Breaker” program two years ago.
Unfortunately, the governor’s overall budget would likely place more burden on property taxes as municipalities are forced to recover from the elimination of revenue sharing and other cuts. Furthermore, any gains from property tax relief would be more than lost through the proposed budget restrictions to health care for thousands of older Mainers through changes in the Medicare Savings Program, or MSP, and the Low Cost Drugs for the Elderly and Disabled program, or DEL.
For example, Jack Comart of Maine Equal Justice Partners, in his testimony at a public hearing on the budget on March 4, predicted that if these changes are implemented, close to 21,000 low-income seniors and people with disabilities would see their health care costs increase by about $200 per month, or 15 percent of the disposable income for an elder living at 125 percent of the poverty line. Another 12,000 people would completely lose their MSP eligibility, resulting in a bump in their annual health care costs of, at minimum, $1,260 a year. About 1,800 elders and people with disabilities would lose all help with prescription drugs through the DEL Program.
These proposed cuts are directly counter to what one respondent to the survey wrote: “Help more low-income elderly. [Provide] more help for people with health problems.” As the governor’s budget is dissected and debated in the coming weeks, I hope we will keep in mind the health and well-being of our communities’ low-income, older adults.
Sandy Butler is professor of social work and graduate program coordinator in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.