February 27, 2009

Barely Getting By: Seniors Struggle to Survive

By Leslie Casimir
New America Media

SAN FRANCISCO — Thousands of older adults are skipping rent payments to buy groceries or prescription drugs. They are cutting their pills in half to make their medications last longer because Social Security benefits are not enough.

About half of California’s seniors are struggling to survive, according to a joint study released by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the Insight Center for Community Economic Development.

The report, released Tuesday at a public hearing in Sacramento, says that nearly 47 percent of seniors who are 65 and older cannot make ends meet and are barred from certain social service programs.

Some 3.7 million elders were in California in 2007, according to the most up-to-date Census data.

Older women living on their own fear the worst, making up the bulk of this besieged population, or 72 percent. In addition, they are likely to be persons of color: Seven out of 10 Latino and African-American elders and six out of 10 Asian seniors are facing enormous economic hurdles, the report said.

“What this data shows us is that the situation of older adults demands public attention,” said Steven Wallace, professor of public health at UCLA, who co-wrote the study with Susan Smith, executive director at the Oakland, Calif.-based Insight. “These are people who have raised families, contributed to society, played by the rules, but got left with the short end of the stick.”

The UCLA report establishes a more realistic measure of poverty, coined the Elder Index, to demonstrate that older people who are not poor by federal poverty standards still don’t have enough to make ends meet.

The federal poverty line sets an antiquated threshold of $10,000 a year for individuals to qualify for food stamps and other welfare programs. Unadjusted since the 1950s, the federal poverty line measure does not apply to counties with much higher costs of living, such as San Francisco.

“If making $11,000 a year is above the poverty level, then something is wrong with this world,” said Hussain Sayfuddiyn, 68. Blind for most of his life, he annually collects roughly that amount in Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. He had to take a payday loan to move last month. He said he is now $400 in debt.

According to the authors’ calculations, a single adult living in San Francisco who makes $27,435 is struggling – not thriving.

“Seniors are having to make untenable choices between putting food on the table or delaying paying rent a month so that they can pay the utility bills,” Smith said. “We were able to confirm all those anecdotes we have been hearing now with actual data.”

Wallace and Smith are calling for state legislators to pass legislation that would require local agencies to accurately identify the state’s neediest, doing away with the old poverty line threshold.

Peoria Lewis of Oakland is one of the many seniors forced to make tough choices every day.

If collard greens are not on sale, Lewis, 72, doesn’t buy them, she said. She cooks large portions of cheap food so that she can stretch meals throughout the month.

“I do what I have to do,” said Lewis, who collects $1,400 a month from Social Security, or $16,800 a year. “I cook a pot of beans, bag them, and freeze them up; I make a pot of soup, bag them, and put them in the freezer.”

Like most seniors, her biggest worry has been housing. Currently, she pays $500 a month in rent, but her building was recently sold. The new landlord wants to charge her $1,200 a month.

“I said ‘Oh Lord,’” said Lewis, a retired legal secretary.

Sitting in a corner in her apartment is a box filled with hospital bills for two recent surgeries that required co-payments. She owes more than $800, but can’t afford to make any payments.

“I don’t mind paying for it, but I got to find a job,” Lewis said. “And who is going to hire a 72-year-old?”

Leslie Casimir can be reached at lcasimir@newamericamedia.org

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