Even with Social Security, many seniors still struggle to make ends meet

AntiPovertySoldierA recurring theme in The Anti-Poverty Soldier columns has been the idea of economic security. Although there are an estimated 50 million Americans currently living below the federal poverty line, many experts suggest another 100 million or so can be classified as economically insecure.

In essence, this means that one major hardship or perhaps even a minor financial bump in the road for an economically insecure household would officially push them into the ranks of the poor. Put another way, nearly one half of all Americans are either poor or nearly poor.

In considering this reality, I worry that the circumstances of our seniors might not be receiving the proper attention. In a recent column, I addressed an editorial written by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren that called for an increase the amount of Social Security paid to seniors.

The senator’s commentary, published in The Nation, came following the announcement that for only the third time in four decades there would be no annual increase in benefits. This is in spite of a considerable budget surplus at the U.S. Social Security Administration.

Some might argue that as a group, seniors are the least likely to live in poverty and will not be terribly affected by this decision. However, a substantial amount of research, including several studies from Minnesota, suggests that the perception that seniors are doing better than other age groups is dangerously deceptive.

According to Wilder Research, less than six percent of Minnesotans between the ages of 65 and 74 live in poverty. The same data shows that among those 75 and older, less than 10 percent currently live in poverty.

Of the eight detailed age group categories, these two have the lowest incidence of poverty. The reason poverty remains relatively low among seniors is because of Social Security. In fact, 21 million American seniors would be officially counted as poor were it not for their Social Security benefits.

Still, as the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (MCN) notes, a significant percentage of Minnesota seniors who live above the poverty line struggle to make ends meet. The MCN’s Minnesota Budget Project reports that “an elderly Minnesotan relying on Social Security benefits would spend almost 60 percent of his or her income to afford a one-bedroom market rate apartment in the Twin Cities.”

Additional research from Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) is equally as troubling.  Influenced by the WOW study, several organizations collaborated to establish the Minnesota Elder Economic Security Initiative (MinnEESI).

The MinnEESI developed a standard index designed to measure how much income is required for Minnesota seniors to “maintain independence and meet daily expenses.” This tool takes into consideration a number of factors such as food, housing costs, prescription medications, and general medical care as well as other expenses.

According to the MinnEESI, this index reveals that in Minnesota, “Many seniors who worked their entire lives (who live on incomes comprised of retirement accounts, pensions, and Social Security) are unable to achieve economic security.” As such, far too many seniors are forced to make difficult decisions and often sacrifice some of their most basic needs.

Another insightful report comes from the Greater Twin Cities United Way. Included in their findings is the fact that seniors of color suffer from poverty at much higher rates. In the Twin Cities alone, African American and Native American seniors are five times more likely to be poor than White seniors.

Likewise, Asians and Hispanics are three times as likely to live in poverty as compared to Whites. In addition, women seniors are significantly more likely to live below the poverty line whether they rely on Social Security or not.

While the fact remains that seniors, both nationally and statewide, have lower poverty rates than other age groups, far too many of them struggle mightily to even get by. Taking care of our seniors will become more and more significant in the coming years as the number of Minnesotans 65 and older is likely to double by the middle of the century.

It is imperative that we find a way to honor and care for our growing senior population. Whether it’s through an increase in Social Security and other income supports, or initiatives that support the housing, nutritional, health care and other basic needs of seniors, something must be done to ensure their independence, quality of life, and dignity.


Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.