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This Week in Poverty: The Older Americans Act and US Seniors | The Nation

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Greg Kaufmann

Poverty in America: people, politics and policy.

This Week in Poverty: The Older Americans Act and US Seniors


A social worker speaks with seniors at a community center in Philadelphia, Wednesday, August 12, 2009. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Honoring our grandparents, our elders—in these divisive times, at least we hold this value in common, right?

As children, we dutifully sat through long visits or lectures from older relatives, teachers, neighbors or family friends; and then wised up to learn that some of these relationships would prove to be our most enduring.

It’s enough to make you think that maybe—just maybe—this shared experience would lead to a steadfast commitment from policymakers to ensure that those who cared for us, fought for us, and raised us, are able to meet their basic needs.

But if you attended Senator Bernie Sanders’s hearing on reducing senior poverty and hunger through the Older Americans Act (OAA) on Wednesday, you were in for a rude awakening.

Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 at the same time as Medicare and Medicaid, the OAA provides federal funding for essential senior services like job training, caregiver support, transportation, preventative healthcare, meals and protection from abuse and financial exploitation. Funding for the legislation has failed to keep pace with inflation and population growth for decades. Under sequestration, an additional $40 million will be cut from senior meal programs alone, which means that as many as 19 million fewer meals will be available to seniors who need them.

Sanders, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging, noted in his opening remarks that OAA “programs not only work to ease isolation, hunger and suffering, they also save taxpayers substantial sums of money.”

“It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out,” said Sanders, with characteristic bluntness. “If you’re malnourished, you’re going to get sick more often. You may end up in the emergency room at great expense to Medicaid…If you’re weak and you fall and break your hip, you end up in the hospital, at an expense of tens and tens of thousands of dollars…We can feed a senior for an entire year for the cost of one day in a hospital.”

It emerged as the central theme of the hearing—that shortchanging OAA programs isn’t simply a failure on moral grounds, it’s bad economic policy.

Ellie Hollander is president and CEO of the Meals On Wheels Association of America, a nonprofit organization representing local senior nutrition programs in all fifty states. She noted a recent study by the Center for Effective Government, which found that for every $1 in federal spending on Meals on Wheels, there is as much as a $50 return in Medicaid savings alone.

“There is an unrecognized but substantial return on investment,” said Hollander. “[OAA] programs enable seniors to continue living at home, averting far more costly healthcare alternatives such as hospitals and nursing homes. This reduces Medicare and Medicaid expenses, potentially saving billions of dollars.”

But these meals—delivered directly to an individual’s home or to groups at places such as senior centers—currently reach only 2.5 million of the 8.3 million elderly who struggle with hunger.

“The resources fall substantially short,” said Hollander, noting that demand is increasing and that the senior population will double to more than 70 million people by 2030. She said that real funding levels (adjusted for inflation) for OAA nutrition programs have decreased 18 percent since 1992, while the population of those age 60 and older has increased 34 percent over that same period.

Howard Bedlin, vice president of public policy at the National Council of Aging—a nonprofit service and advocacy organization focusing on economically disadvantaged seniors—testified that there are now more than 23 million economically insecure Americans over 60. They struggle with rising energy and healthcare bills, diminished savings and job loss. The recession caused median wealth for people between ages 55 and 74 to decline by approximately 15 percent, and for those over 65—many of whom now need to continue working or go back to work just to stay afloat—unemployment is at its highest rate since the Great Depression.

The OAA’s Senior Community Service Employment Program is “the nation’s only workforce program designed exclusively [for] vulnerable seniors,” said Bedlin. Nearly 90 percent of participants live in poverty (on less than $11,000 annually), and one-third of them are homeless or at risk of homelessness. While these seniors receive job training that in some cases prevents homelessness, they also perform millions of hours of community service for local organizations struggling with their own budget cuts—“with a value to states and communities estimated at over $1 billion.” Due to a lack of resources, the number of seniors served by the program has declined by 34 percent since FY 2010, and the program now has waiting lists in many cities.

Bedlin also addressed the fact that nursing home costs are now $84,000 annually so “it doesn’t take long to essentially go bankrupt” due to long-term care. But the OAA’s Home and Community-Based Supportive Services help people avoid this situation and remain in their homes, by providing for needs such as transportation, case management, adult daycare and chore assistance.

Bedlin also singled out OAA’s cost-saving role in funding evidence-based “fall prevention programs.” One in three seniors falls every year, and falls are the leading cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries for people ages 65 and older. The resulting injuries are projected to cost the nation $60 billion in 2020.  Research has shown that several local, OAA-supported programs have reduced falls by 30 to 55 percent—which saves money and lives.

Senator Elizabeth Warren pointed to the Pension Counseling and Information Program—which helps seniors recover lost pensions—as one that could be reaching many more seniors with a modest investment. As companies merge, move or change names, people are sometimes unable to obtain the benefits that they worked for, and can’t afford legal assistance to help them recover what they’ve earned. This OAA program funds six regional counseling projects that help individuals in 29 states.

Nancy Altman, co-director of Social Security Works, testified that the counseling program has recovered more than $175 million in pension benefits for 50,000 clients since 1993—a return of $8 dollars for every federal dollar spent on the program. The current federal cost is $1.6 million, and those monies are used to leverage private and foundation resources, as they are with all OAA programs.

Altman said that some of the states not covered by the six regional projects have a high senior population, such as Florida. If all fifty states were served, Altman believes pension benefits recovered for seniors would likely double.

For Warren, the need to support OAA programs is clear.

“What is our measurement of who we are as a people other than how we treat those who are more vulnerable?” she said. “This is a place where good economics merges with the decisions that are right for us as a country.”

Sanders and seventeen cosponsors have introduced a bill to reauthorize the OAA with a funding increase of 12 percent over FY2010 levels, the amount required to begin to catch up with population growth and inflation over the past decade. (The funding that year was approximately $2.3 billion, accounting for just 0.06 percent of the federal budget; with the proposed increase it would be about 0.07 percent.) He said that “level funding just continues the downward spiral.”

“I happen to believe that if 100 million people were watching this panel today, there would be overwhelming support for this program and significantly increasing funding,” said Sanders. “So I urge and ask people all over this country to stand up for seniors right now, stand up for cost-effective government.”

Online Actions

Sign the Education Declaration to Rebuild America
Food Secure NYC 2018
Tell Nintendo: Slavery is not a Game
Take Action on Sequestration

Economic Policy Institute’s new Inequality Website

EPI believes that income inequality is one of the most pressing economic challenges America faces today. On Monday, it will launch inequality.is, a new interactive site that explains the effects of income inequality and what we can do about it. In the launch video below, Robert Reich explains why inequality is “real, personal, expensive and was created.”

More from EPI: The Unfinished Business of the 1963 March on Washington

Fifty years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, most of its goals have not been accomplished. In The Unfinished March: An Overview, Algernon Austin, director of EPI’s Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy, explains that while the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom led to legislative victories, the hard economic tasks of the march remain a distant dream. The remaining goals of the march include the demand for decent housing, adequate and integrated education, full employment and a national minimum wage that can lift a family out of poverty. These goals are all crucial to transforming the life opportunities of African-Americans and people of all races and ethnicities. Visit The Unfinished March and sign up for updates.

E-mail Response to What Congress and the Media Are Missing in the Food Stamp Debate

Dear Greg:

Your piece on the adequacy of the food stamp program raised an important point that is largely missing from the debate. Unfortunately the question of adequacy is largely absent from most discussions of anti-poverty programs. There seems little interest in adequacy in large part because many people think that a sizable portion of the budget is devoted to these programs. Certainly this is the case with food stamps where Republicans have sought to make a huge issue out of program that accounts for a bit more than 1.7 percent of the budget.

The media deserve much of the blame for this since they routinely report on programs in dollar amounts that are essentially meaningless to the vast majority of their readers. For example, telling people that the food stamp program costs $76 billion in 2013 conveys almost no information. It would mean the same thing to the vast majority of their readers if they said $7.6 billion or $760 billion as the NYT mistakenly did in a recent article.

It would be the easiest thing in the world for reporters to express items as a share of the budget in addition to or in place of the dollar amount. And, it is the sort of thing that progressives could reasonably push the media on. I have discussed this with several budget reporters and not one has ever tried to argue with me that the “$17 billion” expenditure on TANF means anything to the vast majority of their readers. It’s just a ritual—that is how you report the budget.

If anyone other than me ever harassed the media on this we could get them to change and it would matter—it would be a bit hard for John McCain to run around the country complaining about the Woodstock Museum that cost 0.00003 percent of the budget. In other words, if people were better informed about the budget, we would have a much more serious debate about poor people’s program.

But it’s hard when the guiding philosophy among progressives down here is, “We’ve been losing for over 30 years, why change now?”

Sincerely,

DEAN BAKER
Co-Director
Center for Economic and Policy Research

Events

Advocate’s Training: Demystifying the Federal Budget, Sequestration & their Impact on Virginia (Tuesday, June 25, 3:30 pm–5 pm, University of Richmond Downtown Campus, 626 E. Broad Street, Richmond, VA.) Hosted by the Virginia Interfaith Center, the Coalition on Human Needs and the Half in Ten Campaign, this educational program is designed for professionals whose work may be impacted by sequestration in Virginia. Register here.

Community Forum: The Federal Budget, Sequestration, and their Impact on Virginia (Tuesday, June 25, 6 pm–7:30 pm, University of Richmond Downtown Campus, 626 E. Broad Street, Richmond, VA.) Join the Virginia Interfaith Center, the Coalition on Human Needs and the Half in Ten Campaign for this interactive and educational program. A light dinner will be served. Register here.

Clips and other resources (compiled with Samantha Lachman)

Bad teeth, broken dreams: Lack of dental care keeps many out of jobs,” JoNel Aleccia

Human Service Summit focuses on the roots of poverty,” Jonathan Bender

Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools Launch Across California,” Children’s Defense Fund

Life better for 300,000 kids of immigrants,” Christine Armario

How Immigration Reform Could Help Improve Women’s Economic Security,” Sheila Bapat

Students push to limit school police after Newtown,” James Cersonsky

Chicago to Shutter 50 Public Schools: Is Historic Mass Closure an Experiment in Privatization?” Democracy Now!

Whose Walmart?: Workers Crash Walmart’s Party,” Josh Eidelson

Former Bank of America Employees Report Widespread Abuses Throughout Loan Modification Process,” Hannah Emple

School Concerns Flare, as 48 Chicago Campuses Close,” Keith Griffith

Helping families thrive: Lessons from Chicago’s public housing transformation,” Chantal Hailey

The Capitalist’s Case for a $15 Minimum Wage,” Nick Hanauer

White House: Protect Food Stamps in Farm Bill,” Mary Clare Jalonic

Help yourself and our state—help poor kids,” Lois Kazakoff

LIFTing the Bronx,” LIFT and Single Stop USA [VIDEO]

Hunger: Our leaders need to feel the pain,” Harold J. Kravitz and Colleen Moriary

Worried about NSA snooping? Try getting bent over the hood of your car by police,” Courtland Milloy

How Obamacare is Trying to Make it Easier for Poor Americans to Pay For Their Health Insurance,” Sy Mukherjee

RIP, American Dream?” Matthew O’Brien

Childhood Programs Need State Support,” Ann O’Leary

A Critical Tool for Families in Poverty: Supplemental Security Income,” James Perrin and Ellen Perrin

The truth about gays and money,” Barbara Raab

Hunger strike against school closures begins in Philadelphia,” Ned Resnikoff

U.S. wages fall amid overseas pressure,” John Schmid

Home Visiting with Unlikely Suspects,” Stephanie Schmit

Review: TFA and the Struggle for Urban School Reform,” P.L. Thomas

New Research Shows SNAP, Facing Big Cuts in the House, Reduces Extreme Poverty,” Danilo Trisi

United Methodists Call on Publix to Act Justly,” United Methodists from Middle Tennessee

Caregiving Should be Middle Class Work,” Deborah Weinstein

How Fast Food Companies Steal Workers’ Pay,” Seth Freed Wessler

"Lawsuit: Domestic Violence Survivor Killed by Ex-Boyfriend After Deportation to Mexico," Brad Wong

Pelosi Blasts Proposed Food Stamp Cuts,” George Zornick

Studies/Briefs (compiled and written by Samantha Lachman)

Keeping Up with the Times: Supporting Family Caregivers with Workplace Leave Policies,” AARP Public Policy Institute. The only piece of federal legislation that addresses the need to take time off work to care for family is the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, which remains woefully inadequate because it only guarantees up to twelve weeks of job-protected leave to care for one’s own health needs or that of a family member. Not all workers are covered by the Act, and it only guarantees unpaid leave—and might not cover care for someone other than a parent, spouse or child (such as a grandparent). This report focuses on workers with responsibilities to seniors and highlights public policy solutions to extend protections for working caregivers and better support them.

Who Would be Affected By a New Minimum Wage Policy?” Carsey Institute. Two legislative proposals before Congress propose to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. This brief explores the characteristics of the earners who would be affected by a new minimum wage policy by comparing them with the hourly workforce in the status quo and examining the differences between rural and urban workers in particular. Two key findings are that proposed minimum wage increases would disproportionately affect less-educated workers and women.

Making Medicaid Work for Children in Child Welfare: Examples from the Field,” Center for Health Care Strategies. This report explores the strategies used in four states to enhance the effectiveness of their Medicaid programs and improve responsive care for children and families, outlining best practices in multiple areas to inform other states efforts to better serve children with physical, dental and behavioral health needs.

A Broken Bargain: Discrimination, Fewer Benefits and More Taxes for LGBT Workers,” Movement Advancement Project, Center for American Progress, Human Rights Campaign. This report looks at the ways in which legal discrimination imposes challenges upon the approximately 5.4 million LGBT workers in the US workforce. No federal law provides explicit nondiscrimination protections for LGBT workers, and workers can also be denied equal access to benefits and family tax relief. Such discrimination without legal protection makes it harder to find and retain a job, so workers and their families find themselves vulnerable and at risk. LGBT people are at higher risk of poverty than non-LGBT people, and married or partnered LGBT individuals raising children are twice as likely to have household incomes near the poverty line compared to married or partnered non-LGBT parents. The study offers a number of recommendations for action by all levels of government, as well as for employers, including reducing barriers to finding jobs and providing equal access to benefits.

The Intersection of Welfare and Disability,” MDRC. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplementary Security Income (SSI) programs pose challenges to coordination even though both have the goal of serving low-income individuals and families. The hope is that the TANF/SSSI Disability Transition Project will find ways to best serve low-income families in which one parent (or both) has a disability. This report describes how the two programs interact, based on field assessments from four states. One key finding is that the population served by both programs is not large—less than 10 percent of TANF recipients had an open SSI application, and just 6 percent of adults applying for SSI received TANF benefits within a year of their application.

It shouldn’t be a heavy lift: fair treatment for pregnant workers,” National Women’s Law Center. This study finds that women still face discrimination at work when they become pregnant—for example, when they ask for temporary modifications of job duties (avoiding heavy lifting, being permitted to sit down, etc). Such job adjustments would be allowed for those with a disability, but since pregnancy is not a disability, pregnant workers’ requests are often denied and they are at risk of being fired or pushed onto unpaid leave. Since many of the women who need workplace accommodations are low-wage workers, women of color and immigrants are disproportionately represented. The report calls for laws and enforcement efforts to mitigate abuses of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

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Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $17,916 for a family of three): 46.2 million people, 15.1 percent.

Children in poverty: 16.1 million, 22 percent of all children, including 39 percent of African-American children and 34 percent of Latino children. Poorest age group in country.

Deep poverty (less than $11,510 for a family of four): 20.4 million people, 1 in 15 Americans, including more than 15 million women and children.

People who would have been in poverty if not for Social Security, 2011: 67.6 million (program kept 21.4 million people out of poverty).

People in the US experiencing poverty by age 65: Roughly half.

Gender gap, 2011: Women 34 percent more likely to be poor than men.

Gender gap, 2010: Women 29 percent more likely to be poor than men.

Twice the poverty level (less than $46,042 for a family of four): 106 million people, more than 1 in 3 Americans.

Jobs in the US paying less than $34,000 a year: 50 percent.

Jobs in the US paying below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually: 25 percent.

Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers.

Percentage of individuals and family members in poverty who either worked or lived with a working family member, 2011: 57 percent.

Young men (ages 25–34) working full time today: earning 10 percent less than their fathers did thirty years ago. (via Sen. Jeff Merkley)

Families receiving cash assistance, 1996 (pre-welfare reform): 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: 27 for every 100 families living in poverty.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Percentage of entitlement benefits going to elderly, disabled, or working households: over 90 percent.

Number of homeless children in US public schools: 1,065,794.

Annual cost of child poverty nationwide: $550 billion.

Federal expenditures on home ownership mortgage deductions, 2012: $131 billion.

Federal funding for low-income housing assistance programs, 2012: less than $50 billion.

Quote of the Week

“This Farm Bill added insult to injury for the nation’s poor. It was heartless, it was reckless, and now, I’m proud to say, it has failed. The Republicans’ proposed $20 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) were unconscionable and short sighted, and beating the Farm Bill today is an incredible victory for the nation’s poor and vulnerable.”
      —Congresswoman Barbara Lee

Samantha Lachman wrote the “Studies/Briefs” and co-wrote the “Clips and other resources” sections in this blog.

This Week in Poverty posts here on Friday mornings, and again at Moyers & Company and AlterNet. You can e-mail me at WeekInPoverty@me.com and follow me on Twitter.

What are Congress and the media missing in the food stamp debate?

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