Poverty rate jumps among California seniors

More seniors are living in poverty

A growing number of seniors in California and across the Sacramento region are living in poverty, according to a Bee review of U.S. Census data.
Up Next
A growing number of seniors in California and across the Sacramento region are living in poverty, according to a Bee review of U.S. Census data.

The older you are, the poorer you get.

For a growing number of California seniors living on the edges of poverty, that’s the uncomfortable reality.

In the Sacramento region, the number of residents 65 and older living at or below the federal poverty line – $11,400 for a single individual – roughly doubled from 2005 to 2014, according to a Sacramento Bee review of U.S. census data. That means 28,000 seniors, or 9 percent of the region’s elderly population, are officially considered poor.

Statewide, the number of impoverished residents age 65 and older increased by 85 percent, to roughly 520,000, between 1999 and 2014, more than double the rate of population growth among the elderly.

Poverty among seniors is not new, but has been exacerbated in recent years by a cyclone of factors, especially in California.

Seniors statewide caught at the edge of poverty are mostly single; the large majority are women. They’re often minorities.

They are people such as Margie Ann Powell, 80, who earns about $1,500 a month from Social Security and a small pension. She and her retired daughter, who has no income and is waiting to qualify for the county’s In-Home Supportive Services program, shared a $750-a-month North Sacramento apartment but left four months ago after being forced out due to a bedbug infestation. Since then, Powell said she has slept outside, in motels or in churches. She worries she and her daughter might not have enough to pay for a new apartment once she uses up a motel voucher provided by the homeless services agency Loaves & Fishes.


She said she is on 17 lists for affordable housing units in Sacramento.

“It’s been hell,” said Powell. “I’ve still got no place to go. I don’t know what I am going to do.”

Some financially stressed seniors live with family members in subsidized housing and cheap motels. In dire cases, they bunker down by the American River or on the streets.

In the Sacramento area, they’re concentrated in a handful of ZIP codes: downtown Sacramento, Del Paso Heights, Lemon Hill, Oak Park and the Broderick area of West Sacramento.

How they each got to that official poverty line varies. Some didn’t work outside the home long enough to qualify for Social Security. Others had jobs but no pension. Some made poor financial decisions or investments; others are victims of financial abuse. Some saw their savings and retirement accounts depleted by the recession and earlier downturns. Many, especially those 85 and older, are simply living longer and contending with costly, chronic health conditions.


“People who are turning 65 over the next two decades are generally going to be worse off than people who are retired today,” said Gary Passmore, director of the Congress of California Seniors, a nonprofit group that advocates for older adults. “The average 70-year-old today has fewer assets because of the recession and typically is less likely to have retirement income than their counterparts 15 years ago.”

There are no easy answers. Safety nets for seniors exist but are often stretched taut.

“There are so many things they don’t have any control over: cost of housing, the cost of prescriptions, the cost of food,” said Rosanne Bernardy, superintendent of older adult services at the Hart Senior Center, which provides computer classes, exercise sessions, art activities and weekday Meals on Wheels lunches for seniors in midtown Sacramento.

Many seniors rely solely on Social Security. “It’s totally inadequate. It’s a safety net, yet for so many seniors, it is their primary income,” said Bernardy.

There are so many things they don’t have any control over: cost of housing, the cost of prescriptions, the cost of food.

Rosanne Bernardy, superintendent of older adult services at the Hart Senior Center in Sacramento

About 18 months ago, the center launched a once-a-month food giveaway, offering fresh fruit, vegetables, breads and canned goods through the Sacramento Food Bank.

It can serve just 45 people a month. “We always hit our maximum. They get here, rain or shine, to pick up their groceries,” Bernardy said.

On a recent Wednesday, the line of seniors formed well before the noon pickup started, each pulling their wheeled shopping baskets.

Doro Johnson, 65, was one. A Wal-Mart employee for 15 years, she had to quit her job two years ago to recover after undergoing a hip replacement and developing a serious heart condition. She lives on $900 a month, doesn’t own a car or computer and gets around by bus or light rail. Her rent for a subsidized studio apartment, including utilities and a phone, is about $400 a month. She relies on help from her church and children, but doesn’t want to be a burden.

“It’s hard right now,” she said.

She filled her cart with free frozen chicken, grape juice and bread. Even with food bank and family help, Johnson wants to return to work. “It’s a struggle. My medications are expensive. If I don’t get a job, I am really going to be in a fix. I have no choice.”

Johnson and other seniors have been buffeted by increased costs and not enough savings.

▪ Medications: In 2013, the retail price for 622 prescription drugs widely used by older Americans increased by an average of 9.4 percent, according to a recent AARP Public Policy Institute report. Even with Medicare, not all senior drug costs are covered, meaning more out-of-pocket expense.

▪ Food: Also, over the past 20 years, food prices have increased an average of 2.5 percent annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some basics, such as eggs, jumped nearly 18 percent in price last year.

▪ Savings: Many seniors simply don’t have enough retirement savings to support themselves. Almost 30 percent of Americans age 55 and older have no retirement savings or work pension, according to a 2015 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Among households with savings, the median amount for those age 55 to 64 was roughly $104,000, enough to provide about $350 a month in retirement income, assuming they withdraw 4 percent annually.

Affordable housing hardships

One of the biggest hurdles facing low-income seniors is finding affordable housing, especially in California’s high-priced real estate market.

Subsidized senior housing exists, but there is far more demand than supply.

“For anyone in California who’s low income, finding housing where they don’t have to spend more than a third of their monthly income on rent is very difficult,” said Rick Sprague, spokesman for Mercy Housing California, which operates 150 affordable housing complexes for families and seniors statewide. “It’s a problem that’s getting worse.”

Waiting lists are so long at some Mercy Housing sites, Sprague said they’ve had to stop taking new names. At a newly opened affordable housing complex in San Francisco, he said, there were about 7,000 applications for 70 units.

More than one-quarter of elderly California households, or roughly 750,000 people, live in rental units, the latest census figures show. Of those, roughly one-third spend at least half of their monthly income on rent.

85 percentThe increase in the number of impoverished California residents age 65 and older between 1999 and 2014.

In Sacramento County, fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment is about $815, according to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department. That represents more than two-thirds of the poverty-threshold income for an elderly household of two earning $14,326 a year.

“The federal government is saying to a single person, ‘You should be able to rent an apartment using all of the income you have,’ ” said professor Steven P. Wallace, chair of the Department of Community Health Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Their income is less than the rent.”

A recent survey by Loaves & Fishes found that 15 percent of its clientele is 60 and older, compared with roughly 4 percent in 1998.

“The elderly are not immune from the cost of housing that affects everyone,” said Loaves & Fishes spokeswoman Joan Burke. “We are seeing more people that are here simply because they cannot afford rent.”

Those who do manage to find subsidized housing consider themselves lucky.

Faye Duncan, a red-haired 80-year-old on a fixed income, recently moved into a federally supported apartment in midtown Sacramento after 18 months on a waiting list. Duncan is a former real estate agent who said she managed apartment properties in Greenhaven until health problems forced her to retire – at 79. She is “grateful” to have found clean, affordable housing. “If I didn’t have this, I’d be living under the bridge someplace,” she said.

Duncan lives on about $930 a month in Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments. Divorced three times and with no children, Duncan said she never had a job with a pension but worked on commission as a real estate agent for 25 years. During the 1990s, she went a year without income and “everything I had saved went bye-bye.”

Today, she lives in a tidy one-bedroom unit with her dog, Ya Ya. She pays about $208 on rent (based on income) and $179 a month for five-days-a-week dinners provided to residents. She buys her own groceries for breakfast, lunch and weekend meals. Most of her seven or eight prescription medications are covered by Medicare.

I live on a strict budget and know where every penny goes.

Faye Duncan, an 80-year-old Sacramento woman living on a fixed income

“I live on a strict budget and know where every penny goes,” said Duncan, who buys clothes at garage sales or thrift shops. After paying for rent, meal service, groceries, dog food and laundry, “I’m lucky if I have $100 left over” for things such as vitamins, transportation to doctor visits and an occasional haircut.

A fraying social net

Compounding the problem are cuts to the social safety net for seniors.

About 565,000 of the state’s poorest elderly residents relied on SSI and State Supplementary Payment, or SSP, grants to meet their basic needs in late 2014, federal data show. The grants are funded by federal and state dollars.

During the recession, the state cut its contribution to SSP grants and stopped making annual cost-of-living adjustments, according to the California Budget & Policy Center research group.

As a result, the maximum SSI/SSP grant is about $900 a month, roughly what it takes to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Sacramento.

“It was seen as a way to balance the budget,” UCLA professor Wallace said. “Unfortunately, it was on the backs of people who didn’t have much income.”

In January 2017, the governor’s budget proposal calls for a one-time cost-of-living increase in state supplemental payment grants that would add about $4.30 a month for individuals or about $11 a month for couples. Some groups, such as the California Budget & Policy Center, want to see those annual adjustments become permanent.

The poverty rate among California seniors increased during the past 15 years even as the nationwide rate among the elderly remained essentially flat, census figures show. Several experts say the problem is worse than the numbers indicate, largely because the federal poverty standard is based on the cost of food instead of housing.

While poverty rates have gone up among all age groups in California since the start of the last recession, the elderly poverty rate is of particular concern, according to economists and sociologists. Unlike a child who can grow up to escape poverty or a working-age adult who might find a better job to shore up fragile finances, many seniors are locked into economic misfortune.

“The issue is that at a certain point, you are out of options,” said Nari Rhee, manager of the Retirement Security Program at UC Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education.

No single solution

She and other advocates say addressing the need requires a combined effort, both public and private.

The city of Sacramento’s “Caring Neighborhoods” is an example of a volunteer effort in which younger residents keep an eye on elderly neighbors, sharing an occasional meal or lending a hand.

Federal agencies have stepped up efforts to prevent seniors from being exploited financially, which can easily tip older Americans into poverty. Last week, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau advised banks and credit unions on how to protect seniors from financial abuse, which is estimated to rob seniors of anywhere between $2.9 billion and $34 billion a year.

The state Legislature is considering about 40 senior-related bills, including AB 763 by Assemblywomen Autumn Burke, D-Los Angeles, and Susan Bonilla, D-Concord. Their bill would raise the income ceiling to qualify for the state’s Aged and Disabled Medi-Cal program, which has fallen behind the income ceilings for expanded Medi-Cal coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

Meanwhile, the number of aging Californians keeps growing. Every day, another 1,000 people turn 65 in California, according to state budget estimates for 2014-2015.

“Imagine what would be going on in the halls of the Capitol, if we knew that the number of school age kids was going to double. Imagine the bond proposals, school construction, teacher training,” said California Congress of Seniors director Passmore. “There is nothing being said in the state Capitol about the onslaught of the elderly. It’s a reflection that this is a youth-oriented state and always has been.”

Despite that assessment, Passmore believes the aging population will prod state and local changes to help prevent more Californians from sliding into poverty.

“The numbers are becoming so big they cannot be ignored,” he said. “The sheer demographic reality of what we’re facing, how the population’s aging, will force that change.”

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck

Phillip Reese: 916-321-1137, @PhillipHReese