Aging, Women and Poverty in California: A forum to discuss the needs of older Californians

“It is imperative we separate the insidiousness of economic inequality from the value and purposefulness of those living in poverty.”

Paul Downey, Chair California Commission on Aging and President/CEO, Serving Seniors

“Sixty-six percent of seniors in poverty are women, women who cared for us, clothed us, housed us…it is immoral…we must do more.”

California State Senator Kevin de León

“We must invest in the social safety net.”

Denise Likar, Independence at Home

On June 3, prominent leaders, educators, providers, and advocates gathered together for a forum to address aging, women and poverty in California organized by the California Commission on Aging, California Commission on the Status of Women and Girls, and the California Women’s Law Center. The forum aimed to both educate participants about the scope and the causes of aging in poverty for women in California and offer participants an opportunity to discuss and advance policy solutions to improve the lives of women as they age.

It is no secret that the senior population is rapidly increasing. Approximately 10,000 individuals turn 65 every day. Unfortunately, many of those seniors are aging into poverty. Currently, one in five seniors in California lives in poverty, the second highest in the country. Women, and particularly women of color, are more likely to be poor compared to men. For example, in California approximately 10% of women age 65 and over are living at or below the Federal Poverty Limit (FPL) compared to 6% of men. Over 15% of women over the age of 85 are living below the FPL.

Kevin Prindiville, our executive director here at Justice in Aging, spoke to some of the systemic causes of rising numbers of poor seniors, especially women. The poverty rate among seniors is increasing due to a number of factors including losses to savings and resources incurred during the recession, rising costs, and a shrinking safety net. Women, however, are more likely to suffer from poverty for a number of unique and systemic reasons including the unequal pay women receive over their lifetime, longer life expectancy than men, higher likelihood of leaving the workforce for extended periods of time to act as caregivers for children and aging relatives, and higher overall health care expenses. Our video of Dollie, Sandy, Lidia, and Myrtle was featured to hear from California women aging in poverty in their own words.

To address the growing poverty rates among women, forum participants advocated for robust policy solutions:

  • Recognize the intersectionality of race, gender, sexuality, and age. Karen Lincoln, Ph.D. with the University of Southern California described aging as “a stratified process that reflects the inequalities that structure our life changes from birth onward…” In other words, we cannot ignore the policies that have resulted in a “cumulative disadvantage” for women, including access to quality education, discriminatory housing policies, opportunities to build wealth, employment discrimination, among others. Polices to address senior poverty among women must include addressing inequalities experienced across a woman’s lifespan and experience.
  • Adopt a better measure of poverty for seniors. As D. Imelda Padilla-Frausto of the UCLA Center for Health and Policy Research explained, women, particularly the oldest women, women of color, and women as single heads of household, are more likely to be among the “Hidden Poor” – nearly 775,000 California seniors who have incomes above the official FPL, but who do not have enough income to make ends meet day-to-day. Currently, the FPL is used to identify the number of individuals living in poverty and as a baseline for eligibility for public assistance programs. While the FPL has been adjusted over the years to account for inflation, it has not been updated to reflect changes in consumption and the standard of living since the 1950s. The FPL also does not take into consideration regional variations in cost of living like housing, food, and health care. By adopting the Elder Index – a measure of poverty that accounts for the current basic living expenses faced by older adults living in California—the state will be positioned to better identify those seniors in need of assistance and develop policies to meet their actual needs.
  • Improve Economic Security. We know that government programs successfully raise individuals out of poverty. So, as Denise Likar with Independence at Home declared, “we must invest in the social safety net.” To start, California must restore the State Supplemental Payment (SSP) of the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefit to pre-2009 levels. Women rely heavily on SSI, but the benefit today is only 90% of the FPL or just $889 a month. This is a 10% decrease in benefits since 2009. It is also crucial to update and expand Social Security. Catherine Dodd, Chair of the National Committee to Preservice Social Security and Medicare, explained that the Social Security program does not equitably provide for women and recommends changes in computing benefits to ensure women who work as caregivers or in low-wage employment receive adequate retirement income. Similarly, as Usha Rnaji, with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation noted, we must improve the health care delivery system and make needed changes to the Medicare and Medicaid programs to expand coverage and reduce high out-of-pocket expenses that women face.It is equally important to adopt policies that ensure economic security earlier in life. Legislation like Senator De Leon’s Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program would help individuals working in lower and middle-income jobs, the majority of whom are women, save for retirement.
  • Strengthen and improve elder justice resources. Due to the inequalities women face during life, they are put more at risk for elder abuse – including financial, emotional, physical, and neglect. Of adults 60 and over, nearly 66% of victims are female. Lisa Nerenberg with the California Elder Justice Coalition described the need to increase funding to Adult Protective Services and the Long Term Care Ombudsman, and improving access to the justice system through initiatives like LA County’s Elder Abuse Outreach Campaign as described by LA County District Attorney, Jackie Lacey.
  • Secure state and local government commitment to seniors. California must commit to improving the lives of seniors in poverty. Local leaders like Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell have worked to open senior centers, establish more affordable housing, and addressing food insecurity. We need to push more of our local advocates to focus on the unique issues seniors in poverty face. At the state level, Senator Carol Liu, the current chair of the Select Committee on Aging and Long Term Care will be stepping down next year. The crisis of senior poverty must be made a priority. The California Senate should not only act quickly to fill Senator Liu’s vacancy but should also create a standing committee to address aging and long term care.

As Senator Kevin de León said, the mandate is clear: “Sixty-six percent of seniors in poverty are women, women who cared for us, clothed us, housed us…it is immoral…we must do more.”

About Amber Christ

Amber works on Justice in Aging’s Health Care team from our Los Angeles, CA. office. She's focused on ensuring dual eligibles are able to access the health care they need under California's Coordinated Care Initiative.