Aging With Economic Insecurity: Resources for Older Americans

As the fastest-growing population in the country, older adults face both opportunities and challenges. By 2060, the population of adults older than 65 is expected to almost double, increasing from 16% to 23%. Older adults are living and working longer. Supporting seniors is an important mission for social workers. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 48% of seniors are economically vulnerable. And while the poverty rate for those 65 and older remains relatively low, the total number of individuals living in poverty continues to increase — and will do so as that generation ages (PDF, 1.5 MB). 

Most seniors rely on retirement incomes, Social Security and Medicare for financial security, which aren’t always enough to cover the basic necessities. According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), millions of older adults are struggling to meet their monthly expenses, even though they’re not considered poor because they live above the poverty line.

While living in poverty is a challenge no matter your age, older adults who live in poverty or face economic insecurity struggle with an array of issues unique to their phase of life, such as housing costs, health care bills, transportation, meal planning, dwindling savings and job loss, as reported by NCOA.

How Many Older Adults Live in Poverty?

The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 4.7 million adults older than 65 lived in poverty in 2017, or approximately 9.2%. Those numbers increase when using the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which is published by the U.S. Census Bureau and takes into account other important factors such as financial resources and out-of-pocket spending. Women, minorities and older seniors are among the most vulnerable groups. The District of Columbia and Louisiana have the highest rates of poverty for older Americans, while Connecticut and Oregon have the lowest. 

A Snapshot of Older Adults Living in Poverty

Go to a tabular version at the bottom of this page for information on the number of older adults living in poverty in 2017.

States with the Highest and Lowest Percentage of Older Adults Living in Poverty

Go to a tabular version at the bottom of this page for information on which states with the highest and lowest percentage of older adults living in poverty.

How to Help Older Adults Living in Poverty

Social workers play a critical role in advocating for the growing senior population — in particular, those living in poverty. They can offer support and resources to address physical, psychological, social and economic concerns. From providing direct services to influencing policy decisions, social workers are committed to serving the needs of the older population and promoting greater quality of life.

The USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging provides information about healthy aging; partners with organizations that provide resources and programs for aging, low-income minorities; and conducts research that leads to new evidence-based interventions that improve the lives of older adults around the world. USC Roybal integrates activities with the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, which has a Department of Adult Mental Health and Wellness, to prepare students to improve the mental health and physical well-being of individuals across the adult lifespan.

There are a number of other national organizations that address specific concerns related to aging with economic insecurity. Continue reading below to learn more about the economic issues facing older adults and the organizations that are addressing the different needs of this population.

Retirement

About one-fifth of adults age 65 and older are in the workforce (as of March 2020). Seniors are working longer because of financial necessity. Older adults living in poverty tend to be very reliant on social security with little savings. Working people who are economically insecure often stay on the job past retirement age.

  • Pension Rights Center: nonprofit consumer organization that helps promote retirement security through counseling, legal services and government agencies.
  • Justice in Aging: nonprofit legal organization that combats senior poverty, expands access to affordable health care and promotes economic security. 
  • Pension Help America: nonprofit funded by the U.S. Administration on Aging that connects seniors with retirement planning resources and protects their retirement security.
  • Alliance for Retired Americans: grassroots organization made up of seniors, community activists and retired union members that advocates for issues such as blocking the privatization of Social Security and advancing economic justice.
  • American Retirement Association: retirement industry nonprofit dedicated to educating all retirement plan and benefits professionals and providing Americans the ability to retire comfortably.

Health care

Higher out-of-pocket medical costs can contribute to higher rates of poverty among seniors. Health expenditures are growing, medical spending for older adults is roughly twice as much as middle-aged adults, and rising healthcare costs contribute to more bankruptcy filings. It’s increasingly difficult for seniors to manage rising health care costs as a result of increasing costs for the federal government to operate Medicare.

  • Administration on Aging: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agency dedicated to providing seniors with supportive services that help them live independently in their communities.
  • National Institute on Aging: NIH research center devoted to research on senior citizen health that provides information to the public and to the health care community about how to protect the well-being of seniors.
  • American Geriatrics Society: nonprofit for geriatric doctors and health care professionals, including social workers, that advocates for research and education in the area of high-quality care for seniors.
  • Medicare Rights Center: nonprofit that helps ensure access to affordable health care for seniors through counseling, education services and public policy initiatives, working with them to understand and navigate their rights.

Isolation and mobility

Social connections are important. Social isolation and loneliness can lead to worsening health for seniors and hinder their abilities to perform basic daily tasks. Older adults also face mobility impairments, which can leave them unable to socialize with friends outside of the home as a result of trouble walking, moving around or keeping balance. The AARP reports that 17% of seniors are isolated, and they face a 26% increased risk of early death as a result of feeling lonely.

  • Senior Corps: network of national service programs for seniors that enables them to volunteer and become involved in their communities in ways that aid education, disaster relief, mentoring and elder care.   
  • Red Hat Society: international women’s social organization for senior women to meet new friends and reconnect with old friends through the purpose of fun.
  • AARP Foundation's Connect2Affect: AARP organization dedicated to helping end loneliness and social isolation for vulnerable seniors.
  • Generations United: intergenerational organization connecting seniors and younger people through mentorship and community engagement. Roughly 92% of Americans believe that intergenerational collaboration can help reduce loneliness.
  • SAGE, Advocacy & Services for LGBT Elders: organization advocating for LGBT seniors through human rights, housing, financial security and mental health.

Food insecurity

In 2017, approximately 1 in 12 adults age 60 and older experienced food insecurity, which can cause them to skip meals or eat less. And, because many are above the poverty line, they can’t always access public health benefits.

  • NCOA’s Benefits Check Up: free online tool from the National Council on Aging aimed at improving the health and economic security of 40 million older adults by 2030. This service educates seniors about what benefits they qualify for.
  • Food Research & Action Center: organization that provides education on SNAP benefits for seniors, analyzes and interprets data on senior hunger and provides a free online course for health care providers to fight and understand senior food insecurity.
  • Feeding America: organization that researches the prevalence of and risk factors for food insecurity among older adults while fighting back with nourishing foods, food safety and food recovery.
  • Seniors Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program: food assistance program from the USDA that provides locally grown produce to low-income seniors, expands access to farmers’ markets and helps develop farmers’ markets and other community agriculture.
  • National Foundation to End Senior Hunger: organization that combats food insecurity through senior nutrition programs based on need and makes nutritious food more accessible for low-income seniors.

Debt

The NCOA indicates that the percentage of households headed by an adult 65 and older with any debt increased (PDF, 2 MB) from 41.5% in 1992 to 60% in 2016 — and more older adults are taking on credit card debt, too: In 2001, only 24.2% of senior households held credit card balances. By 2016, 34.2% did.

Housing

In 2016, about a third of households age 65 and older spent more than a third of their incomes on housing (PDF, 2.4 MB), according to a report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. The report notes that older adults who spend a significant portion of their incomes on housing sacrifice other necessities like food and health care. The same report also points to increasing rates of homelessness among older adults and a shortage of accessible housing for adults with functional limitations as significant challenges for this age group.

Are you interested in pursuing a career in social work with a focus on improving the lives of older adults? Learn more about the MSW@USC’s Department of Adult Mental Health and Wellness.


The following section contains tabular data from the graphic.

A Snapshot of Older Adults Living in Poverty in 2017

By Age

A Snapshot of Older Adults Living in Poverty in 2017 By Age
Demographic Category Percentage of older adults living below official poverty measure
65–69 years 8.2%
70–79 years 8.5%
80+ years 11.4%

By Gender

A Snapshot of Older Adults Living in Poverty in 2017 By Gender
Demographic Category Percentage of older adults living below official poverty measure
Men 7.4%
Women 10.5%

By Race/Ethnicity

A Snapshot of Older Adults Living in Poverty in 2017 By Race/Ethnicity
Demographic Category Percentage of older adults living below official poverty measure
White 6.9%
Black 18.7%
Hispanic 17.3%

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States With the Highest Percentage of Older Adults Living in Poverty

States With the Highest Percentage of Older Adults Living in Poverty
State Percentage of older adults living below official poverty measure
District of Columbia 15.5%
Louisiana 15.2%
Kentucky 13.3%
Mississippi 12.7%
New Mexico 11.4%

States With the Lowest Percentage of Older Adults Living in Poverty

States With the Lowest Percentage of Older Adults Living in Poverty
State Percentage of older adults living below official poverty measure
Utah 6.3%
Washington 6.3%
Wisconsin 5.9%
Oregon 5.4%
Connecticut 5.3%

Source: Kaiser Family Foundation; Issue Brief: How Many Seniors Live in Poverty (PDF, 819 KB)?

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Created by the MSW@USC, the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Southern California