Large numbers of seniors falling behind

By Hank Kalet

New Jersey seniors are facing a shortage of affordable rental units, which is contributing to their growing inability to cover basic costs, according to a report issued last week by the New Jersey Foundation for Aging.

The “New Jersey Elder Economic Security Index: Addressing Basic Needs” was prepared by the New Jersey Foundation for Aging, the Legal Services of N.J. Poverty Research Institute and Wider Opportunities for Women in Washington. It found that housing costs account for nearly half of the average New Jersey senior’s monthly costs, highlighting “the need for more affordable housing.” Other basic costs, like food and medication, can be addressed by expanding and simplifying access to existing state and federal programs.

cover of report copyIn addition, the cost-of-living for seniors, according to the report, has increased by 8 percent since 2009 without a corresponding increase in Social Security or other income.

“They are losing ground and they don’t have a chance to make up the difference” between rising costs and stagnant incomes, said Grace Egan, executive director for the New Jersey Foundation on Aging. “And over time they have less of a chance – they have less assets and more dwindling assets with less of a chance to regroup.”

The index, according to the report’s introduction, is meant to identify the amount of annual income seniors need “to age in place with dignity” and can be viewed as a sustainability or economic security index for seniors. Based on U.S. Census data, it was originally issued last fall but was reissued on Friday to re-emphasize the findings, Egan said.

According to the report, monthly costs for seniors range from $2,110 for a single senior who owns his or her own home, but has no mortgage, to $4,017 for a couple who owns and has a mortgage. The monthly cost of living for a single senior in a one-bedroom rental is $2,330, while costs for a senior couple rise to $3,237 per month.

Costs include “only those goods and services essential to health and welfare,” according to the report, such as rent or mortgage, utilities, insurance and property taxes; food; premiums for Medicare and other, out-of-pocket heath costs; transportation; and other miscellaneous expenses.

Overall, housing accounts for 47 percent of the costs, health care for 19 percent, food for 10 percent, transportation for 9 percent, with miscellaneous costs like clothing and cleaning products making up the remaining 15 percent.

Egan and other advocates for seniors say the statistics show a need for a more aggressive effort to build affordable housing, both for seniors and for working families, and expand the federal Section 8 housing program, which provides vouchers to low-income renters offset their costs.

The state’s affordable housing program has been in limbo for the last three years as the state Supreme Court attempts to sort out arguments over the future of the program. Three separate lawsuits are in play – one concerning an executive order abolishing the Council on Affordable Housing, one concerning the seizure by the state of local affordable housing trust-fund money and a third concerning disputed rules for the latest round of housing.

In the meantime, advocates for seniors say more can be done to address other needs. They are calling for an expansion of senior-targeted property-tax rebates, the continuance of tenant rebates for low-income renters, an increase in the state Social Security Insurance supplement and other financial assistance programs, especially those meant to offset medical co-payments, expansion of community-based long-term care and aging-in-place opportunities, simpler access to nutrition and health programs, and expanded outreach initiatives to enroll more seniors in existing programs designed to provide financial assistance.

The state offers “a variety of programs and services available to seniors who may be experiencing financial insecurity,” Nicole Brossoie, spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services, said via email. The programs include prescription and co-pay assistance, nutritional programs and utilities assistance. The programs serve between about 18,000 and 330,000 seniors.

Brossoie said outreach is generally left to the county agencies, that deal with “seniors daily through their work to ensure that the eligible apply for these programs.”

“The county Boards of Social Services also advise seniors in need of assistance of available services,” she said. “In addition, the department works closely with senior stakeholder groups such as AARP, the Foundation for Aging and various community-based organizations to spread the word.”

Jane Maloney, director of the Ocean County Office of Senior Services, said her agency is in constant contact with the county’s seniors. Ocean County has the state’s largest senior population and among the oldest, she said.

She said it is important that the various county agencies and the state maximize the number of people served by assistance programs.

“The more people we get connected to the benefit programs, then they will have more money in their pockets,” she said. “We push them to contact us to see if they are eligible for something.”

According to the report, 54.7 percent of seniors who live alone in Ocean County and 27.1 percent of senior couples live below the sustainability figure set by the index. That is a little below the state average.

Hudson, Essex and Passaic counties had the highest percentage of seniors living below the security threshold, according to the report. In Hudson, 73.7 percent of seniors living alone and 44.6 percent of couples fell below the threshold. In Essex, the numbers were 66.5 percent and 39.6 percent and, in Passaic, they were 61.1 percent and 33.9 percent.

A total of 252,470 seniors – or 42 percent — live below the Elder Index threshold, more than five times the 42,594 seniors who live below the federal poverty line.

Seniors who live alone were more likely to fall below the elder-index threshold, according to the report; 58 percent of seniors who lived alone — nearly 160,000 – fell below the threshold, compared with 29 percent of couples (92,756 seniors). The numbers also were higher for renters, according to the report; 77 percent of single, senior renters and 64.4 percent of renting couples had incomes below the threshold.

The report does not take into account catastrophic or long-term care costs, Egan says. If those are factored in, annual expenses could increase by as much as $40,000, she said.

“You can see how difficult things are by just looking at the basic expenses that presume good health,” She said. “But if you need additional personal care your costs skyrocket.”

Women were disproportionately more likely to fall below the index. Nearly 125,000 of the 160,000 single-senior households were made up of women, with 60.8 percent of those falling below the threshold. Nearly 50 percent of men in similar households were below the threshold.

Nearly 84 percent of Latino seniors who lived alone and 72 percent of African-American seniors lived below the elder index. The rate was 55 percent for whites and 56 percent for Asians. The rates for couples were 59.2 percent for Latinos, 45 percent for African-Americans, 32 percent for whites and 38 percent for Asians.

Maloney said the economy is making the situation worse for many.

“Look at the individual husband and wife that moved here back in the ‘70s,” she said. “The husband dies, the wife loses their pension and the people who thought they had their CDs, thought they were going to make some money and live off that.

“That is why we think it is important that individuals look and find out what they are eligible for,” she added. “These benefit programs really do make a difference in the lives of people.”

Egan agrees, though she thinks much more needs to be done.

“We’ve encouraged seniors to apply for nutrition and food programs, because it gives them a better quality of life and allows them to use their current assets,” Egan said. “But that doesn’t necessarily cover the widening gap between their income and their expenses.”

The best way to do that, she said, is with housing – and not just new affordable housing for seniors. There is a shortage of affordable units at every level, which creates conditions that allow people to “age into poverty,” Egan said. When a couple has to spend too great a portion of its income on housing, it is not likely to have the resources it needs to survive as it ages, she said.

“You don’t have a stepping stone into a better life,” she said.

And then, when it is time to “downsize” their housing – to move from a larger house to a smaller, more affordable one – many seniors are finding that there are few options, she said.

“What we find is that when you have lived in a community for a longtime, you don’t have an option when you want to downsize to stay in the community,” she said.

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