Half of Single Older Adults in U.S. Lack Income to Pay for Basic Needs

Researchers tracking the economic security of America’s older adults have found that half who live alone and nearly a quarter of those living in two-person households where both are age 65 or older are unable to afford basic necessities without extra assistance.

The 2019 Elder IndexTM and a companion report, Insecurity in the States 2019, calculates the elder economic “insecurity rate” both nationally and on a state-by-state basis. The new index data and report were produced by the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston’s McCormack Graduate School.

Among the states, Massachusetts leads the nation with the highest level of elder economic insecurity for older adults living alone. Seven of the top 10 states in that economic insecurity category, including New York and New Jersey, were located in the Northeast. They were joined by Mississippi, Louisiana, and California.

The index estimates the cost to adults age 65 and older for basics such as food, housing, health care and transportation in every county in the United States. Researchers match income data with the index results to determine state and national rates of elder economic insecurity.

On average across the country, 18.2 percent of older adults living alone have income below the Federal Poverty Level. Another 32.1 percent live “in the gap,” with income that exceeds the poverty line but falls short of covering their actual cost of living.

“Making ends meet is a daily challenge for many older adults, especially those who live alone,” said Jan Mutchler, director of the Gerontology Institute’s Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging. “The elder index provides an important reality check – a realistic measure of the actual cost of a no-frills lifestyle for elders living independently.”

Findings in the Insecurity in the States 2019 report include:

  • National averages suggest 50 percent of older adults living alone and 23 percent of elder couples have annual incomes below the Elder Index.
  • Nationwide, 32 percent of single elders and 18 percent of elder couples fall into the gap between the Federal Poverty Level and the income required for realistic economic security.
  • At least 40 percent of adults age 65 or older in every state are at risk of being unable to afford basic needs and age in their own homes.
  • More than half of older adults living below the Elder Index rely on Social Security for at least 90 percent of their incomes.

“A large portion of every state’s independent older adults lack incomes that would allow them to escape the threat of poverty, to remain independent and to age in their own homes,” said Mutchler.

“Protecting Social Security benefits is essential for older adults, including not only those who are poor but also for those ‘in the gap,’” she added.

The elder index calculated a realistic national average annual cost of living of $25,416 for renting elder singles and $36,204 for older couples who rent. The 2019 federal poverty guidelines for the 48 contiguous states are $12,490 per year for singles and $16,910 annually for couples.

Looking to individual states, the percentage of single older adults living below Federal Poverty Level ranged from 12.8 percent in New Hampshire to 25.8 percent in Mississippi. The percentage of older adults living alone “in the gap” ranged from 41.1 percent in Nevada to 61.1 percent in Massachusetts.

Overall, the state with the lowest Elder Economic Insecurity Rate was Nevada, followed by Alaska and Utah. Complete state rankings and other details are available in the Insecurity in the States 2019 report.

The Elder Index is a free online resource available for anyone to look up customized information about the cost of elder living in any county, state or the country. Its redesigned website can be found at a new location, www.elderindex.org.

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