Older adults in every one of America’s large metropolitan areas face serious challenges affording their local cost of living. But the scale of economic insecurity varies dramatically, depending on what city those older adults call home.
A new report by University of Massachusetts Boston professor Jan Mutchler and graduate assistant Yang Li uses the Elder Index™ to analyze the cost of a no-frills elder budget in each of the nation’s 384 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), where 83 percent of older Americans live. They also tracked income levels of older adults in the 100 largest metro areas to determine what percentage of elders in those cities had insufficient income to afford their local cost of living without help.
They found a wide range of elder economic insecurity levels among both older individuals and couples living in the larger metro areas. More than 67 percent of older individuals in the Texas metro area covering McAllen, Edinburg and Mission did not have enough income to meet local expenses on their own, the highest rate among the 100 largest MSAs.
The other end of the spectrum: About 37 percent of older individuals in Madison, Wis., faced similar problems, the lowest rate among the largest 100 metro areas.
Similar measures of economic insecurity among older couples ranged from 12.1 percent in Ogden and Clearfield, Utah, to 44.1 percent in McAllen, Edinburg and Mission.
“Understanding elder economic insecurity in America’s largest metropolitan areas should be an important public policy priority,” said Mutcher. “This report is the first of its kind to document risks that are far greater in some metropolitan areas than others. It measures degrees of insecurity that can have dire consequences, whether that means older people at risk of being displaced from their homes, receiving irregular health care or suffering from inadequate nutrition.”
Expense data used in the report was gathered using the Elder Index, a free online resource developed by UMass Boston’s Gerontology Institute. The index calculates the cost of a bare-bones elder budget for individuals and couples in every state, county and metropolitan area in the United States. The index breaks down the cost of elder living in individual locations by expenses for housing, health care, food, transportation and other miscellaneous factors.
Among metro areas with the greatest levels of economic insecurity, many faced relatively high expenses but others struggled with poverty.
As an illustration, consider this tale of two cities: McAllen and Boston.
Recall that older individuals in McAllen’s MSA had the nation’s highest level of economic insecurity at 67.5 percent. But a closer look shows that 47.7 percent of older individuals there have incomes that fall below the federal poverty level, which for an older person living alone amounted to just $12,880 in 2020. Another 19.8 percent are considered to be “in the gap,” not technically poor but without the income necessary to afford the local cost of living on their own. Those expenses in McAllen were the lowest recorded among the largest 100 metro areas.
More than 2,000 miles away, older individuals living in Boston are very close behind when it comes to economic insecurity. They experience the second-highest rate among the nation’s top 100 MSAs at 63.1 percent. But only 19.6 percent of those individuals fall below the federal poverty level while 43.5 percent are in the gap. The main culprit: very high elder living expenses that rank third among the 100 largest metropolitan areas.
Among the cities with the greatest levels of economic insecurity for older individuals, an MSA covering New York City as well as the New Jersey cities of Newark and Jersey City was third (60.9 percent). El Paso, Texas, was fourth (60.4 percent).
A California MSA covering San Jose, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara was fifth (59.6 percent). It had the highest cost of living for older individuals renting their homes among the nation’s top 100 MSAs at $43,272 – more than twice the amount needed to make ends meet in McAllen.
“Metro areas with the country’s highest levels of elder economic insecurity certainly pose serious risks to the older adults who live there,” said Mutchler. “But this report shows that at least half of older individuals are economically insecure in 29 of the top 100 metro areas. Whether it’s driven by low levels of income or high costs, economic insecurity is a common struggle that takes place in metropolitan areas in every region of the country.”