This article is one in a series of stories about how people across the country are using the Elder Index to understand the true cost of living for older adults and its economic implications. If you know someone who would like to receive information about these stories, send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Go to any city across America and you will find older adults struggling to make ends meet. Go to Boston and you will see some of the most serious elder economic insecurity problems in the nation.
This is not news at Boston’s Age Strong Commission, which first launched an ambitious age-friendly plan in 2017. The commission is now developing a Step 2 blueprint with a focus on the problem of economic security among older residents. A critical tool for that job: The Elder Index.
The index is an online resource developed and managed by the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Gerontology Institute that calculates the realistic cost of independent living for older adults in every county, metropolitan area and state in the United States. It also provides a detailed breakdown of costs within a bare-bones budget for housing, health care, transportation, food and other miscellaneous expenditures.
“We used the Elder Index information and data to really paint a picture of elder economic insecurity in Boston and set the stage for some of the work we needed to do,” said Age Strong Commissioner Emily Shea. “We were able to lay the groundwork for why we needed to get this work done, bringing people to the table and getting prepared for our next steps.”
The index is a baseline measure that does not include additional private and public financial support older adults may receive. In Boston, city government had already put a wide range of programs in place to do just that.
A few examples: Residential real estate tax exemptions and property tax work-off programs help many qualified older Boston residents who own their homes. Discounted water and sewage charges are also available. Other programs provide no-interest loans or other financial help for home repairs and replacement of heating systems. Boston’s Age Strong shuttle provides free transportation to non-emergency medical appointments.
But that baseline Elder Index measure illustrates just how serious the economic insecurity problem is in Boston. The index calculates that older Bostonians in good health who rent their homes need $36,396 in annual income to meet the local cost of living without assistance. That’s 41 percent – more than $10,000 a year – greater than the national average for older adults in the same circumstances.
The cost of living for older Boston couples, also renters in good health, is $48,780 a year, according to the index. That expense is 32 percent higher than the national average of $36,984 for couples in similar circumstances – a difference of nearly $12,000 annually.
A recent UMass Boston report paired Elder Index expense information with local income data to rank the country’s largest 100 metro areas based on elder economic insecurity, the percentage of older adults without sufficient income to meet their local cost of living without help.
The report ranked Boston second among the nation’s largest metro areas based on elder economic security for older individuals (the Boston metropolitan statistical area also covers the nearby cities of Cambridge and Newton). It found 63.1% of older individuals in the metro area did not have enough income to afford their local expenses without assistance. The only metropolitan statistical area with a higher rate – 67.5 percent – covers the Texas cities of McAllen, Edinburg and Mission.
The report also ranked metro areas based on rates of economic insecurity for older couples. By that measure, Boston ranked 10th on the list. About 28 percent of the city’s older couples were considered economic insecure.
These statistics helped form the big picture Shea used when she began to develop a new response to Boston’s elder economic problems. She envisioned a plan that would call upon many parts of city government for help. When Shea brought everyone together for a kick-off meeting, representatives from at least 15 different departments were at the table.
“We were able to talk about this work and present it as a serious problem we really need to fix in the city,” she said. “We want our older residents to stay in Boston and they’re not going to be able to do that unless we can make some changes.”
UMass Boston professor Jan Mutchler attended that kick-off meeting, talking city officials through the numbers and the kind of economic reality they represent. The details showed that older Boston residents paid more for most things compared with the national averages. But the cost of housing was dramatically higher and made up a greater percentage of total expenses.
Shea said she expects the next phase of Boston’s age-friendly plan to be ready by the end of 2021. As planning proceeds, the Elder Index remains an important resource that can help shape decisions about benefits and services the city controls, as well as others it may be able to influence in an advocacy role.
“It’s integrated into all the thinking and planning we do,” said Shea. “You need that kind of data to know where you’re going and what you need to do. Having that type of information that you can measure over a period of time is just really important.”