Last Week in Poverty: The Older Americans Act and U.S. Seniors
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Diego Cervo
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Honoring our grandparents, our elders—in these divisive times, at least we hold this value in common, right?
As children, we dutifully sat through long visits or lectures from older relatives, teachers, neighbors or family friends; and then wised up to learn that some of these relationships would prove to be our most enduring.
It’s enough to make you think that maybe—just maybe—this shared experience would lead to a steadfast commitment from policymakers to ensure that those who cared for us, fought for us, and raised us, are able to meet their basic needs.
But if you attended Senator Bernie Sanders’s hearing on reducing senior poverty and hunger through the Older Americans Act (OAA) on Wednesday, you were in for a rude awakening.
Signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 at the same time as Medicare and Medicaid, the OAA provides federal funding for essential senior services like job training, caregiver support, transportation, preventative healthcare, meals and protection from abuse and financial exploitation. Funding for the legislation has failed to keep pace with inflation and population growth for decades. Under sequestration, an additional $40 million will be cut from senior meal programs alone, which means that as many as 19 million fewer meals will be available to seniors who need them.
Sanders, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging, noted in his opening remarks that OAA “programs not only work to ease isolation, hunger and suffering, they also save taxpayers substantial sums of money.”
“It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out,” said Sanders, with characteristic bluntness. “If you’re malnourished, you’re going to get sick more often. You may end up in the emergency room at great expense to Medicaid…If you’re weak and you fall and break your hip, you end up in the hospital, at an expense of tens and tens of thousands of dollars…We can feed a senior for an entire year for the cost of one day in a hospital.”
It emerged as the central theme of the hearing—that shortchanging OAA programs isn’t simply a failure on moral grounds, it’s bad economic policy.
Ellie Hollander is president and CEO of the Meals On Wheels Association of America, a nonprofit organization representing local senior nutrition programs in all fifty states. She noted a recent study by the Center for Effective Government, which found that for every $1 in federal spending on Meals on Wheels, there is as much as a $50 return in Medicaid savings alone.
“There is an unrecognized but substantial return on investment,” said Hollander. “[OAA] programs enable seniors to continue living at home, averting far more costly healthcare alternatives such as hospitals and nursing homes. This reduces Medicare and Medicaid expenses, potentially saving billions of dollars.”
But these meals—delivered directly to an individual’s home or to groups at places such as senior centers—currently reach only 2.5 million of the 8.3 million elderly who struggle with hunger.
“The resources fall substantially short,” said Hollander, noting that demand is increasing and that the senior population will double to more than 70 million people by 2030. She said that real funding levels (adjusted for inflation) for OAA nutrition programs have decreased 18 percent since 1992, while the population of those age 60 and older has increased 34 percent over that same period.
Howard Bedlin, vice president of public policy at the National Council of Aging—a nonprofit service and advocacy organization focusing on economically disadvantaged seniors—testified that there are now more than 23 million economically insecure Americans over 60. They struggle with rising energy and healthcare bills, diminished savings and job loss. The recession caused median wealth for people between ages 55 and 74 to decline by approximately 15 percent, and for those over 65—many of whom now need to continue working or go back to work just to stay afloat—unemployment is at its highest rate since the Great Depression.