Nearly five million Americans over 65 live below the poverty line ($12,880 in 2021), according to Census Bureau figures. The number jumps to 14.6 million when considering seniors living below 200% of the poverty line. Surviving on $25,760, especially for those who don’t own a home outright, is a precarious existence.
For one in four seniors, Social Security accounts for at least 90% of their income. For half of seniors, it accounts for at least 50% of their income.
Savings rates among those approaching retirement suggest things aren’t improving. According to a policy paper by economist Teresa Ghilarducci of The New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, 40% of older workers and their spouses will experience downward mobility in retirement. “Only 65% of workers nearing retirement have any retirement wealth, and the median balance of those with IRA or 401(k) plans is $92,000, which will provide a lifetime income of a mere $300 a month.”
Joe Seldner ’84, founder and president of the Senior Poverty Prevention Project, describes a growing problem getting little attention.
Q: How big the problem of senior poverty?
It’s a national crisis and a disgrace that it isn’t being recognized as such. Tens of millions of people over 50 have little or no money saved and few if any opportunities to earn anything that even approaches meaningful income. And almost nothing is being done to address this.
“As I began to talk with others about it, there were two general reactions: ‘Wow, I had no idea of the magnitude of the problem.’ Followed by, ‘I know somebody who’s in that situation.’”
When I found out how many people over 50 had no money saved, I was just knocked off my feet. As I began to talk with others about it, there were two general reactions: “Wow, I had no idea of the magnitude of the problem.” Followed by, “I know somebody who’s in that situation.”
Q: How do people end up in this precarious situation?
Through thousands of pathways that had little if anything to do with poor planning or wastefulness. The knee-jerk reaction is that people were irresponsible or frittered their money away. That’s clearly not the case for the overwhelming majority of these people. Many had health problems or lost their health insurance. They were in industries that downsized or went away entirely. They got divorced and never recovered financially. For those lucky enough to not be in those circumstances, the attitude should be, “There but for the grace of God,” rather than, “These fools didn’t plan well for their future.”
The average social security check is $1,543. People who are 65 and living entirely on Social Security may have decades of living in very precarious circumstances.
Q: Are there solutions?
The primary focus of my small nonprofit is raising awareness because it won’t be solved until it’s part of the national conversation.
There are charities and community programs that do good work. They don’t have the money to come close to solving it alone. Families can offer at least temporary solutions for some. We are seeing more multi-generational households like in the early 1900s. But in a lot of cases the families are not in a position financially to take care of them long term.
In another era, there might have been enough bipartisan willingness to raise entitlement program benefits or design other government programs to help these people. I just don’t see that happening now. I think that there’s hope that private-sector capital can, if they’re made aware, fill the void.
I’m not smart enough to know how to solve it. There are people out there who are. What I am smart enough to do is to shout from the rooftop until people pay attention.
Some people say the solutions should be local. The Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s movement—those were not fixed on a local basis. Ageism is the last “acceptable” bias. People don’t care about old people. They just flat out don’t. And until that message gets out nothing will change.
Q: Are people in their 20s, 30s and 40s on the same trajectory?
Yes, they are. They aren’t saving for retirement. On top of that they have education debt, and the safety net of social security isn’t certain to be there for them. Unless we address senior poverty, younger people who think their generation is going to avoid this fate are kidding themselves.