Julie Sneider
View from the Waiting Room

Seniors struggle to make ends meet

By - Sep 13th, 2010 04:00 am

Photo by Elizabeth Buie via Flickr

A national research project  reported last week that the number of  Wisconsin senior citizens living only on Social Security income rose significantly over the past year — another sad indication of the state’s struggling economy.

Today, about one in four senior citizens in Wisconsin have only their Social Security income to live on, about a 20 percent increase over the number of retirees in similar circumstances in 2009, according to an updated version of the 2010 Wisconsin Elder Economic Security Standard Index.

The index is part of the Elder Economic Security Initiative, a collaborative project of the Wisconsin Women’s Network and the national Wider Opportunities for Women, two organizations that advocate for improvements to the status of girls, women and their families.

The elder index measures what it costs retired seniors to “age in place,” meaning live out their lives in their own homes. Across Wisconsin’s 72 counties, the index shows that an elderly person needs $18,659 to $26,439 in annual income to make ends meet. That amount varies by county.

With the average annual Social Security payment being just $15,035 for an individual and $25,085 for a couple, the clear message is that many Wisconsin seniors aren’t making it economically.

In Milwaukee County, it’s even more expensive, costing $20,555 for a healthy senior homeowner and about $39,181 for a couple to cover expenses.

“There is a large gap that exists between the average Social Security income in Wisconsin and the median income in Wisconsin, and the cost of what it takes to make ends meet,” says Johanna Hatch, the elder economic security project coordinator for Wisconsin Women’s Network.

More than anything, rising health care costs are hurting seniors’ ability to age in place. Long-term care services can range from $7,727 to $41,932 depending on need, according to the network.

The findings are especially dire for the financial security of elderly women, who typically get less than men in Social Security benefits because of the wage gap in what women and men earn while in the work force. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about one in five women over the age of 65 who live alone also live in poverty.

“Unfortunately, what the index shows is not surprising,” Hatch says. “When we talk to a lot of social service providers, they all say that this is information they already know. They see that people who are living on Social Security alone or even with a couple other income streams are having a hard time making ends meet.”

Hatch says the index information was not delivered as a warning to political leaders campaigning on pledges to privatize all or part of Social Security. In fact, the Wisconsin Women’s Network takes no position on privatizing Social Security.

The organizations have called on Congress to strengthen Social Security for future generations, however. They’ve also recommended federal and state policy changes that would allow more seniors to qualify for additional benefits under Medicaid, Medicare and the Homestead Tax Credit for low- and modest-income homeowners and renters.

But Hatch also says the elder index is intended as an educational tool to help the elderly and their caregivers become aware of social services available in their communities.

In the Milwaukee area, such information can be found at the Milwaukee County Area Agency on Aging, 414-289-6874; or through a Milwaukee County Elderly Benefit Specialist, 414-278-1222.

Finally, the elder index should serve as a wake-up call to Generation Y and the New Millennials. If they’re not already making plans for their own retirement security, it’s time to get started.

“It’s difficult to imagine in your 20s and 30s what life will be like when you’re 65,” Hatch says. “But it’s really important for younger people to start thinking about these issues now, both for themselves and their families.”

*Lead photo by Dapeel via Flickr

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