Extreme poverty on the rise for older women

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An alarming number of women older than the age of 65 joined the ranks of the extreme poor last year, according to a new report by the National Women's Law Center titled "Insecure & Unequal," which analyzed recently released data from the Census Bureau.

The retirement picture for nearly 1 million older women in America whose income fell below extreme poverty levels last year -- $5,500 or less in annual income -- is anything but golden. They never have enough to cover the cost of food, medicine and housing, and are forced to make tough choices each day on what sacrifices they must make to survive.

"The economic security of older women is getting worse," said Kate Gallagher Robbins, a senior policy analyst at the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C. "We are talking about an entire population of women who are already on the brink and will be pushed further into economic need."

The number of aging women struggling to make ends meet on $500 or less each month increased by 18 percent last year, according to the law center's analysis of U.S. Census data, which means an additional 135,000 elderly people slid into extreme poverty in 2012. The total number of women 65 and older in this country living on $5,500 a year or less now totals 733,000.

Other key findings in the report were that the poverty rate -- $11,720 or less in annual income for single adults -- among adult women was 14.5 percent in 2012, compared to 11 percent for adult men. The poverty rate for single-mother families with children was 40.9 percent compared to 22.6 percent for single fathers with children and 8.9 percent for families with children headed by a married couple.

While the law center's report does not say why extreme poverty is on the rise for older single women, many of the differences between the economic status of men and women of retirement age can be seen by looking at how the earning patterns and life expectancy of men and women differ.

Previous studies by different organizations have found that women on average have lower lifetime earnings than men. Women often spend fewer years in the workforce because they are more likely to drop out of the workforce to raise children or care for relatives. Women generally have a longer life span than men. Women also are less likely to receive a pension, and they tend to have lower financial net worth than men.

Julie Vogtman, senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center, which advocates for better opportunities for low-income women and girls, said the growing number of women ending their lives in dire poverty should be of great concern to individuals and policymakers. She said some government programs have helped people in difficult circumstances and the government should continue to fully fund them.

"It says a lot about our priorities as a nation if we have a federal budget that supports programs like food stamps, Social Security and Medicaid that help people who are struggling get back on their feet," she said, adding that now is not the time to "cut those programs when the economy is still weak, unemployment is still high and we see that many Americans have yet to experience an economic recovery."


Tim Grant: tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591. First Published October 16, 2013 8:00 PM


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