Experts, Seniors Tell CA Lawmakers ‘Hear Us’ on Rising Elder Poverty

By Paul Kleyman, New America Media

New America Media–SACRAMENTO, Calif.— “We have to raise hell with this man,” declared elders’ advocate Gary Passmore at a California Assembly hearing last week, “and make him act his age.”

His voice cracking with emotion, Passmore, vice president of the Congress of California Seniors, criticized Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, calling him “the oldest governor in the history of this state. But he knows only one word when it comes to seniors—no.”

In a week that saw the U.S. House Republicans pass a budget that would cut Medicare, Social Security, food stamps and other aid to vulnerable Americans, Passmore took the microphone at California’s Capitol following expert testimony on growing elder poverty in the Golden State.

Speakers rebuked Gov. Brown, whose budgets have not restored cuts made to the programs for the state’s most vulnerable residents.


Eroding Safety Net

Experts and elders at the March 17 hearing, held jointly by the California Assembly Committees on Human Services and on Aging and Long-Term Care, provided disturbing examples of safety-net erosion in different programs.

Scott Graves, research director of the nonpartisan California Budget Project, noted that funding of the Supplemental Security Income and State Supplementary Payment (SSI/SSP) program under Gov. Brown has plunged from $3.9 billion at the start of the recession to $2.5 billion this year—despite the state’s fiscal recovery. He said that the cuts “result in more than $1 billion in annual state general fund “savings,” but jeopardize the well-being of 1.3 million vulnerable Californians.

Graves said the governor’s 2015-16 budget includes no increase for SSI/SSP, even though the post-recession cuts have reduced individuals’ incomes from 100 percent to only 90 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). Couples on SSI/SSP have also seen their income fall 20 percentage points to slightly above the federal poverty level.

Californians who qualify receive a maximum of $881 per month — down from $907 in 2009 — with the federal SSI grant of $725 and the state’s current SSP portion at $156. Graves stressed that restoring SSI/SSP to its previous poverty levels would add $91 per recipient each month.


‘Seniors Want Decent Food’

“Seniors want to have decent food to eat,” stated Myrtle Mills, 75, of Solano County north of San Francisco, who is a grandmother of seven. “By the time they pay their rent, by the time they’ve paid the cab to go to the doctor or to the grocery store, there’s very little money.”

Noting the high level of diabetes among impoverished seniors, she observed that low-income elders “need proper food [and] they need medicine to keep them out of the emergency room.”

Mills, who is African American, said her monthly disability check comes to less than $800. Injured on her job at Travis Air Force Base several years ago, she said delays in starting her disability assistance forced her to use up her savings.

Were it not for modest help from her three adult children, she continued, “I would be homeless, because right now my disability check is not enough” to cover her rent and costs of living.


Myrtle Mills told California lawmakers to set aside their agendas and listen to seniors.  (Courtesy Justice in Aging)

Myrtle Mills told California lawmakers to set aside their agendas and listen to seniors. (Courtesy Justice in Aging)

Middle-Class Boomers Vulnerable

“My case is a little bit different,” said Sandy Costa, RN, “because I have a college degree and I was a professional person.” She warned middle-class professionals, “You can still end up in poverty. It’s very, very real, especially for the baby boomers. And it’s going to affect more and more of them.”

Costa, now in her late 60s, was a director of nursing and in administration at Sutter Solano, in Vallejo, Calif., before a work-related medical condition stopped her nursing career.

Costa revisited a chain of health and financial disasters that caused her life to “spiral down, down, down.” Following her 2007 diagnosis with osteoarthritis, resulting in five surgeries on her hands, her husband, a veteran fireman, died of emphysema. It was only then that Costa learned that his pension ended with his death.

Her voice wavering, Costa recalled spiraling into a mental breakdown. “That’s hard for me to admit — me who was always in charge and took care of everybody else. I’m really still recovering from that,” she said. “It was very, very hard: I’d lost my husband, I lost my income, I lost my home — even my main support in the family.” One of her children, a U.S. Army officer and his family, were transferred to Europe. “So they were far away. I had nobody—nobody,” she said.

More recently osteoarthritis has also developed in her knee, but Costa said she cannot afford the water aerobics her doctor prescribed.

Regardless of having Social Security, Costa outlined a range of ongoing expenses for rent, out-of-pocket health care costs and other needs. “Even though I have $1,800, by the end of the month if there are extra expenses, there’s no money there.”

Costa told the Assembly members, “For a long time I was very bitter about my situation, but now that I stepped back and looked at it, it’s all for a reason. I’ve been put into poverty so that I can help.” She described driving other seniors to appointments and providing groceries to an 83-year-old neighbor who had no food.


State, Federal Cuts

Middle-class elder poverty is likely to rise, testified Kevin Prindiville, executive director of Justice in Aging (formerly the National Senior Citizens Law Center). Because of the Great Recession, he explained, people 50-65 likely lost equity in their home; lost a job, without finding a new one; used up any savings, including those set aside for retirement; and often took their Social Security benefits early, at age 62, with permanently decreased benefit amounts.

In addition, Prindiville said, “Rising costs of health care and long-term services and supports are putting stress on seniors. Saving for these aging expenses is difficult when the costs of college and housing are rising while wages are stagnant.”

The state, he continued, has answered these challenges by shrinking its safety net for low-income seniors by cuts to its Medicaid program (called Medi-Cal in California), In-Home Supportive Services and other programs.

At the federal level, services under the Older Americans Act, such as meals, senior centers and low-income job training and employment have been reduced or worn down by inflation.

Prindiville urged lawmakers, to reject any new proposals to cut state programs, such as SSP. “They will only exacerbate the rise of poverty we are seeing now,” he said. “Instead, we must restore the cuts that have been made and work to update these programs.”


‘Get Off Your Agenda’

In her testimony, Myrtle Mills counseled legislators, “The seniors will help you do your job better, if you take the time to listen to us. You need to listen to what we have to say, and get off your agenda, and try to understand our agenda because we have something still to offer. “

By the end, though, Assembly members who had filtered into the committee room to announce themselves throughout the hearing, had eventually left Aging and Long-Term Care Committee Chair Cheryl R. Brown, D-San Bernardino, remaining at the head table—to listen to a line-up of older people like Passmore coming to the microphone for public comment.



To Age and Struggle in LA

Providing stark examples of rising elder poverty was Cynthia Banks, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Community and Senior Services.

Banks explained that under a California law passed in 2011, her agency measures elder needs using the Elder Index rather than the federal poverty level (FPL). The newer planning tool, she said, measures the financial resources seniors need to meet their basic, everyday needs, such as for food, shelter, transportation, utilities and essential household items.

The FPL is so out of date, she said, that it shows only nine percent of seniors in the United States are in poverty. But the agency’s analysis using the Elder Index exposes that actually making ends meet in Los Angeles demands about $24,000 a year—around double the national poverty rate.

“If we use the Elder Index,” Banks said, “54 percent would fall below the poverty guidelines.”

Trends in senior poverty came into focus recently, when her department held six public forums around the country. Among the findings were:

—Food insecurity is growing: Need is rising for subsidized senior meals, either home delivered or at senior centers: “We also know that as our baby boomer population grows, we find that more and more of them are coming to our community and senior centers,” Banks said. Most of her agency’s 14 senior centers also operate pantry (food bank) programs that report growing demand.

—Lack of transportation options strands many: Seniors often can’t get to doctor’s appointments on time or even to emergency medical care. Limited access requires them to make transit appointments often days in advance. Senior transit services in many cities within LA’s sprawling county won’t connect to other area cities to see a doctor.

—Support for senior employment has diminished: “Many seniors would like to work, but do not have an opportunity to do so,” Banks stated. The White House and Congress sharply reduced federal funding for the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) for low-income people 55 and older. One result in Los Angeles is that the county’s mere 175 job slots this year lost 18 positions when Los Angeles raised its minimum wage to President Obama’s preferred level of $9 per hour.

—Affordable housing remains insufficient with increasing homelessness: ”Homelessness among seniors is becoming more and more prevalent,” she said. Banks cited a 2008 study showing that in LA County there were over 3,000 people age 62 or older on the streets, two-thirds of them male and 57 percent African American or Latino. “Unless the housing situation is first stabilized, addressing the multitude of health issues affecting this population is very difficult,” she said, adding, “As poverty increases among seniors, the homelessness of older adults will likely increase.”


—Paul Kleyman

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March 26, 2015  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.


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