Editorial: Helping our economically insecure seniors

Published: 12/10/2019 8:00:20 PM

A few years ago, shortly after Northampton voters OK’d a second property tax override in four-year span, an elderly resident interviewed by a Gazette reporter inside City Hall summed up her situation this way: “We can’t afford it. Money is extremely tight for us.”

Similar statements are made nearly every year by senior citizens and others on fixed incomes who struggle to pay for modest cost-of-living hikes, let alone larger expenses such as property tax increases or spikes in health care costs.

Turns out the Northampton resident, and a vast majority of other older residents throughout the state, aren’t alone when it comes to making ends meet in retirement. A study released last month unveiled what many of these seniors already know — that they’re living on the edge and any increase in expenses, no matter how small, can force them into decisions like skimping on food and turning the thermostat down in the winter.

The official term for seniors in this situation is “economic insecurity,” and Massachusetts has the dubious honor of leading all states in the percentage of single people over 65 whose income doesn’t cover living expenses such as food, housing, health care and transportation, according to a report by the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

The report, “Living Below the Line: Economic Insecurity and Older Americans,” is not about property taxes, but economic insecurity more generally. But as Northampton prepares to ask its residents for another $2.5 million override to pay for school expenses, and as Easthampton residents prepare to fork over more money to pay for a multimillion-dollar new school, and as the state continues to fall short of its financial commitment to cities and towns in the form of unfunded mandates, it’s important to remember that many of our older neighbors struggle.

How many? The report found that more than 60 percent of seniors living alone in Massachusetts — about 300,000 people — don’t have enough monthly income to cover a basic budget. Such a budget amounts to between $26,220 to $39,408 a year for a single senior. It’s between $38,424 to $51,612 annually for a couple, depending on whether they rent, own a house that’s paid off, or own a house with a mortgage.

That doesn’t mean these individuals are below the poverty line, as many of them fall into a “gap” where their incomes aren’t enough to cover basic budgets but are above the federal poverty line. In that case, they don’t qualify for many state and federal assistance programs such as food stamps. In Massachusetts, 44 percent of elderly singles are economically insecure and 18 percent are in poverty, the report found.

This may not be breaking news for senior citizens living in this situation, but the reality that a vast majority of seniors here are focused on meeting their basic needs should be of concern to policymakers at all levels of government. The report urges finding more ways to create affordable housing, help older adults pay for rising medical costs and provide relief from increasing property taxes.

The state took the right step last year by expanding access to a Medicare savings program that allows high-cost states to set income eligibility requirements above the federal minimum. That will give many low-income seniors a break on health care expenses.

But more ways to help should be on the table. Lawmakers should consider ways to expandproperty tax deferrals and exemptions to seniors who own their own homes. Businesses should seek ways to keep older employees in the workforce longer, especially in fields where employers find it difficult to attract workers.

At the federal level, efforts to protect Social Security benefits should take on more urgency. These benefits account for at least 90 percent of the income for more than half the older adults who can’t afford essential living expenses.

Locally, the report’s findings should be of acute concern to those who develop and operate programs that help older singles and couples living on their own, including home-delivered meals, transportation, fall prevention and employment and training.

Communities throughout Hampshire County could look to participate in “age friendly” iniatives through the Massachusetts Healthy Aging Colloborative. The mission of the collaborative, which Northampton, Westhampton and others have joined, is to encourage town and city leaders to start thinking about how to assess what they have and what they need to keep their elderly residents in place.

The Gerontology Institute’s study may not tell us something we didn’t already know about the high cost of living and its burden on older residents. But it certainly should inject some urgency into discussions not only of property tax relief but assistance more broadly.

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