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Democratic Debate Senior Poverty Question: A Missed Opportunity to Provide Solutions

February 12, 2016

“How will you as president work to ensure low-income seniors get their basic needs?”

During last night’s Democratic debate, Gwen Ifill shared a question from Farheen Hakeem about senior poverty. While both the Democratic and GOP debates and have discussed poverty and income inequality, Farheen’s question was the first specifically focused on senior poverty. Farheen is a 40-year-old woman who works for a nonprofit organization in Wisconsin. She asked:

“My father gets just $16 in food assistance per month as part of Medicaid’s family community program in Milwaukee County for low-income seniors. How will you as president work to ensure low-income seniors get their basic needs?”

Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton expressed an important shared a goal of improving Social Security, yet both failed to address Farheen’s concern: ensuring poor seniors have their basic needs met. Missing from their answer was a plan to help the 6.4 million seniors currently living in poverty, or a sense of urgency to take action before 25 million individuals age into poverty in 2050.

As the campaign progresses, we’re hoping to hear more solutions on stemming the growing numbers of seniors in poverty, and ensuring a life of dignity for poor seniors. For future discussion, here’s four solutions the candidates could have shared to help Farheen’s dad:

  • Improve the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program: The poorest two million people age 65 and older receive SSI payments, but the program has not been significantly updated since it was first passed in 1972. As a result, SSI essentially leaves millions of the country’s older adults in deep poverty. The SSI Restoration Act, co-sponsored by Senator Sanders, would update the income and asset limits to better reflect reasonable income assistance in today’s dollars.
  • Increase the availability of programs that provide assistance with healthcare care costs. Half of all Medicare beneficiaries have incomes below $24,150, and one quarter have incomes below $14,350. Despite their fixed incomes, Medicare beneficiaries contribute substantially higher portions of their income to health expenditures than non-Medicare beneficiaries. Health programs that are designed to help poor seniors afford their health care, like the Medicare Savings Program and the Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy, should be expanded, and out of pocket costs should be reduced or eliminated.
  • Reauthorize the Older Americans Act (OAA). Seniors in poverty rely on OAA services, like meal and transportation services, to help ensure their basic needs are met. The Senate recently passed an important bill reauthorizing the OAA, but action is needed in the House of Representatives to strengthen this valuable network of services for older adults.
  • Correct the Imbalance in How Medicaid Pays for Long Term Services and Supports (LTSS): Farheen’s dad receives modest support from Medicaid as part of Wisconsin’s home and community based services (HCBS) program. Unfortunately, Medicaid continues to give preference to LTSS provided in institutions like nursing homes instead of at home, limiting the HCBS benefit and making it difficult to obtain. We need a comprehensive LTSS system that delivers high quality supports in the community, and a first step is eliminating this institutional bias.

It is encouraging to see the presidential candidates discussing needed improvements to Social Security, and the debates raising questions about senior poverty. We hope future discussion will focus more on the solutions.

To take action and help end senior poverty, check out our petition here.

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