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Aging in the Inland Empire: Redefining Poverty & the ‘New’ Poor

Part II -- African-American Elders in Peril

New America Media, News Report, Linnie Frank Bailey Posted: Sep 11, 2009

This is the second in a two-part series examining the plight of African-American elders and people with disabilities in Southern California's Inland Empire. New America Media political journalism fellow Linnie Frank Bailey examines issue of elder abuse, including self-inflicted kinds as income among elders continue to dwindle.

Elder advocate Jackie Melendez reports seeing a new kind of elder abuse these days. It doesn’t involve those who usually prey on elders -- the abusive caregiver or financial scam artist. This time it is the seniors who are the abusers. Their target? Themselves.

“Self-abuse among elders is a growing problem in the Inland area,” says Jackie, founder of Inland Seniors Caring Connection, a nonprofit that raises money for Meals-on-Wheels and other elder support programs. “They give up,” she says. “They stop taking their prescriptions, they stop shopping for food, they stop cleaning their houses and they let their appearance go. Many times it is the physician who first notices something is wrong.”

Melendez attributes most of the elder self-abuse she sees to angst over the deteriorating economy in the Inland area and fear about what the future holds. This fear of the future is exasperated by recent budget cuts in California affecting senior services and programs. Many are living a retirement with much less money than they planned, and they don’t know where to turn for help. Melendez says her organization is one of many that tries to help seniors find resources. But this is becoming increasingly more difficult as programs are cut.

The California Budget – “Nothing to Celebrate” Defining Poverty -- The Elder Index

The Federal Poverty Line (FDL) was developed 45 years ago to determine income eligibility for many federal public programs, such as Medicare – Prescription Drug Coverage (subsidized portion only), certain parts of Medicaid, the Food Stamp Program (currently called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), and many other health care, job training, and service programs. The state of California, like most states, also uses the FDL to determine eligibility for many of its services and programs.

For 2009, the Federal Poverty Line is $10,830 for a one-person household and $14,570 for a two-person household—regardless of age, gender, or geographic location. According to a report issued by the Administration on Aging, more than one in four African-American elders has an income that falls below the poverty line.

There is now a movement in California to redefine the poverty level for elders in California. The Insight Center for Community Economic Development, and The UCLA Center for Health Policy Research are leading the effort and have developed The Elder Economic Security Standard™ Index (Elder Index) as an alternative to the Federal Poverty Line.

According to Jenny Chung of the Insight Center, the Elder Index captures the real costs individuals and couples in California face on a daily basis -– housing, food, out-of-pocket medical expenses, transportation and other necessary spending. “The Federal Poverty Line is outdated and based on the assumption that 30 percent of income goes for food,” she says.

There is currently a bill, AB324 (the Elder Economic Dignity Act of 2009), introduced by Assembly member Jim Beall (D-San Jose), making its way through the California Assembly. The legislation will require the California Department of Aging to establish and annually update the Elder Economic Security Standard Index, and use it as a tool to define the basic living costs of elders in California based on their counties of residence.

However, even with a more realistic definition of poverty in the Inland Area, almost half of all seniors living alone are unable to make ends meet. Reports show in Riverside County, 47 percent of elders living alone, and 25 percent of couples, fall below the Elder Index. In San Bernardino, the numbers below the Elder Index are 59 percent of seniors living alone, and 26 percent of couples.

The study shows that for African-American elders in California, the situation is even more dire -- 69.2 percent of these seniors living alone, and 29 percent of couples, have incomes that fall below the Elder Index.

On July 24, 2009, after a protracted battle, California state legislators approved a budget to address the state’s $26 billion in debt. The approved budget cut billions of dollars from local governments, education and social services, including programs that affect low-income seniors, such as SSI, Medi-Cal, In Home Support Services, and Adult Day Health Centers.

Initially, in Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s May 2009 budget proposal, he recommended eliminating many programs. However, although drastic cuts were made, no programs were eliminated by legislators. Subsequently, the governor used his veto authority and made an additional $489 million in cuts.

Included in the governor’s line-item vetoes was the elimination of all state funding for the Community Based Service Programs in 2009-2010. As a result, the following programs will not be funded:

Alzheimer’s Day Care Resource Centers (provided specialized day programs for individuals with Alzheimer's disease or related dementias).

The Brown Bag Program (provided surplus and donated edible fruits, vegetables and other food products to low-income individuals 60 years of age and older).

Respite Purchase of Services (purchased respite services for caregivers who have the responsibility for the primary care of a frail elderly or functionally impaired adult).

Senior Companion programs (supported volunteers who met critical community needs and helped adults who needed extra assistance to live independently in their own homes or communities. They served frail older adults, seniors with disabilities, those with terminal illnesses).

After signing the revised $84.6 billion budget plan for the fiscal year 2009-2010, the governor stated, “These are ugly cuts" and “nothing to celebrate,” but, “we cannot afford the programs we used to be able to afford even two years ago.”

“It starts with Downsizing”

You see them at the supermarket, lingering over the selections in the bread aisle, or going through the marked-down items at the back of the store. At the register, they carefully count out change to pay for three to five items. If you follow them home, you might find empty refrigerators and cupboards.

“It starts with downsizing,” says Jackie. “We are seeing seniors and their caregiver families look for less expensive housing options. Seniors in assisted living retirement communities are having to find less expensive housing options because they have lost savings. Some move from a two-bedroom to a one- bedroom, others are moving in with relatives, and others are placed in nursing homes by family members.”

Seniors are being affected by the same economic perils facing all Americans. They have lost funds in the stock market and equity in their homes. “The difference is elders don’t have the 10, 15, or 20 years it will take to rebuild their finances,” says Melendez. “This is causing great depression among those who thought they did everything right. They’re now looking closely at every expense and are cutting out all but the essentials. Depression is high among this age group.”

Some are suffering from too much credit card debt. A recent study shows credit card balances for low-and-middle income senior citizens soared by 26 percent over the past four years. The report, by the policy group Demos, suggests that senior citizens, accustomed to cashing out home equity to pay bills, are finding themselves in the same predicament as younger borrowers, with falling real estate values, shrinking portfolios, and rising energy costs. With family members also strapped for cash, seniors are turning to credit to pay their own bills as well as help out relatives. Adding to the problem, elders tend to have higher health care costs than younger borrowers. The study’s authors suggest that widening gaps between health care costs and insurance coverage are forcing some seniors to pay for medical expenses with credit cards.

Maria Diaz knows many families who have used credit to pay the bills. She says folks are barely holding on in her Riverside-area neighborhood, which consists of working class Latino, African-American, and white families. She sees families doubling up in small houses to make ends meet. Diaz shares a house with her 88-year-old mother and a grown son and says budget cuts are going to take a toll on her family. “Through In Home Support Services, I pay a local woman to watch my mother, but she makes almost as much as I do so much of my salary goes to her. Because of the new budget, her hourly rates are being cut and my mom’s SSI payments are shrinking. We all are struggling, but I know we have it better than some in this neighborhood.”

Riverside County, where Maria lives, has the eighth-highest foreclosure rate in the United States. According to RealtyTrac, Riverside County is second in the state in foreclosure volume, with one in 17 households slipping into some stage of foreclosure during the first six months of the year. San Bernardino County was fourth, with one in 19 households in default.

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