By S. E. Williams, Staff Writer
According to the Public Policy Institute of California between the years 2000 and 2020, the number of seniors in California is expected to double. By 2030, nearly one in every five Californians will be older than 65. Interestingly, baby-boomer retirements, low birth rates and conflicts over immigration may combine to impact the future security of California seniors.
Sandra D-S, an active senior and longtime Riverside County resident planned to work at her career in retail management until age 70. Life was going her way. As a single mom she had provided well for her only son. Now, after years of motherly sacrifice she was prepared to work a few more years to build her savings as a cushion for retirement. Sandra was propelled by a sense of urgency due to pension cut-backs at her job caused by the great recession—but, that was not to be .
Three years ago Sandra was diagnosed with breast cancer. It seemed she had barely recovered from her mastectomy when her health failed again and she was diagnosed with a rare and chronic condition that further impacted her already fragile health. When Sandra felt she had recovered enough she went back to work only to realize she could no longer maintain a rigorous work schedule. Reluctantly, she retired much sooner than planned.
Two years ago on the heels of that fateful decision, Sandra joined thousands of other Inland Empire seniors who find themselves stretching social security benefits, sometimes with the added blessing of a small pension, in an overwhelming attempt to cover the ever-increasing costs associated with living in California. In Sandra’s case what she thought would be an adequate monthly income was soon overwhelmed by mounting hospital bills and continuous co-payments for doctors’ visits and medical tests.
When Sandra sought help from local agencies she learned in order to qualify for most programs it did not matter how much money she had going out every month, her ability to qualify for assistance was usually based on the amount of money she had coming in—even though she was barely able to make ends meet due to increasing medical bills. Sadly, Sandra was not alone.
For far too many seniors who face scenarios similar to Sandra’s, it is a frustrating, frightening and losing proposition. According to a 2013 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, California leads the nation in the percentage of older adults living in poverty.
California is renowned for its high cost of living. Those expenses coupled with incremental increases in the cost of health care is what led the Kaiser Family Foundation to further identify the fact that at least 20 percent of California adults over the age of 65 live below the poverty threshold.
The reasons for this — as are many as they are varied — beginning with the fact in recent years, as in Sandra’s case more and more companies reduced or eliminated pensions. In addition, the great recession, which began in earnest in 2008, saw cuts to many programs for seniors that are yet to be fully restored; it wiped out many personal savings accounts; it washed away home equity—the primary source of wealth for many working class families; it also led to a greater build up of person debt. All of this placed added pressure on what was probably already a precarious financial situation for many Inland Empire seniors just as it did for others in the nation.
In addition, according to report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, more single seniors like Sandra live in poverty than their married counterparts. The report emphasized this is primarily because without partners, single seniors forego access to spousal or survivor benefits; in addition, they usually have no one to share expenses with. Also if, as in Sandra’s case, they were single parents, most of their discretionary income was probably spent on their children which reduced the amount they were likely able to set aside for retirement.
It has been widely reported and clearly proven that Social Security for the greater part of the twentieth century pulled thousands upon thousands of seniors out of poverty; however, its benefits have failed to keep pace with the true cost of living. And, although a number of government programs historically helped many struggling seniors close the resulting financial gap, the recent economic downturn saw unforgiving cuts to many of those programs. Included among them are such lifelines as subsidized housing, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicare, Medicaid, Meals on Wheels and the list goes on and on. Even now, as the economy claws its way to recovery, funding for such programs has lagged behind.
Seniors in the Inland Empire sit at the nexus of a concerning reality. When the Kaiser Family Research data which showed California seniors experience the highest poverty rate in the nation collided with U. S. census data that identified the Inland Empire as first among the nation’s largest 25 metropolitan areas where poverty may be worsening—the news came as no surprise to many San Bernardino and Riverside County seniors. Many of them are financially vulnerable and rely on a safety net of social programs that despite the best efforts of local administrators to respond to all requests for assistance are limited by the availability of inadequate resources.
A look toward the future and one realizes it does not appear any more promising—the Inland Empire, like the rest of the California and the nation, stands at the precipice of an ever-expanding public crisis that, even with continued positive movement toward greater economic recovery, may remain problematic for a growing number of seniors.
According to U.S. Census Bureau population projections, an aging phenomenon is rolling forward with tidal wave force. According to its projections between now and December 31, 2024 nearly 8,000 baby boomers will turn 60 each and every day. This potential, coupled with extended life expectancies should serve as clarion call for municipalities to initiate plans and programs to accommodate the added stress this evolution will surely have on limited resources as the number of seniors continues to grow.
Also, just as sure as the ranks of the elderly are expanded and life expectancy is extended—the American birthrate has continued to decline. According to experts, the rate has declined below the replacement rate required to backfill behind the retiring baby-boomers.
A 2013 report by the University of Southern California (USC) indicated the nation’s fertility rate (the number of children, women are expected to have in their lifetime) has fallen below what is considered an appropriate replacement level of 2.1—the number of births needed to keep the population stable. This shortfall means (if the trend continues) the working population needed to fund social security will fall short of demand.
Certainly a number of factors contribute to the nation’s declining fertility rate including birth control; couples deciding to have fewer children later in life; and, as many economists have also pointed out, the great recession also contributed to the nation’s slow-down in fertility.
One of the most interesting issues related to fertility rates in the Inland Empire, California and the nation is also one of the most politically sensitive.
In California, according to the USC report, nearly half the babies born are born to immigrant mothers. A slow-down in immigration due to the recession coupled with the continued inability of congressional leaders to reach a compromise on the issue of immigration may have a lasting impact on the future fiscal viability of California’s aging population, particularly here in the Inland Empire. 2012 census data showed a Hispanic majority in San Bernardino County and 2013 census projections indicate Hispanics now account for nearly 47 percent Riverside County’s population.
Seniors account for 12.5 percent of California’s population. Riverside County’s senior population is just above that threshold with 12.8 percent of its population over 65 years. San Bernardino County is home to a younger overall population with only 10 percent of its residents over the age of 65.
Some believe the high rate of seniors living in poverty will self-correct as the economy continues to improve. Certainly, what on the surface would appear to be a clear-cut proposition tied to economic ups and downs is a much more complicated proposition that begins with California’s high cost of living.
In the final analysis, the future of Inland Empire’s seniors also rest on a complex foundation of disparate issues. Economic indicators are certainly key factors; however, other concerns may impact seniors even more directly. They include rising health care costs; massive baby-boomer retirements; a slow-down in fertility rates that will certainly suppress employment replacement levels and minimize contributions to social security; as well as the nation’s inability to reach consensus on immigration which is further exacerbated by the fact that here in California more than half of the babies born are born to immigrant mothers.
At 61-years of age, time was running out for Susan Morris of Riverside. Her last employer had not compensated her for work performed although she had been working for this Riverside-based company for over nine years. With rent and bills due, a vehicle in desperate need of repair, Morris had to make a decision. Either find new employment — and fast — or apply for government assistance. Morris heard of a program funded through grants from agencies within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provided by the National Indian Council on Aging, Inc. (NICOA). The program operates as a National Sponsor of the federal Senior Community Service Employment program (SCSEP) which pairs seniors with local employers integrating them back into the workforce by providing on-thejob training, monitoring, education, and most importantly a subsidy.
In NICOA, Morris began her training at the NICOA Riverside headquarters but with three-years left in the program, she was placed at the Black Voice Foundation as an Office Assistant. Now at 66, Morris is no longer with NICOA but works full-time as the Office Manager for the VOICE.
Morris, one example of a success story for senior programs in the Inland Empire is not the only one. Let us hear your story. Email Danielle@bpcmediaworks.com. For more information on NICOA, contact Sharon Dukes at 480.921.3406.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to budget cuts, NICOA’s Riverside office was consolidated to their Tempe, AZ headquarters.