Financial insecurity hits Mass. seniors hard

Problem affects women most due to lower earnings, longer life

MASSACHUSETTS MAY HAVE come out on top in a recent US News & World Report ranking of states, but it’s a different story when it comes to economic security for senior citizens here.

On a measure of the ability of single older residents to pay for basic needs, Massachusetts ranks as the second-worst state in the country, only ahead of Mississippi, according to an index developed at the University of Massachusetts Boston. For older couples, the Bay State ranked ninth worst.

The Elder Economic Security Standard Index, developed by researchers at the Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging at UMass Boston, measures the percentage of adults over 65 who lack the money needed to pay for basic needs, including housing, food, transportation, and health care.

Six out of 10 older single residents in the state have incomes that fall below the center’s benchmark, which ranges from $24,120 to $36,756 in annual income. The index sets a higher income benchmark for renters or seniors who own their home but still have a mortgage as opposed to those with homes owned outright. It is also adjusted for costs in different regions of the state.

Nationally, half of all single seniors and one out of four older adults in two-elder households don’t meet the benchmark for paying for basic needs.

States in the Northeast and the South tend to do the worst on the index. In the South, the cost of living is generally low but income levels are among the lowest in the nation. In the Northeast, the cost of living is high but incomes fail to keep pace.

Jan Mutchler, director of the UMass research center that developed the index, says economic insecurity among the elderly is common throughout the state, but worse in the eastern part of the state.

“The Cape is expensive, the Boston area [is expensive], really the whole eastern part of Massachusetts [is costly],” says Mutcher. It’s not as bad “when you’re out towards Worcester and then beyond into the Berkshires, but on average, the cost of living is quite high compared to the national numbers.”

The problem reaches into even some of the state’s wealthiest communities. Ruthann Dobek, director of the Council on Aging for the Town of Brookline, says it’s a myth that everyone in the pricey Boston suburb is well off.

“At least 7 percent of [the town’s] population is below the poverty line,” says Dobek. “We have people that say they need help for fuel, food, property tax, or buying clothes—very specific kinds of requests.”

Although there are a lot of resources available in communities like Brookline to help, those in need don’t always reach out. “A lot of people are afraid to speak up. When you’re not paying very much for something, you kind of feel like you don’t have as many rights,” says one gray-haired woman at the Brookline Senior Center on a recent weekday. “I have a friend that says, ‘Brookline will tolerate some poor people, but they don’t want a lot of poor people,’” she says. “It says in the Bible that the poor will always be with us. It’s an indicator of the society that you’re in how you treat the elderly and the poor.”

Economic insecurity is a particular problem for women, who earn less than men over their lifetimes and live longer. In Massachusetts, 65 percent of single older women have incomes that fall below the economic insecurity benchmark compared with 54 percent of single men.

Dobek says she sees the financial struggles of elderly single women in Brookline every day. “Some live to 97, 98, 99, 100,” she says. “And some of those women may have retired at age 60, and they’re needing to have enough money to survive 37 to 40 years, which is almost the whole time that they worked.”

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When older adults mention the high cost of living in Boston and the surrounding areas, “people will just say, ‘well, sell your house,’” says Dobek. “Our seniors might have lived there 40, 50, 60 years. They will say very directly, ‘where am I supposed to go? I like my house, I don’t want to have to move, and if I move within [Brookline], it’s still going to cost me a lot of money.’”

The problems of economic insecurity among the elderly may only worsen as baby boomers age, straining public and private programs that have been established to help older residents. Between 2010 and 2030, Massachusetts’s population of those ages 65 and is expected to increase by 61 percent.