Effort Pushes for New Yardstick To Measure Poverty in California

If you put any stock in the old adage that a society is judged by how it treats its weakest members — its elderly and poor — California doesn’t measure up very well, according to a new report.

Almost half of California’s seniors struggle to pay for basic monthly needs — medical costs, housing, food and transportation, according to a report the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research released last week.

The report says 47% of state residents ages 65 and older — more than one million seniors living alone and with family members — have trouble making ends meet each month. 

Nearly half a million seniors living alone in California cannot make ends meet, the report says. They lack sufficient income to pay for a minimum level of health care, food, housing, transportation and other basics, the report found.

These numbers portray a much deeper level of poverty than the generally accepted standard of measuring poverty — and that’s the point. The report is part of a campaign to change the way California policymakers and legislators measure poverty among the elderly and determine eligibility for publicly funded programs.

Promoting ‘Elder Index’

For the policy brief, titled “Half-Million Older Californians Living Alone Unable to Make Ends Meet,” researchers from the Insight Center for Community Economic Development and the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research developed the Elder Economic Security Standard Index to assess what it costs seniors to cover basic expenses in each California county.  

The research is based on 2007 data, the last time comprehensive, statewide data was collected.

Proponents maintain that the Elder Index more accurately measures the actual cost of basic necessities for older adults than the current yardstick — the federal poverty level.

Using the federal poverty level standard, about 9% or 10% of California’s seniors are considered poor, with annual income of about $10,000 or less.

Elder advocates maintain an income twice that is needed to make ends meet in many California counties.

Susan Smith, co-author of the report and director of Californians for Economic Security at the Insight Center, said the research confirms what she says many in California see every day: “Increasingly, our elders cannot get by.”

“In most California counties, we’re seeing that nearly half the retired population is struggling to make impossible decisions like whether they should buy enough groceries to eat three meals a day or purchase medications prescribed by their doctors,” Smith said.

“That’s simply unacceptable in the world’s richest country,” she added.

Health Care Costs ‘Part of Discrepancy’

Researchers say the federal yardstick does not adequately measure high costs of living in California and point to differences highlighted in their research.

“Health care costs are a big part of that discrepancy,” said Steven Wallace, associate director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and lead author of the policy brief. “Health care costs in California — along with housing and other basic necessities — are considerably more expensive here than they are in other parts of the country,” Wallace said. “And there’s even a wide range in California. The cost of living is higher in some counties than others and this tool takes that into account.”

The policy brief was released at a legislative hearing last week in Sacramento held jointly by Assembly members Jim Beall (D-San Jose), chair of the Human Services Committee, and Bonnie Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), chair of the Aging and Long-Term Care Committee.

Last month, Beall introduced the Elder Economic Dignity Act of 2009, a bill calling for the state to use the new poverty yardstick. His bill would use the Elder Economic Security Standard Index (Elder Index) to determine poverty levels for a variety of state services and programs, including health care.

“As my colleagues and I grapple with our state’s budget, it is essential that we be able to accurately evaluate the effectiveness of existing programs and identify the most needy populations,” Beall said in a statement issued at last week’s legislative hearing.

“If this many seniors weren’t making it in 2007, imagine what the numbers will look like for 2008 after the stock market crash robbed so many of their retirement savings,” Beall said.

Part of National Movement

The California campaign is part of a national push to establish a new yardstick to measure poverty.

“This is the first step in getting the new measure widely accepted,” Wallace said. “I think people will eventually see this is a more realistic assessment and will eventually replace the federal poverty level.”

Wallace said there is support in the highest of places.

“President Obama, in his campaign speeches and since, has said we should stop using gimmicks with our budgets and this is designed to do just that,” Wallace said.

Critics of the 50-year-old federal poverty level standard say it is used disingenuously at times and at other times is clearly not appropriate. They point to eligibility standards for California health care programs at “200% or 300%” of the federal poverty level.

“Obama has already indicated an interest in addressing the issue,” Wallace said. “I’m pretty confident that if something reached his desk he’d be willing to look favorably at it.”

Bills similar to Beall’s are working their way through Congress.

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), chair of the Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support of the Committee on Ways and Means, introduced HR 6941.

Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) introduced a Senate version, S 3636.

Related Topics

Health Care Costs Insight Medi-Cal