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Let’s work to make sure older Americans have greater financial security in retirement

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When President John F. Kennedy designated May as Senior Citizens Month in 1963, older Americans were in dire need of help. One in three were impoverished, struggling to pay for rent, food and the medications they desperately needed. Social Security benefits were meager, and wouldn’t be adjusted for annual cost of living increases for another decade. Nearly 60 percent had no health insurance.

These days, we have much to celebrate each May during Older Americans Month, renamed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Old-age poverty rates have plummeted, thanks to an unprecedented expansion of Social Security benefits in the 1970s. By some measures, just 10 percent of older adults today live beneath the federal poverty line. Nearly all have health insurance, thanks to Medicare and Medicaid benefits. While just 17 million Americans lived to celebrate their 65th birthdays in the Kennedy era, older adults are now 50 million strong.

{mosads}Americans are living longer and better than ever before, thanks to medical and technological advances, and blazing trails even in old age. At age 82, Dale Sanders hiked the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail. Actress Cicely Tyson was honored with an Emmy nomination at age 93. Centenarian Tao Porchon-Lynch reigns as the world’s oldest yoga instructor, inspiring students with her flawless shoulder stand.

Older Americans Month is a moment to cheer these successes. But a single-minded focus on these victories fuels a misguided belief that older adults are doing just fine, and that heightened public investments in old-age pensions, income security, and health insurance programs are unnecessary. That’s wrong. We should pick up the mantle of previous generations, who listened to seniors and did something about their problems.

The data show another crisis brewing, especially since the Great Recession wiped out retirement savings for many. When old-age poverty is calculated with the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which accounts for seniors’ outsized medical expenditures, poverty jumps to 14 percent (or more than 7 million). Unsurprisingly, blacks, Latinos, and women are overrepresented:  one in five women of color live in poverty, and more than half live just above the poverty line.

Forget hiking the Appalachian trail – for the most destitute, just reaching one’s 65th birthday is a rare milestone. Men in the bottom 1 percent of the income distribution die 15 years younger than those in the top 1 percent, while the gap for women is ten years. These disheartening statistics fall far short of President Kennedy’s vision for honoring and caring for America’s older adults, and short of our basic commitment to each other. More years of life shouldn’t be for sale.

Fortunately, legislators have an opportunity this month to better uphold the goal of Older Americans Month, and to complete the work started by previous, bolder generations. In February, Democrats in the House and Senate introduced the Social Security 2100 Act. The first major expansion to the Social Security program since the 1970s, the Act would provide retirees an across-the-board benefit boost, equal to roughly 2 percent of the average Social Security benefit. Crucially, annual cost-of-living adjustments would take into consideration older adults’ outsized use of costly health care services. Most importantly, the Act would increase the minimum benefit; this would ensure that older adults who did low-wage work for most of their lives, often women and racial minorities, do not fall into poverty upon retirement should they want to retire at 65. These are all essential steps for providing retirement security to more Americans. 

Yet for all their strengths, we need additional reform to help America’s neediest, for whom the age-limited benefits of Medicare and Social Security come too late. As I argue in my book “Golden Years?”, late-life impoverishment and illness do not appear suddenly on one’s 65th birthday, but are the end results of injustices that pile up and intensify throughout our lives. Stress in youth and throughout one’s work history wear down the body, women’s often sporadic work histories lead to smaller pensions and savings, and so on. A long, healthy, and financially secure old age is the ultimate reward of economic privilege.

As we celebrate Older Americans Month, our national goal should be a society in which all Americans have the privilege of surviving until and thriving in old age. That means supporting social programs that provide health and economic benefits decades before age 65. Sustained and increased investments in means-tested programs like Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and housing assistance programs may provide young and working-age Americans the minimum income, nutrition, and housing security that helps them survive until old age. Hotly debated proposals like Medicare for All would make health care and prescription drugs more affordable for low- and middle-income adults, ultimately helping them to have longer and healthier lives. For the nearly 16 million poor and near-poor older adults in the U.S. today, that would be an Older Americans Month worthy of celebration.

Deborah Carr is professor and chair of the sociology department at Boston University, and author of the 2019 book “Golden Years? Social Inequality in Later Life.”

Tags Jimmy Carter Medicare Social Security Supplemental Security Income

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