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Unfinished Business: Poverty Still Common Among Seniors

David Callahan

One last point about the new poverty numbers, which is that they show that elderly poverty remains a major problem in the United States.

Conventional wisdom holds that seniors are doing just fine in the U.S. and that this is one area where the war on poverty was a big success. Well, not quite. Yes, elderly poverty rates are way down from forty years ago thanks to increased Social Security payments and government health programs.

But these rates are still high: 9 percent of seniors live in poverty, according to the new Census data, or about 3.5 million Americans. Several million seniors more live just above the poverty line.

These figures are noteworthy and troubling as the U.S. enters a period of fiscal austerity in which entitlement programs for the elderly are being targeted for downsizing. The noble 20th century push to eliminate poverty among the elderly never came to close to succeeding, yet now we are talking about retreating in the opposite direction.

The implicit assumption here is that the United States isn't rich enough to provide basic economic security for all its seniors. But this is patent nonense. Overall national wealth has risen dramatically since the mid-1960s. The callous truth is that we just don't want to pay for such provision -- or least some of us don't.

The public sector's war on elderly poverty stalled out in the mid-1970s. Since that time, the median square footage of a U.S. home has risen from 1,535 square feet to 2,169 square feet. And, of course, inequality has soared. We have made clear choices as a society over the past few decades, prioritizing letting more people get rich, live in bigger homes and drive fancier cars over elementary dignity for our elders.

Make no mistake: The United States does need to set limits on how much of its wealth it spends on its aging popuation. Other priorities are more important, like investing in future generations and long-term prosperity. That said, a basic goal of lawmakers in the coming budget debates should be to raise all seniors out of poverty. If we can't do that, it's hard to think of ourselves as a truly civilized society.

Several budget plans floating around have proposed ways to abolish elderly poverty, including one from the Heritage Foundation (of all places). But so far this thinking isn't part of the budget debate. Clearly, fixing Social Security doesn't just mean shoring it up financially; it also means increasing minimum benefits.