On February 12, the American Society on Aging (ASA) held a roundtable in Washington DC that was based on the topic of older women and their experience with poverty. Currently, there are 7.1 million older individuals in the US who are living in poverty. This roundtable was focused on understanding and addressing the economic and health issues affecting those 7.1 million people, and more specifically the women that are a part of that population. To fully investigate this topic area, the roundtable was moderated by Barbara S Hoenig, who is a Senior Consultant to CVS Health and a Chair of the Washington DC Roundtable, and featured three presenters: Orlene Grant, President of Juanita C Grant Foundation, Tracy Thomas Gronniger, Directing Attorney of Economic Security at Justice in Aging, and Donna Satterswaite, Chief Operating Officer at Senior Service America, Inc.
Within the US in 2016, 40.6 million people lived in poverty. For reference, the poverty threshold for an individual person is an annual income of $12,490, and for a family of four the threshold is an annual income of $25,750. Not shockingly, poverty does not strike all demographics equally. People of color, women, those with a disability, and those belonging to the LGBTQ community are more likely to be living in poverty. When it comes to older women specifically, approximately 15.6% of women who are 65 years and older are currently living in poverty—this equates to 4.2 million women. Women make up 2/3 of those who are 65 years and older who are in poverty.
From hearing what the presenters at the roundtable shared, there are a handful of reasons as to why older women are more likely to be living in poverty. The first reason as to why this is so is the wage gap, which creates a sense of discrimination. Historically, women have received lower wages than men for the same work. With lower wages throughout a lifetime, women aren’t able to save as much money throughout their lives and build up lower social securities. The second reason for the higher rates of older women in poverty is due to their role as caregivers. Women serve as the primary caregivers of children and relatives. With so much time spent doing so, and the burden that caregiving ensues, women are at higher risk of losing their jobs, not having a job at all, and having financial struggles. Thirdly, women are more likely to outlive their spouses than men are. Married women have more financial security than single women, so, when a spouse dies, financial security is put at risk. All of these elements—wage gap, caregiving, death of a spouse—contribute to the weakened economic security that older women experience.
While, unfortunately, there is no simple solution to end poverty among older women, or even poverty as a whole, the roundtable highlighted ways in which it could be alleviated. Ageism is pervasive in our society, so women need to learn how to use their age to their advantage instead of allowing it to remain as a disadvantage—they need to change their way of thinking. Interestingly, those who are 50+ are the fastest growing community in the workforce, and this needs to be fostered and encouraged. All too often older women stop working, are forced to stop working, or feel as if they can no longer work due to internal and external forces. In terms of internal forces, older women may develop a compromised self-esteem, feel isolated, no longer feel vital, and have physical limitations. In terms of external forces, they may be forced to retire, feel as if they retired too early, have a spouse fall ill or pass away, or be required to take care of children or grandchildren. Fascinatingly, there is a rise of grand-families, which cause unexpected and unplanned expenses. All of these factors play into the lives of older women, their work status, financial status, and poverty. By becoming aware of these factors, they can be addressed appropriately. Another way in which poverty among older women can be addressed is through policy ideas, support, and properly funded government programs.
The ASA roundtable presented important and relevant information and fostered intriguing conversations and the rise of concerns and ideas. It successfully brought the topic of older women and poverty to everyone’s minds and taught the work that is already being done in the field.