Experts Say Isolation and Loneliness Impacting More Older Americans

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 30, 2017

Sarah Hosseini, a blogger on Scary Mommy, a website bringing entertainment and information to millennial mothers, penned a touching story about Marleen Brooks, a California resident, who came home to find a heartbreaking hand-written note from Wanda, her 90-year-old neighbor, asking her to be friends.

Wanda wrote: “Would you consider to become my friend. I’m 90 years old – live alone. All my friends have passed away. I’m so lonesome and scared. Please I pray for someone.”

According to Hosseini’s blog posting, Brooks shared this note with KTVU News Anchor Frank Somerville, who posted it on his Facebook page. She responded to the posting by saying, “Came home to this note from a lady that lives down the street from me. Makes my heart sad, but on the bright side it looks like I will be getting a new friend.”

That evening Brooks visited her new friend, bearing a gift of cupcakes. After the visit, she wrote to Somerville describing this initial visit (which was posted on his Facebook page), says Hosseini. In this update posting, Brooks observed, “She’s such as sweet lady! And she was over the moon when we came over.” Brooks reported what Wanda said during the impromptu get together: “I hope you didn’t think I was stupid for writing you, but I had to do something. Thank you so much for coming over. I’ve lived here for 50 years and don’t know any of my neighbors.”

Wanda shared with her new acquaintance that she is on oxygen has congestive heart failure, osteoporosis and other age-related ailments, and her two surviving sons do not live by her,” noted Hosseini’s blog posting.

Zeroing in on a Growing Societal Problem

Wanda’s isolation and loneliness is not a rare occurrence. It happens every day throughout the nation. The U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging recently put a spotlight on the growing number of Americans who are socially isolated and lonely, like Wanda, and expert witnesses detailed the negative consequences of this tragic societal problem.

In Room 403 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building, U.S. Senators Susan Collins and Bob Casey, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee, held a morning hearing on April 27, 2017, “Aging Without Community: The Consequences of Isolation and Loneliness.”

he Senate Aging panel hearing (lasting almost two hours), the first in a two-part series, took a close look at the mental and physical health effects of social isolation and loneliness. The next hearing will explore ways to reconnect older people to their communities.

“The consequences of isolation and loneliness are severe: negative health outcomes, higher health care costs, and even death. The root problem is one that we can solve by helping seniors keep connected with communities,” said Senator Collins in her opening statement. “Just as we did when we made a national commitment to cut smoking rates in this country, we should explore approaches to reducing isolation and loneliness. Each has a real impact on the health and well-being of our seniors,” noted the Maine Republican Senator.

Adds, Senator Bob Casey, “Older Americans are vital to the prosperity and well-being of our nation.” The Democratic Senator said, “Our work on the Aging Committee to ensure that we all remain connected to community as we age is important to maintaining that vitality. It is for that reason that we, as a federal government, need to sustain and improve our investments in programs that help seniors stay connected — from Meals on Wheels to rural broadband to transportation services.”

When approached for her thoughts about the Senate Aging panel, Nancy LeaMond, AARP Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer said, “We know that social isolation and loneliness has severe negative effects on older Americans and we’re pleased the US Senate Committee on Aging held a hearing on this important issue. As they explore solutions for social isolation and loneliness amongst older Americans, AARP looks forward to working with them on these issues in 2017.”

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse says, “When seniors get involved, the community benefits from their valuable contributions. And the personal connections seniors make engaging in the community can help them stay healthy and productive.” Whitehouse, who sits on the Senate Aging panel, will work to protect funding for senior centers and programs that Rhode Island seniors rely on to stay connected, like Meals on Wheels and Senior Corps.”

Social Isolation is a “Silent Killer”

Speaking before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging today, social work professor Lenard W. Kaye, DSW, PhD, urged lawmakers to support programs that help older adults stay connected to their communities.

Kaye serves as director of the University of Maine Center on Aging. Joining three other experts, he reported to the committee that social isolation is a “silent killer” — due to placing people at higher risk for a variety of poor health outcomes — and he warned that more Americans are living in isolation than ever before.

“The prevalence may be as high as 43 percent among community dwelling older adults,” Kaye said. “And the risk is high as well for caregivers of older adults given that caregiving can be a very isolating experience.”

Kaye’s testimony also highlighted the state of current research in solving the problem of social isolation among older adults.

“Due to the various life events that can trigger social isolation, from death of a significant other, to loss of transportation to health decline, effective interventions will need to be diverse and they will need to be tailored to the personal circumstances of the isolated individual,” he said.

Kaye added that there is still significant progress to be made in determining what works for helping to reduce social isolation. Lack of rigor in studies of interventions aimed at reducing loneliness can make it difficult to evaluate some of these strategies.

In Pima County, 46 percent of nearly 2,300 seniors surveyed in its 2016 community needs assessment cited social isolation as a significant concern of those living alone, said W. Mark Clark, president of the Pima Council on Aging.

In his testimony, Clark says, “Changes to mobility, cognitive ability or health status can cause an individual to hold back from previously enjoyed social activities. Older adults in rural areas who can no longer driver are at incredible risk of physical and social isolation unless transportation options are available.”

“While aging at home is cited as a top priority by a majority of older people, and doing so has both emotional and economic benefits, aging in place at home can also lead to isolation,” said Clark, noting that connections to the community wane as one gets older due to less opportunities to build new social networks.

In her testimony, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology researcher at Brigham Young University, estimated that over 8 million seniors are affected by isolation and social disconnect is increasing.

Holt-Lunstad told the Senators that research shows that social isolation and loneliness is as dangerous as being obese, as risky as smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day. and associated with higher rates of heart disease, a weakened immune system, anxiety, dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and nursing facility admissions.

Finally, Witness Rick Creech, who was born with cerebral palsy, shared to the Senate Aging panel how disabilities can isolate a person. He described how an alternative communication (AAC) device, costing $10,000, a van concerted for a powered wheel chair passenger and smart home equipment to help him grow a “productive, independent adult.”

Meals on Wheels Program Vital Program for Isolated Seniors

It was clear to Senate Aging panel members and to expert witnesses that local Meals on Wheels programs can bring good nutrition and companionship to older American’s reducing social isolation and loneliness. Over two years ago, a Brown University study confirmed another benefit of visitors regularly knocking on the doors of seniors in need: a significant reduction in their feelings of loneliness.

“This continues to build the body of evidence that home-delivered meals provide more than nutrition and food security,” said study lead author Kali Thomas, assistant professor of health services, policy and practice in the Brown University School of Public Health and a researcher at the Providence Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Thomas, a former Meal on Wheels volunteer said that the study is one of few to rigorously examine the long-presumed psychological benefits of home-delivered meal service. She believes it is the first randomized, controlled trial to assess the effect on loneliness, which has been linked by many studies to a greater risk for medical problems, health care utilization, and mortality.

“In a time when resources are being further constrained and demand is increasing, it is important that we have evidence that guides decision-making in terms of what services to provide and how best to provide them,” Thomas said.

Senator Susan Collins, chair of the U.S. Select Senate Committee on Aging, sees Meals on Wheels as policy strategy to address the growing number of isolated seniors and their loneliness. At the Senate Aging panel, Collins said, “For many, Meals on Wheels is not just about food – it’s about social sustenance, also. Seniors look forward to greeting the driver with a bit of conversation.” And the Republican Senator called for adequate funding to the nationwide Meals on Wheels network, comprising 5,000 local community-based programs. President Trump’s proposed cuts to Meals on Wheels were, “pennywise and pound foolish because in the end they’re going to cause more hospitalizations, more nursing home admissions, and poor health outcomes.”

Like Brooks, we should reach out to our older isolated neighbors in our community. A simple gesture like this can have a lasting, positive impact on both parties.

House GOP Leadership Puts its Health Care Proposal on Fast-Track

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 12, 2017

After years of calling for the dismantling of Obama’s signature health care law, the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA), dubbed Obamacare, an emboldened GOP controlling both the White House and two chambers of Congress, began legislative efforts to substantially change the way the federal government subsidizes health coverage for millions of Americans and puts the brakes on Medicaid expansion that extended coverage to millions more.

On March 6, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis), with the blessing of President Donald Trump, began his legislative efforts to enact the House GOP’s 123 page health care proposal, the new American Health Care Act (AHCA). Democratic lawmakers and aging groups charge that the AHCA lacks a fiscal estimate from the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office as to how many people will lose their health insurance coverage as a result of the bill or how much it will cost.”

According to rating agency S&P Global Ratings, between 6 million and 10 million people could lose health insurance coverage if the GOP’s health care proposal to “repeal and replace” Obamacare passes. Specifically, there would be a decline in enrollment in the individual health insurance plan market of between 2 million and 4 million people. There would also be a decline of between 4 million and 6 million people in the nation’s Medicaid system after 2020 to 2024, says the recently released analysis.

GOP Health Proposal on Fast-Track

Just hours after AHCA was introduced early in the week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Ways and Means Committee began holding markups on their specific portions of the GOP’s health care proposal. After deliberating for almost 18 hours the Ways and Means approved its portion by a vote of 23-16, along party lines. After a marathon 27-hour markup session, the AHCA proposal was approved by the second House panel, Energy and Commerce Committee, by voted 31 to 23, by party line, too. Next week, the House Budget and Rules committees is expected to take up the GOP health care proposal, with a full House floor scheduled for the week of March 20. It has been reported that Ryan hopes to have a bill to President Trump for signature before April recess.

“Obamacare is rapidly collapsing. Skyrocketing premiums, soaring deductibles, and dwindling choices are not what the people were promised seven years ago. It’s time to turn a page and rescue our health care system from this disastrous law,” said House Speaker Ryan in a statement released when AHCA was thrown into the legislative hopper.

Ryan asserted that the GOP health care proposal would “drive down costs, encourage competition, and give every American access to quality, affordable health insurance. It protects young adults, patients with pre-existing conditions, and provides a stable transition so that no one has the rug pulled out from under them.”

The GOP health care proposal would keep two of the most popular provisions of Obama’s ACA, specifically providing health care coverage to people with pre-existing conditions (though insurers would be allowed to charge higher premiums to individuals with lapsed health care coverage) and allowing children to stay on their parents’ health plans until the age of 26.

But, the GOP’s efforts to repeal and replace Obama Care has brought aging groups together to put the brakes on House passage.

Aging Groups Come Out Swinging

Seniors’ advocates object to the ACHA’s impact on federal programs that provide both healthcare and long-term care to retirees. The bill rescinds an 0.9% tax on upper income earners’ wages, which had been used to extend the solvency of Medicare until 2028. Removing the tax decreases Medicare’s solvency by four years, which could lead to benefit cuts down the road. Advocates also decry the age-rating provisions in the repeal bill, which would allow insurers to charge older Americans up to five times as much for premiums as younger enrollees pay. The $4,000 tax credits for near seniors (aged 50-64) which replace Obamacare subsidies won’t make a dent in the premiums that this age group will pay under the GOP plan. Older Americans who can’t afford insurance will then arrive at the threshold of Medicare less healthy, putting additional strain on the system.

“This legislation is a triple whammy for seniors. It’s bad for Medicare beneficiaries, bad for near seniors, and bad for the Medicare program,” says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.”

Richmond is especially alarmed that the AHCA also makes radical changes to the Medicaid program. The bill cuts $370 billion from Medicaid over 10 years by imposing “per capita caps,” meaning that states will get a fixed federal payment per beneficiary instead of the guaranteed match they now receive. Those fixed payments will not be able to keep pace with rising healthcare costs, leaving the states with significant shortfalls. “Millions of seniors rely on Medicaid for skilled nursing care, both in the home and at community-based facilities. The cut in federal payments will compel states to remove seniors from Medicaid rolls or radically reduce benefits, forcing them and their families into poverty.”

Following the release of the GOP’s AHCA, the Washington, D.C.-based AARP, the nation’s largest advocacy group representing over 37 million members, came out swinging. The GOP legislative proposal would weaken Medicare, leaving the door open to a voucher program that shifts costs and risks to seniors, warned AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond in a statement.

“Before people even reach retirement age, big insurance companies would be allowed to charge them an age tax that adds up to thousands of dollars more per year. Older Americans need affordable health care services and prescriptions. This plan goes in the opposite direction, increasing insurance premiums for older Americans and not doing anything to lower drug costs, noted LeaMond.

LeaMond charged, “On top of the hefty premium increase for consumers, big drug companies and other special interests get a sweetheart deal. “Finally, Medicaid cuts could impact people of all ages and put at risk the health of 17.4 million children and adults with disabilities and seniors by eliminating much needed services that allow individuals to live independently in their homes and communities.”

“Although no one believes the current health care system is perfect, this harmful legislation would make health care less secure and less affordable,” says LeaMond, noting that her nonprofit aging group will work with either political party to hammer out a health plan that “puts Americans’ health care first, not the special interests.”

Adds Judith Stein, executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy in a statement, “the proposed AHCA would also gut key financing mechanisms of the Affordable Care Act that would amount to tax cuts for the wealthy – by some estimates, by hundreds of billions of dollars. Regrettably, these tax cuts include provisions that would jeopardize Medicare’s financial stability. “We fear such cuts will lead to renewed calls to ‘save’ Medicare by privatizing it for future generations,” says Stein.

According to the Center for Medicare Advocacy’s statement, the proposed GOP legislative proposal would dismantle key structural supports of ACA, including eliminating the employer coverage mandate and the individual mandate to obtain health coverage, and instead would impose a 30 percent penalty for lapses in coverage. Instead of the ACA’s subsidies that make health coverage more affordable for millions, the new legislation would offer age-based tax credits ranging from about $2,000 to $4,000 – likely insufficient to pay for meaningful insurance coverage.

The Medicare Advocacy Group also warns that older Americans needing health insurance coverage before becoming Medicare eligible would also be hit hard by the proposed AHCA. The ACA’s protection of older adults that prevents insurance companies from charging no more than three times the premium amount charged of younger individuals (a 3:1 ratio) would be replaced by a higher 5:1 ratio – this dramatically increasing the premium amount insurance companies can charge older adults. Critics call this change an “age tax.”

Finally, the Republican’s AHCA would also phase out ACA’s expansion of Medicaid starting in 2020, structurally reforming virtually the entire Medicaid program (including Medicaid expansion). These changes would have a devastating impact on providing health care by capping federal Medicaid payments to each state to a limited, preset amount per person (often referred to as a “Per Capita Cap”).

Could Political Backlash Happen with Passage of AHCA?

Last Thursday, Ryan, with sleeves rolled up, urged GOP lawmakers to back AHCA, promising tweaks to address Republican conservatives’ concerns. At the 23 minute news conference, Ryan said: “This is the closest we’ve been to repealing and replacing Obamacare and it’s the closest we will ever get to repealing and replacing Obamacare.” It is either voting for the House bill, or let ACA survive, he said.

President Trump also chimed in to the AHCA debate, too, by calling for the controversial health care proposal’s enactment in an afternoon tweet. “Despite what you hear in the press, health care is coming along great. We are talking to many groups and it will end in a beautiful picture!,” he tweeted.

As the Congressional April recess approaches opposition to AHCA is building as physician, nurse and hospital groups warn that the legislative proposal’s enactment will take health care coverage away from millions of Americans. While Democratic and progressive organizations oppose ACA’s passage, too, a growing number of GOP lawmakers and conservative groups, from the Cato Institute, Americans for Prosperity and Tea Party Patriots, are expressing their concerns.

Days ago, Andrev Ostrovskv, chief medical officer for Medicaid at the Baltimore, Maryland-based Centers for Medicare and Medicaid based, risking the wrath of Trump’s political appointees in his federal agency, tweeted his displeasure and opposition. “Despite political messaging from others at HHS [Health and Human Services], I align with the experts from @aafp @AmerAcadPeds @AmerMedicalAssn in opposition to #AHCA,” he tweeted. Dr. Ostrovskv’s agency oversees the administering of Obamacare.

Even if the GOP House Leadership are able to address conservative lawmaker concerns, one being AHCA does not require an earlier halt to Medicaid expansion enrollment, the GOP’s health care proposal appears to have a rocky road to travel in the upper chamber. Senate. Republications, having just a 52-48 slim majority, can only lose two votes.

Says Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) in a tweet to House GOP Leadership: “ House health-care bill can’t pass Senate w/o major changes. To my friends in House: pause, start over. Get it right, don’t get it fast.”

With the popularity of Obamacare the GOP’s death wish to repeal and replace the law may well be hazardous to the Republican Party’s political health. We’ll find out for sure in the mid-term elections.

Gridlock Threatens Elder Programs, Services

Published in Pawtucket Times, October 11, 2013

At press time, this week continued heated partisan bickering on Capitol Hill that threatens to unravel a fragile economy, along with putting the brakes to an economic upturn that slowly was pushing the nation out of its financial doldrums. With this stand-off, a partial shutdown of the federal government continues. The Republican-controlled House, captured by the ultra-right Tea Party, has refused to budge, opposing the passage of a continuing resolution (CR) to fund government agencies past Sept. 30. House Republican leadership has demanded that passage of the CR must be tied to either the repeal or partially dismantling of President Obama’s signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act. The Democratic President along with a Senate Democratic leadership say no.

Meanwhile, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed a “clean” CR to provide funding through Nov. 15, not putting ACA on the GOP’s chopping block. Even if both legislative chambers sort out differences and hammer out a compromise agreement to open the doors of the federal government, this would not shield the nation from the disastrous impact of the impending second round of sequester cuts and a Oct. 17 deadline for the government to raise the debt ceiling. No action means a first-ever default on the nation’s debt that could send the stock market tumbling and push the nation’s and the world’s economy into a tailspin.

Treasury officials say that congressional deadlock and no action will result in the federal government running out of cash to pay its bills if Congress does not act to raise the nation’s debt ceiling this month.

Get Your House in Order

With the debt crisis looming, AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond called on Congressional lawmakers to settle the debt ceiling debate to avoiding default on the nation’s debt, specifically to protect the retirement of seniors and future generations.

In her letter, LeaMond expressed concern that any delay in raising the nation’s debt limit may unnecessarily increase borrowing costs, negatively impact retirement savings accounts and harm the nation’s fragile economy.

“Our members are worried that the benefits they have earned may be cut as part of a deal to reduce the deficit, fund government operations, or increase the debt ceiling, and they are increasingly worried that if there is no agreement very soon, they may not receive their Social Security checks and may lose access to their health care,” noted LeaMond.

Ten days ago, the nation entered a government shutdown, forcing furloughs of 800,000 workers, without pay, and suspending services. The last time this occurred was 17 years ago during the Clinton administration. The Congressional impasse has closed national parks and monuments, federally owned museums, such as the Smithsonian, offices overseas that give visas to foreigners hoping to visit the United States, and even many federal regulatory agencies.

So, how does this impact programs and services for older Americans? Simply put, impact on programs and benefits may vary throughout the federal bureaucracy.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services will furlough over 40,512 of its 78, 198 employees. The largest percentage of these employees comes from “grant-making and employee-intensive agencies,” such as the Administration for Community Living. This federal agency would not be able to fund the Senior Nutrition programs, Native American Nutrition and Supportive Services, Prevention of Elder Abuse and Neglect, the Long-Term Care Ombudsman program, and Protection and Advocacy for persons with developmental disabilities.

As reported, Social Security checks will be mailed, Medicare and Medicaid benefits will continue to be paid out, because these are considered mandatory programs, not discretionary ones. Benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food Stamps, will continue in October, despite the federal shutdown.

Food Program Takes Budgetary Hit

Jenny Bertolette of the Meals on Wheels Association of America charges that the Federal Government shutdown “adds insult to injury as Senior Nutrition Programs are already dealing with devastating cuts due to sequestration, funding that has never kept up with inflation, increased food and transportation costs and increased need as significantly more seniors are aging and struggling with hunger than ever before.”

Bertolette says that should a shutdown persist for any considerable length of time, local Meals on Wheels programs that rely on government funding could experience a delay in reimbursements for meals and services delivered. Facing such funding uncertainty, programs could be forced to suspend meal services, create or expand waiting lists for meals, cut the number of meals or days they serve and reduce delivery days.

Jenny Bertolette of the Meals on Wheels Association of America charges that the Federal Government shutdown “adds insult to injury as Senior Nutrition Programs are already dealing with devastating cuts due to sequestration, funding that has never kept up with inflation, increased food and transportation costs and increased need as significantly more seniors are aging and struggling with hunger than ever before.”

Bertolette says that should a shutdown persist for any considerable length of time, local Meals on Wheels programs that rely on government funding could experience a delay in reimbursements for meals and services delivered. Facing such funding uncertainty, programs could be forced to suspend meal services, create or expand waiting lists for meals, cut the number of meals or days they serve and reduce delivery days.

Heather Amaral, Executive Director of Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island, agrees, noting that her Providence-based nonprofit program, has already lost $70,970 in 2013 federal funds due to last year’s sequestration cuts.

Amaral says that as a result of these cuts, to maintain meal delivery at the same numbers as last year (360,299 meals), she had to reduce menu items that were once offered. “Although the government shutdown doesn’t have an immediate impact on our program, I am concerned that it could lead to additional cuts,” she says, noting that should the shutdown continue until year end, the nonprofit agency will be forced to rely on donations and reserves to maintain service levels.

“We provide a safety check along with each home delivered meal and are often the only contact our client has that day, adds Amaral, who stresses that her program may be the only thing keeping a senior at home. “If we are forced to reduce the number of meals we serve, these people may be forced to live with a family member or enter a nursing home,” she warns.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency will be unable to fund additional payments to public housing authorities, many providing shelter to older Americans. HUD expects the 3,300 Public Housing Authorities it funds to have enough funding to get through the month of October. But, if the shutdown continues, some public housing authorities will not be able to maintain normal operation.

Also, Quarterly formula grants will not go out for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), or the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG).

Nutrition programs serving older adults face a double whammy with no FY14 appropriations and no reauthorization of the Farm Bill. The Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program expired along with the Farm Bill on Sept. 30. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) requires appropriations to continue operating.

According to well-known Aging Advocate Susan Sweet, this is a partial shutdown that hasn’t really hit aging programs yet. There are funding reductions in programs for older people, but that is due to the sequester, which will have another round of cuts in October, she says.

Sweet predicts that the negative effects of the shutdown itself will become worse with every passing day. For example, there is doubt that veterans benefits and social security will be paid in or after October absent a funding bill. Death benefits, including burial subsidies, have not been paid to the survivors of fallen armed forces members, she notes. Because of the public outcry regarding this outrage, a private charity has stepped up to pay the benefits with the promise of reimbursement when the government re-opens.

“Reduced to its true absurdity, the United States of America has lost the ability to rationally govern,” states Sweet. “The sequester cuts, previously characterized as “cuts for dummies”, have been implemented, we are in a war yet cannot bury our dead from that war, can’t even agree on a temporary fix, and are arguing whether the US should pay its bills or default,” she adds.

“It is perplexing, and we have heard many, many concerns from Rhode Island members, “ said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “Since the U.S. government has never failed to meet its financial obligations, we don’t know what payments it could make if the President and Congress fail to reach an agreement.

“One cannot help but wonder what effects this uncertainty has on people – many of whom struggle enough with health and financial issues,” Connell added. “We’re doing whatever we can to urge Congress and the President to act responsibly.”

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. His weekly commentaries can be found on his blog, herbweiss.wordpress.com. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

AARP: Social Security is an Economic Generator

Published in Pawtucket Times, October 4, 2013

For those who view Social Security bennies as just a drain on the nation’s economy, just adding the nation’s spiraling deficit, AARP, the nation’s largest aging advocacy group has always seen it differently. Now, according to a new report, released by AARP’s Public Policy Institute on Oct. 1, 2013, researchers found that for each dollar paid to Social Security beneficiaries generates nearly two dollars in spending by individuals and businesses, adding about $1.4 trillion in total economic output to the U.S. economy in 2012. More over, the report’s findings indicate that $762 billion paid in Social Security benefits in 2012 helped Americans keep or find more than nine million jobs.

If Congress is successful in putting Social Security on the budgetary chopping block, the economy will take a hit, warns the AARP report. According to the reports analysis, “reducing benefits by 25 percent across the board in 2012 (by $190 billion), which the Social Security will project will occur around the year 2033, could cost the U.S. economy about 2.3 million jobs, $349 billion in economic output, about $194 billion in GDP, and about $83 billion in employee compensation.”

A Multiplier Effect When Benefits Spent

The 25 page report, Social Security’s Impact on the National Economy, authored by Gary Koening of AARP’s Public Policy Institute, and Al Myles, of Mississippi State University, details the powerful multiplier effect created when Social Security recipients spend their benefits and the companies which receive those dollars spend their profits and pay their employees, who in turn spend their wages. The report provides both national and state-level data.

The researchers use an economic modeling system known as IMPLAN to calculate the multiplier effect and trace the impact of Social Security spending through the national and state economies.

“This report tells us that any adjustments Washington makes to Social Security will have a profound effect on individuals of all ages, businesses and our economy as a whole,” said AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond. “That’s why AARP is fighting the chained CPI and calling for a national conversation about the future of Social Security – so those who paid into the system can have a voice in the debate and so future generations get the benefits they’ve earned.”

Social Security benefit payments in 2012 supported more than $370 billion in salaries, wages and compensation for workers. Of the more than nine million jobs supported by Social Security spending, about four million were in just ten industries. Nationally, the largest employment impacts were seen in the food services, real estate, health care and retail industries.

In addition to illustrating Social Security’s vital role in supporting national and local economies, jobs and workers’ incomes, this report reiterates the importance of Social Security as a vital source of income for millions of Americans. Social Security benefits keep 22 million people out of poverty, including more than 15 million older Americans, and serve as the foundation of a secure retirement for millions more.

AARP’s Public Policy Institute calls the Social Security Program critical in promoting the income stability among the nation’s seniors, by providing a steady stream of income to replace wages lost due to retirement. “About 1 out of 6 Americans – 57 million people – receive Social Security benefits, including 9 out of the 10 individuals aged 65 and older,” says the Washington, DC-based policy institute.

According to the Social Security Administration, the program is a key source of retirement income for the nation’s retirees, noting that “it is the only inflation-protected, guaranteed income they have. Among the age 65 and over recipients, 23 percent of the married couples and 46 percent of the unmarried couples rely on the program for 90 percent or more of their income. Also, 53 percent of the married couples and 74 percent of those unmarried in this age group receive 50 percent or more of their income from Social Security.

Experts Weighing in on AARP Report

According to Lisa Mensah, Executive Director, of the Aspen Institute’s Initiative on Financial Security, “The AARP study fills a key void in the debate around Social Security. Social Security is not only important for individual financial security but also it has a major impact supporting jobs and economic activity in every state. When weighing Social Security as a budget matter, the fiscal coin has two sides—what it costs and what it delivers—and too often what Social Security delivers for the broader economy is poorly understood.”

Adds, Dean Baker, Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research,
“In a context where the economy is below full employment, as is clearly the case today, Social Security provides an important boost to demand. The report it released showed the importance of Social Security in each of the 50 states. When the economy is near full employment, the demand generating by Social Security may not be needed, but for now and the foreseeable future this demand will be providing an important boost to growth.”

Impact on State Economies

The AARP report details the spending of Social Security checks on the economy on all fifty states. Of course, California, the state with the largest economy in the nation, has the largest impact. In this state along, Social Security benefits supported 888,000 jobs, $147.4 billion in output, and $8.7 billion in state and local revenues.

Meanwhile, for the littlest state in the nation, “People need to consider a Rhode Island economy without Social Security benefits,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “Could the state live without $2.9 billion a year in federal money being spent on medications, rent, food, utilities, clothing and services?

“When a person spends Social Security benefits, the lawn gets mowed, the driveway gets plowed, CVS sells toilet paper, and the corner market sells milk. Someone gets paid and then spends that money – which means retailers and service providers are getting paid. And then they spend. It’s a cycle, and each step along the way, sales tax is collected by the state – more than $280.7 million,” says Connell. The AARP study shows that this spending supports 33,000 jobs in the Ocean State. So, Social Security makes life better for retirees and people with disabilities, it supports Rhode Island jobs and Rhode Island taxpayers benefit significantly, she says.

“Social Security was engineered with this in mind. The money paid into the system is not doing much if it stays in the Treasury,” observes Connell. “Social Security allows people to live more comfortably, improves their health and quality of life, and benefits the economy,” she adds.

“Seen this way, what would we be saving if we cut Social Security benefits?” quips Connell.

Congressman David Cicilline notes, this report confirms that almost 80 years after it was established, Social Security strengthens Rhode Island’s economy and provides significant benefits for families across this state.” Cicilline, representing the Ocean State’s 1st Congressional District, states that while other lawmakers propose Social Security benefit cuts of one kind or another; he has introduced legislation to protect the program by strongly opposing the use of chained CPI to calculate cost of living increases.

In Conclusion

Inside the Washington, DC beltway, Congressional lawmakers continue to seek out ways to rein in rising Social Security program costs. Some call for a combination of reducing program benefits while raising revenues. Others support only benefit cuts warning that raising the payroll tax or bringing other forms of additional revenue would hurt the nation’s fragile economy.

After the Federal Shutdown, when Congress comes back to continue the people’s business and begins to seriously debate policies for reforming Social Security, it becomes crucial for these lawmakers to bring the AARP Policy Institute’s economic impact study findings into their discussions. Slashing benefit checks will hurt financially vulnerable seniors, but as shown by the findings of this recently released report it can also have a drastic impact on fragile state economies by slowing job growth, and reducing retail and other spending, even lowering tax revenues at the local, state and the federal levels.

For a copy of the report, go to http://www.aarp.org/work/social-security/info-09-2013/social-security-impact-on-the-national-economy-AARP-ppi-econ-sec.html.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. His weekly commentaries can be found on his blog, herbweiss.wordpress.com. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.