GAO Study Reports New Trends Push Older Women into Poverty

Published in Pawtucket Times, March 7, 2014

Following on the heels of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released last week on March 5, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing to put a Congressional spotlight on the alarming increase of older Americans becoming impoverished.  The GAO policy analysts concluded that a growing number of the nation’s elderly, especially women and minorities, could fall into poverty due to lower incomes associated with declining marriage rates and the higher living expenses that individuals bear.

As many as 48 percent of older Americans live in or on the edge of poverty. “While many gains have been made over the years to reduce poverty, too many seniors still can’t afford basic necessities such as food, shelter and medicines,” said Aging Committee Chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL).

Senate Aging Committee Looks at Income Security for Elders

Policy experts told Senate lawmakers on Wednesday that millions of seniors have been spared from abject poverty thanks to federal programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, SSI, and food stamps.  The testimony contrasted with the picture painted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) earlier this week, who produced a report that labeled the federal government’s five-decade long war on poverty a failure.

Appearing before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, Patricia Neuman, a senior vice president at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, stressed the importance of federal anti-poverty programs.

“Between 1966 and 2011, the share of seniors living in poverty fell from more than 28 percent to about 9 percent, with the steepest drop occurring in the decade immediately following the start of the Medicare program,” said Neuman.  “The introduction of Medicare, coupled with Social Security, played a key role in lifting seniors out of poverty.”

Neuman’s remarks were echoed by Joan Entmacher of the National Women’s Law              Center, who credited food stamps, unemployment insurance and Meals on Wheels, along with Social Security, for dramatically reducing poverty among seniors.  The report was highly critical of many programs designed to help the poor and elderly saying they contribute to the “poverty trap.”  Ryan and other House lawmakers have long proposed capping federal spending and turning Medicaid, food stamps and a host of other programs for the poor into state block grants.

Older Women and Pension Benefits

GAO’s Barbara Bovbjerg also brought her views to the Senate Select Committee on Aging hearing. Bovbjerg, Managing Director of Education, Workforce, and Income Security Issues, testified that the trends in marriage, work, and pension benefits have impacted the retirement incomes of older Americans.

Over the last five decades the composition of the American household has changed dramatically, stated Bovbjerg, noting that the proportion of unmarried individuals has increased steadily as couples have chosen to marry at ever-later ages and as divorce rates have risen.  “This is important because Social Security is not only available to workers but also to spouses and survivors.  The decline in marriage and the concomitant rise in single parenthood have been more pronounced among low-income, less educated individuals and some minorities,” she says.

As marriage and workforce patterns changed, so has the nation’s retirement system, adds Bovbjerg.  Since 1990, employers have increasingly turned away from traditional defined benefit pensions to defined contribution plans, such as 401(k)s, she says, this ultimately shifting risk to individual employees and making it more likely they will receive lump sum benefits rather than annuities.

These trends have affected retirement incomes, especially for women and minorities, says Bovbjerg, that is fewer women today receive Social Security spousal and survivor benefits than in the past; most qualify for benefits on their own work history. While this shift may be positive, especially for those women with higher incomes, unmarried elderly women with low levels of lifetime earnings are expected to get less from Social Security than any other demographic group.

According to Bovbjerg, these trends have also affected household savings Married households are more likely to have retirement savings, but the majority of single-headed households have none. Obviously, single parents in particular tend to have fewer resources available to save for retirement during their working years.  With Defined Contribution pension plans becoming the norm for most, and with significant numbers not having these benefits, older Americans may well have to rely increasingly on Social Security as their primary or perhaps only source of retirement income.

Inside the Ocean State

Although the GAO report findings acknowledge a gender-based wage gap that pushes older woman into poverty, Maureen Maigret, policy consultant for the Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island and Coordinator of the Rhode Island Older Woman’s Policy Group, observes that this inequity has been around since the 1970s when she chaired a legislative commission studying pay equity. “Progress in closing the gender wage gap has stagnated since 2000 with the wage ratio hovering around 76.5 percent”, she says.

GAO’s recent findings on gender based differences in poverty rates are consistent with what Maigret found researching the issue for the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island in 2010.  She found that some of the differences in the Ocean State can be attributed to the fact that older women are far less likely to be married than older men.  Almost three times as many older women are widowed when compared to men.

Maigret says that her research revealed that older women in Rhode Island are also less likely to live in family households and almost twice as likely as older men to live alone. Of those older women living alone or with non family members an estimated one out of five was living in poverty. For Rhode Island older women in non-family households living alone, estimated median income in 2009 was 85% that of male non-family householders living alone ($18,375 vs. $21,540).

Finally, Maigret’s report findings indicate that around 11.3 percent of older Rhode Island women were living below the federal poverty level as compared to 7.3 percent of older men in the state. Older women’s average Social Security benefit was almost 30 percent less than that of older men and their earnings were only 58 percent that of older men’s earnings.

             There is no getting around peoples’ fears about outliving their savings becoming a reality if they live long enough,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “One thing that the latest statistics reveals [including the GAO report] is the critical role Social Security plays when it comes to the ability of many seniors to meet monthly expenses. Social Security keeps about 38 percent of  Rhode Islanders age 65 and older out of poverty, according to a new study from the AARP Public Policy Institute.”

“Nationally, figures jump off the page,” Connell added. “Without Social Security benefits, 44.4 percent of elderly Americans would have incomes below the official poverty line; all else being equal; with Social Security benefits, only 9.1 percent do, she says, noting that these benefits lift 15.3 million elderly Americans — including 9.0 million women — above the poverty line.”

“Just over 50 percent of Rhode Islanders age 65 and older rely on Social Security for at least half of their family income—and nearly 24 percent rely on Social Security for 90 percent of their family income” states Connell.

             “Seniors trying to meet the increasing cost of utilities, prescription drugs and groceries would be desperate without monthly Social Security benefits they worked hard for and planned on. As buying power decreases, protecting Social Security becomes more important than ever. Older people know this; younger people should be aware of it and become more active in saving for retirement. Members of Congress need to remain aware of this as well,” adds Connell.

Kate Brewster, Executive Director of Rhode Island’s The Economic Progress Institute, agrees with Maigret that older women in Rhode Island are already at greater risk of poverty and economic security than older men.   “This [GAO] report highlights several trends that make it increasingly important to improve women’s earnings today so that they are economically secure in retirement.  Among the “policy to-do list” is shrinking the wage gap, eliminating occupational segregation, and raising the minimum wage. State and federal proposals to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 would benefit more women than men, demonstrating the importance of this debate to women’s economic security today and tomorrow.”

House Speaker Gordon Fox is proud that the General Assembly in the last two legislation sessions voted to raise minimum wage to its current level of $8 per hour.  That puts Rhode Island at the same level as neighboring Massachusetts, and we far surpass the federal minimum wage of $7.25, he said.  He says he will carefully consider legislation that has been introduced to once again boost the minimum wage.

“Bridging this gap is not only the right thing to do to ensure that women are on the same financial footing as men, but it also makes economic sense”, says Rep. David N. Cicilline.  At the federal level, the  Democratic Congressman has supported the ‘When Women Succeed, America Succeeds’ economic agenda that would address issues like the minimum wage, paycheck fairness, and access to quality and affordable child care. “Tackling these issues is a step toward helping women save and earn a secure retirement, but we also have to ensure individuals have a safety net so they can live with dignity in their retirement years,” says Cicilline.

With Republican Congressman Ryan in a GOP-controlled House, captured by the Tea Party, leading the charge to dismantle the federal government’s 50 year war on poverty, the casualties of this ideological skirmish if he succeeds will be America’s seniors.  Cutting the safety net that these programs created will make economic insecurity in your older years a very common occurrence.

.             Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be contacted at hweissri@aol.com.

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Oxfam Report: Elites Get Richer; Poor Poorer

Published in Pawtucket Times, January 24, 2014

Just a week before the 44th annual gathering of the global elite at World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Oxford, England-based Oxfam International released a scathing report claiming that global wealth rests in the hands of just a few very rich people.

According to the report released on Jan. 20, co-authored by Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva, Head of Research, Oxfam Great Britain and Nicholas Galasso, Research and Policy Advisor, Oxfam America, 85 of the wealthiest people own the same amount of wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population.

Widening Income Gap Between Wealthy and Poor

Oxfam’s 31 page report, “Working for the Few,” warns that almost half of the world’s wealth concentrated in just one percent of the population, is a real threat to inclusive political and economic systems, and compounds other economic inequalities – such as those between women and men. The authors say, left unchecked, political institutions are undermined and governments overwhelmingly serve the interests of economic elites – to the detriment of the poor and middle class.

Today the gap between the rich and poor has become wider, with the wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounting to $110 trillion, adds the report, around 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population. In the United States, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.

“Without a concerted effort to tackle inequality, the cascade of privilege and of disadvantage will continue down the generations,” warns Oxfam’s Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima, in her statement announcing the release of her group’s report. She leads the world-wide development organization comprised of 17 organizations working in 90 countries to find solutions to poverty and related injustice around the world.

Byanyima, a grass-roots activist, human rights advocate and a world recognized expert on women’s rights, who plans to attend the Davos meeting, observes, “It is staggering that in the 21st Century, half of the world’s population owns no more than tiny elite whose numbers could all sit comfortably in a single train carriage.”

“We cannot hope to win the fight against poverty without tackling inequality. Widening inequality is creating a vicious circle where wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, leaving the rest of us to fight over crumbs from the top table,” says Bryanyima.

Bryanyima adds, “In developed and developing countries alike, we are increasingly living in a world where the lowest tax rates, the best health and education and the opportunity to influence are being given not just to the rich but also to their children.”

“Without a concerted effort to tackle inequality, the cascade of privilege and of disadvantage will continue down the generations,” states Bryanyima, noting that “We will soon live in a world where equality of opportunity is just a dream.”

Specific policies have widened the income gap between the rich and poor over the last decades, including financial deregulation, tax havens and secrecy, anti-competitive business practice, lower tax rates on high incomes and investments and cuts or underinvestment in public services for the majority. For instance, since the late 1970s, tax rates for the richest have fallen in 29 of the 30 countries for which data are available. In these places the rich not only get more money but also pay less tax on it.

Oxfam’s report calls on those gathered at this week’s World Economic Forum to take tackle inequity by cracking down on financial secrecy and tax dodging, including investing in universal education and healthcare; demand a living wage in all companies, and agreeing a global goal to end extreme inequality in every country.

Inequity in Our Back Yard, Too

Commenting on Oxfam’s report release, Robert B. Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton who now serves as Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that inequality in the United State is not “that far off” from other countries. “Here, the 400 richest Americans have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans put together. We’re getting close to a tipping point where inequality undermines our economy (because the vast middle class doesn’t have the purchasing power to keep the economy going), hurts our democracy (because a handful of extremely rich individuals can control politics), and causes most people to feel the dice are loaded against them, he says.

Reich’s award-winning documentary “Inequality for All” — now out on iTunes, DVD, and On Demand — explains the roots of inequality, in the U.S. and around the world. For details, go to http://www.inequalityforall.com.

Kate Brewster, Executive Director of Rhode Island’s The Economic Progress Institute, notes that Oxfam’s report puts the growing problem of inequality on the world stage. “As the experts point out, inequality is not inevitable, but a manmade problem that can be tackled with policies that reward everyone for hard work, not just a few,” she says.

“Rhode Island has not escaped this disturbing trend,” states Brewster. According to a report issued by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Ocean State experienced the 9th largest increase in income inequality in the country between the late 1970s and mid-2000s. During this time the income of the top fifth rose by 99 percent while the bottom fifth grew by only 12 percent, she says.

Legislative Fixes to Reduce Income Gap

Brewster says there are two “two concrete policies” that the Rhode Island General Assembly could enact this legislative session that would immediately boost the income of low-income Rhode Islanders and begin to reverse this trend, specifically increasing the state’s minimum wage and increasing the refund available through the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit. “The latter would not only boost the income of low-wage workers but also bring more equity to a tax structure that has provided significant tax breaks to wealthy individuals and businesses for years,” she says.

Advocate Susan Sweet, a former state official and lobbyist for nonprofit groups, notes that while Rhode Island and the nation don’t have an overwhelming majority of citizens suffering the worst extremes of poverty such as starvation, homelessness and societal abandonment that exists in some other countries, we have our share. We also have a large and expanding underclass of counter culture and underground economy that serves to hurt the cohesiveness of society,” says the Rumford resident.

Sweet worries about the income gap between the poor and wealthy that will happen in years to come because of state policies. “The state took millions away from retired people who are receiving an average of $25,000 a year in their state pension and are in their seventies on average. The state gambled on the Studio 38 boondoggle, sold these risky bonds to unknown parties, and want to pay these gambling debts back to the investors because they have a ‘moral obligation’ to do so. Where is the moral obligation to those who performed their responsibilities by working for the state for many years with the promise of a secure retirement?” she says.

And what does she expect to see coming out of the General Assembly? “This year we will hear rhetoric to raise the absurdly low minimum wage in the nation and in the state, but not enough to give workers a decent living wage; we will hear promises to improve education, while students that have tried to achieve under great odds will be denied high school diplomas while the educational infrastructure remains in place and unchanging; we will be assured that the key to R.I.’s unyielding high unemployment rate has been found – again; and we will continue on the path of inequality.”

Oak Hill resident, Lisa Roseman Beade, an academic tutor who is been active in Progressive causes, says the U.S. has the widest income gap of any developing nation. “’Trickle down economics’ has turned into “vacuum upwards economics”. We need fair wages and fair and equitable taxation rates to circulate the money. That’s what puts people to work and will reduce the widening income gap between the nation’s wealthy and poor. Instead, workers, who have been breaking the bar in productivity year after year, now receive only 1 percent of the record breaking profits.”

Beade calls for keeping corporate dollars out of politics and supports the creation of a single payer healthcare system that would make healthcare a civil right.

She believes that change will only come when “we all stop the scape-goating teachers and workers and public employees and demand that we all have good wages, good benefits and good pensions and by restoring state levels to those pre-1998. If lower taxes create jobs, and taxes have never been lower…where are the jobs?”

“A vibrant, safe and livable community with good community services can only come if everyone earns enough and everyone pays their fair share of taxes. Let’s make paying taxes patriotic again,” says Beade.

A Final Note…

It’s time to hammer out a comprehensive legislative fix to reducing the wide income gap between the Ocean State’s wealthy and poor. Let those declared candidates for Governor come out with detailed briefing papers, unveiling their comprehensive approach to enable Rhode Islanders to finally make a living wage. That is tell the voters how you will close the income gap between the state’s have and have nots. Let the debate begin.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a writer who covers aging, health care, medical issues and Rhode Island’s political scene.

Rhode Island Families Can Benefit from Expanding State’s TDI Program

Published in Pawtucket Times, May 17, 2013

In the 2012 legislative session, it was very easy for Pawtucket Rep. Elaine A. Coderre to say yes to Sen. Rhoda E. Perry, when the Providence lawmaker came looking for a House sponsor of S 2734. Perry’s legislative proposal would amend the State’s existing Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) program to include coverage for caregivers who care for loved ones during a health care emergency or to take time off to bond with a child.

Years before, unexpectedly being pushed into the role of caregiver would bring Coderre to become the primary sponsor of H 7862, the companion bill to S 2734. To the disappointment of the Pawtucket lawmaker and her Senate colleague, their legislative proposal would be held for further study, effectively killing it.
Understanding a Caregivers Needs

In 1997, taking care of her dying mother became time-consuming for Coderre, a part-time lawmaker who served full-time as Executive Director of the Emergency Shelter of Pawtucket. Before the onset of the terminal illness, Coderre’s 78-year-old mother had lived independently on the second floor of her daughter’s three floor tenement.

With her elderly mother quickly losing her ability to live independently, being diagnosed with fourth stage Alzheimer’s disease and fourth stage colon cancer, the fifty-year old Coderre instantly became a very stressed caregiver

For over ten months, Coderre skillfully juggled the responsibilities of working two very challenging jobs, meeting family demands, and becoming the primary caregiver to her frail mother. To provide care seven days a week, 24 hours a day, Coderre would rely on her husband, three adult children, sister and her husband, to assist.

“It was a scheduling nightmare, remembered Coderre, referring to the complexity of making sure each family member was inked in the schedule and were notified when to report for duty. “We were committed to making my mother, in her final days, feel safe, secure and to have a quality of life,” she said, noting that her family did work well together, making the care giving schedule work

Looking back, Coderre considers herself extremely fortunate because she had her immediate family and was able to hire a homemaker, to provide more of the physical care, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Supporting Temporary Caregiver Insurance

But, Coderre realized from this experience and calls from constituents that not everyone has a large network of family and friends, or adequate finances to take care of a very sick loved one, even to know where to find caregiver support services. Becoming a care giver to a frail family member, an experience that many Rhode Islanders will face during their adult life, pushed Coderre to again become the primary sponsor of House legislation to create a Temporary Caregiver Insurance Program (TCIP), for the second time around.

During the 2013 legislative session, Coderre has joined Sen. Gayle Goldin, who represents areas in Providence’s Eastside, to reintroduce companion measures in the Rhode Island General Assembly (H 5889 and S 231) to create a TCIP. The legislative proposal, modified to address opponent concerns from the last session over the length of the benefit, would expand TDI to employees who must take time out of work to care for a family member or bond with a new child in their home.

If enacted, employees would be eligible to receive up to 8 weeks of replacement income while providing care for a seriously ill family member or new child. The law would provide employees with job security by allowing them to return to work when their caregiver responsibilities have concluded. The average weekly benefit for an employee would be $408.

Like Coderre, Goldin, a first-term Senator, had her own life experience as a caregiver. Over the years she, as a family advocate, she has also talked with many parents who told her of their own children’s health needs and financial and emotional stress it created and how important this program was for them.

“Paid family leave is a cost-effective way to give employees the time to balance family and work responsibilities without jeopardizing their economic security,” said Goldin.

In the early 2000s, Goldin’s interest in research on TCIPs was piqued when the program was implemented in California. Last year, as a member of the Providence-based Women’s Fund of Rhode Island’s Policy Institute, she brought this knowledge to the table when working with seven women to get legislation introduced on Smith Hill.

At that time, out of five state’s nationwide that had TDI, like Rhode Island, identified two (California and New Jersey) allowed the program to be used by caregivers, not just those who are suffering the illness or injury themselves.

The research findings gathered from the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island’s Policy Institute would give ammunition to Sen. Perry and Coderre to push for the TDI program expansion in 2012. When Goldin took over Perry’s Senatorial seat when the long-time Providence Senator retired, she picked up the TDI cause, bringing Coderre back to the plate this legislative session, to assist her in the House.
Advocates Rally to Support

On April 11, eleven groups, including AARP Rhode
Island, the Senior Agenda coalition, Woman’s Fund of Rhode Island, the Economic Progress Institute, Rhode Island Kids Count, and the Rhode Island SEIU State Council, came before the House Finance Committee, to push for passage of H 5889.

Dr. Marcia Conè, Ph.D., CEO, of the Woman’s Fund of Rhode Island, told lawmakers that the TCIP is just an updated extension of the current TDI program that “best addresses the new health and lifestyle changes of today’s society, giving “everyone the flexibility of needed to balance the new realities of family and work responsibilities.”

To put the brakes to a “brain drain” out of the Ocean State, due to higher salaries available in bordering states, Dr. Conè stressed that H 5889 would offer what all employees need, time off to care of family business in a crisis. “The prestige of having the most family friendly work environment in New England is a very strong incentive for families to stay in the state to make Rhode Island their home,” she told the panel.

In her testimony, Executive Director Kate Brewster, of The Economic Progress Institute, stated that the state’s Parental and Family Medical Leave Act of 1987, and the Federal Family Medical Leave Act of 1993, give employees up to 13 weeks of “unpaid leave” to care for a family member or new child. “These laws protect employees’ jobs, but not their wages,” she said, observing that low-income Rhode Islanders can not afford to take unpaid time off from work, they need their wages.

Countering Brewster’s comments, submitted testimony by R. Kelly Sheridan, representing The Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, warned that H 5889 would expand the State’s existing TDI program to allow employees time off to care for family members, when most states do not even have a TDI system. This expansion “would make Rhode Island’s business climate an outlier compared to our neighboring states and would send the wrong message to the business community regarding improving the business climate in our state,” he said.

While Matt Weldon, Assistant Director, of the State’s Department of Labor and Training, took no position on the TCIP legislative proposal, he came to answer questions. Weldon noted that there could be a .2 increase to the rate an employee is mandated to pay into TDI. Currently, the state program takes 1.2% of the first $61,400 out of an employee’s paycheck.

Maureen Maigret, Policy Consultant for the Senior Agenda Coalition of Rhode Island, told the House panel that nobody can predict when a family crisis will come, specifically “the critical illness of a child or spouse, an older person’s fall and subsequent need for care.”

Maigret estimated, for just pennies per week paid by workers – the cost of a cup of coffee — passage of H 5889, would allow workers to take temporary leave to deal with sudden critical family needs and still have some income.

With the Rhode Island General Assembly gearing up to finish the people’s legislative business by the middle of June, We Care for Rhode Island (WCRI), a grass roots coalition consisting of 32 organizations, including small business owners, workers, policy centers and family and health care advocates, was established at the end of April, to push for the passage of a Rhode Island TCIP.

Last Saturday, visiting local retail stores on Hope Street, Steve Gerencser, of WCRI, passed out literature, calling on owners to support his group’s attempts to create a TCIP in the Ocean State. “It can be a boon for businesses,” he says, citing a 2011 research study detailed on his Legislative Fact Sheet, supporting the passage of H 5889 and S 231. Gerencser notes that the findings estimate that program would save employers $89 million a year by improving employee retention and reducing turnover costs.

Goldin agrees with WCRI’s assessment a TCIP’s benefit to businesses. Moreover, she claims that there is really no impact on the State’s budget, to start up this new program. “It’s revenue-neutral and is solely funded by the employee, business owners and taxpayers do not contribute.”

With a negligible expense to implement, with no cost to the taxpayer or even the business community, it’s penny-wise and pound foolish for state lawmakers to not create a Temporary Care Giver Insurance Program, to financially assist Rhode Island employees when they take off time to help seriously ill family members or to care for newly adopted child.

Sound public policy, like this legislative proposal, can only send a clear message across the United States, that the Ocean State is finally taking steps to become more family-friendly, a great way to competitively attract large corporations and even smaller businesses into our borders.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.