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Half-full Or Half-empty?

These developments might be, and often have been, viewed as an unalloyed "good-news" story for older people. Indeed, particularly in conjunction with findings suggesting that the highest-income portion of the older population is becoming increasingly affluent (Crystal, 1982; Crystal and Waehrer, 1996), some have suggested that the major remaining social policy question is why these gains have not been shared by members of other age groups, especially children.

Other data, however, provide reason for concern. Of particular significance is the high proportion of near-poor older people. In 1999, 13.2 percent of older people had incomes between 100 percent and 150 percent of the poverty line, a higher proportion than was the case either for children or for those of working age. Altogether, a total of 22.9 percent of older people lived below 150 percent of the poverty line (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000, p. 2).

Taking a longitudinal, rather than a "snap-shot," perspective on late-life poverty also suggests that impoverishment is a very real possibility in older life, despite relatively low cross-sectional poverty rates. Rank and Hirschl (1999) used life table analyses of Panel Study of Income Dynamics data to examine the probability that individuals with various characteristics will experience a year below the poverty line at some point after age sixty. Overall, they estimated that this will occur for 40 percent of America's elderly population and that 48 percent will experience a year below 125 percent of the poverty line. These rates were much higher for those with less than 12 years of education and for African Americans. For example, 88 percent of unmarried, African-American women with less than twelve years of education were projected to fall into poverty at some point in old age, as compared with 13 percent of married white females with twelve or more years of education. In addition to increasing the risk for transitions into poverty, these same factors have also been shown to inhibit escape from poverty among elders (Jensen and McLaughlin, 1997), leading to more persistent old-age poverty among these subgroups.

In addition to highlighting the important role of racial differences and marital status, these results also confirm the importance of educational attainment in determining the risk of late-life impoverishment. This is consistent with other evidence that early advantages, such as those gained by formal education (typically completed by one's mid-twenties) shape individuals' economic destinies in a continued, and even increased, fashion many decades later in the life course, through a process of cumulative advantage and disadvantage (Crystal and Shea, 1990). For example, Crystal, Shea, and Krishnaswami (1992) found that years of education explain more of the variance in income after age sixty-five than at earlier ages, despite the many vicissitudes of life in the intervening decades. It is likely that among baby boomers, individuals with limited formal education will be at even greater risk of late-life impoverishment when they reach old age, since income gaps by education have been considerably higher for baby boomers than for earlier cohorts (Crystal and Johnson, 1998).

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Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 3Poverty - Half-full Or Half-empty?, Comparing Poverty Rates Across Life Stages, Differential Needs And Out-of-pocket Health Care Costs