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Late-life Poverty In The United States And Abroad

Social Security, as noted above, does incorporate a redistributive element and plays an equalizing role that reduces old-age inequality. However, it lacks, even in combination with related programs such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a high minimum benefit and provides less protection for lower-income individuals than do systems in a number of other developed countries. Smeeding, Rainwater, and Torrey (1993) compared levels of late-life inequality and minimum benefits in public pension systems (as a percentage of median income) across a number of countries. The United States provided the lowest minimum benefit (defined by the means-tested SSI level) at 34 percent of median income, and experienced the highest level of late-life inequality. Countries such as France, Canada, and Australia guaranteed benefits close to 50 percent of median income and experienced intermediate levels of late-life inequality, while the Netherlands and Sweden, with their well-developed social welfare systems, provided guarantees of 72 percent and 66 percent of median income, respectively, and experienced the lowest rates of late-life inequality. Countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden with high minimum retirement income guarantees have largely eliminated late-life economic poverty. Of course, these and their other social welfare protections typically have come at the cost of a higher payroll tax and other taxation rates on working-age citizens than have been found politically acceptable in the United States.

While the existing U.S. poverty measure has significant limitations in comparing poverty rates across years or age groups, it is nevertheless a useful indicator of a group among the older population that is clearly experiencing economic privation. Similarly, near-poverty (e.g., those living below 150 percent of the poverty line) is a useful way to define a group that, while not in quite as dire straits, also experiences considerable privation and is an appropriate target for efforts to address unmet needs in the older population. It is therefore helpful to examine the characteristics of the older population living in poverty. Not surprisingly, they are disproportionately female, and living alone, have chronic health conditions, and are over seventy-five years of age. In 1999, 69.7 percent were women. The poverty rate (in 1999) was 26.4 percent among African American women and 5.7 percent among white men. Similarly, among the 7.5 million elderly Americans living below 150 percent of the poverty line, 68.4 percent were women (47.1 percent of African American women fell into this category, and 14.7 percent of men). These differentials reflect lagged effects of differences in early advantages and disadvantages, differences in economic opportunities during the working years, the economic impact of differential rates of disability and ill health across socioeconomic groups in later life, and similar factors. This process of cumulative advantage and disadvantage reflects the fact that despite some redistributional features, retirement income systems in the United States are based heavily on pre-retirement earnings. The circumstances of the substantial population living below 150 percent of poverty (almost one-quarter of the older population) contrast sharply with those of more affluent older adults, representing a continuation of a long-standing "two worlds of aging" pattern in the United States (see Crystal, 1981).



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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