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

In 1999, in the United States, 3.2 million people age sixty-five and over, representing 9.7 The suit and tie might hide the fact that this elderly man is homeless and lives in poverty. (Library of Congress) percent of the older population, were officially classified as poor, that is, their income (or that of their families) fell below the income threshold defined by the Census Bureau as the poverty line for their family size. This percentage represented an all-time low for the poverty rate among older persons, which has declined fairly steadily since U.S. poverty statistics first became available in 1959. This decline was dramatic during the 1960s, during which time the rate dropped from about 35 percent to about 25 percent, and there were further sharp declines in the early 1970s (to about 15 percent) in the wake of significant Social Security increases that took place in that period. Plateauing during the "stagflation" of the late 1970s, the elderly poverty rate has since undergone further gradual improvement.

This evolution was accompanied by an equally dramatic shift in the age distribution of poverty. In 1959, older persons were experiencing rates of poverty substantially higher than those of any other age group. Their disadvantage, relative to children, did not diminish during the late 1960s as the War on Poverty was initiated; it actually appears to have widened somewhat during this period, when antipoverty initiatives focused heavily on families with children. By 1969, the child poverty rate had declined to below 15 percent (a rate it has not achieved since), compared to about 25 percent for older persons. However, beginning in the early 1970s, these age groups experienced a sharp reversal of relative fortune. By 1974, the 65+ poverty rate had improved to the point that it had overtaken the child poverty rate, and the two rates have continued to diverge. During the Reagan era of the 1980s, child poverty rates worsened while those for older people improved, and the gap has remained since. In the mid-1990s, the 65+ poverty rate began to dip below the rate for those aged eighteen to sixty-four, and was slightly below that rate in 1999 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000, p. ix).

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