COMMENTARY: Rising poverty rate for older adults must be stopped

By Ramsey Alwin

For three years in a row, more Americans 65 and older are living in poverty—robbed of their ability to age with dignity. This is simply unacceptable in a country as rich as ours. Nor does it bode well for the 4.4 million Americans turning 65 in 2024.

The latest U.S. Census numbers show that under the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), the older-adult poverty rate jumped from 9.5 percent in 2020 to 10.7 percent in 2021 to 14 percent in 2022. Alarmingly, poverty among children also shot up to 12.4 percent in 2022 from a historic low of 5.2 percent in 2021.

Yet, the latest numbers also point us to the solution—the tremendous power of government programs. Social Security alone moved 20 million older adults out of poverty. Combined, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), housing subsidies, and the Supplemental Security Income lifted 1.6 million older adults out of poverty.

We have the programs in place to alleviate poverty. Now we need the political will and resources to do so. 

Right now, 5 million older adults are missing out on SNAP alone, amounting to $6.3 billion each year. Overall, we estimate that eligible older adults are leaving $30 billion on the table annually because they’re not enrolled in public benefits. NCOA and 56 other national health organizations are urging House and Senate leaders to provide permanent, annual funding of $75 million for benefits outreach and enrollment efforts. 

Many Americans support these programs. In our recent survey of women ages 25 and older, respondents expressed strong bipartisan support for 13 policies to ensure a secure retirement, including making Social Security cost-of-living adjustments reflect the cost of housing and healthcare and increasing benefits above the federal poverty level. 

It’s time to stop this upward trend in poverty in its tracks—for Americans of all ages.

Ramsey Alwin is president of the National Council on Aging (NCOA), a non-profit organization advocating for older adults. This article was originally released in September by NCOA as a statement from Alwin.