Aging in New York: City Wrestles with Poverty Among Seniors

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A senior citizen and a caregiver on their way to a senior center run by University Settlement on Allen Street in Manhattan. By 2030, one in five New Yorkers will be older than 60.

Adi Talwar

A senior citizen and a caregiver on their way to a senior center run by University Settlement on Allen Street in Manhattan. By 2030, one in five New Yorkers will be older than 60.

“Inadequate income continues to be a critical problem facing the elderly in New York City.” – NYC Department for the Aging Annual Plan Summary, September 2014.

Roma Lowther began planning for retirement in 1974, the year she immigrated from Granada and took her first job in New York. As a nanny, she asked the families she worked for to pay her on the books so her earnings would count toward her future Social Security. Most did not, so she took temp jobs doing telex in the garment center to beef up her Social Security credits. She tried the stock market and bought certificates of deposit at her local Chemical Bank. She says she “never, never” got paid without putting some of the money aside for her children’s education and her own old age.

Now 69, Lowther still works one day a week cooking for a family whose grown children she had cared for when they were little. Having amassed just “the bare quarters” to qualify, she receives $441 a month in Social Security benefits. The Washington Heights apartment she has lived in for thirty-five years is rent-stabilized, and her son, a financial advisor who lives with her part-time, pays the $1,100 rent. She’s grateful –she’d struggle to pay bills beyond the rent without his help – and says overall in retirement, she’s “doing okay.”

In her own apartment a few blocks away, Lowther’s 91-year old mother, Veronica Williams, also a steady saver, has little left of her nest egg. Her own nanny jobs were never on the books, so she receives not Social Security but Supplemental Security Income, a federal support for low-income seniors. Increasingly, she has needed other forms of outside help. Government assistance has come in the form of food stamps, a rent freeze brokered by a city program, and daily home-delivered meals. A fall on a slippery sidewalk last winter qualified her for a home health aide to help her dress and bathe.

“When you see her, my God, she looks good,” says Lowther. “But she’s getting of age and she’s not as capable as she was for getting along by herself.”

New York City’s senior population is growing bigger than ever, living longer than ever, and getting poorer. Over 1.4 million New Yorkers are currently age 60 and older; by 2030, that number will rise to over 1.8 million, making seniors twenty percent of city residents. The number of seniors 60-64 years old is growing, as is the number of “older old,” those 85 and older, and the city’s Department for the Aging estimates that seniors will outnumber school-age children by 2030. As a group, they can expect to live well into their 70s and 80s and beyond, as average life expectancies have hit record highs. But nearly 20 percent of seniors live in poverty. Immigrants and women like Lowther and her mother are among the most challenged in making ends meet.

“The percentage of seniors living in poverty is staggering, ” says NYC Department for the Aging Commissioner Donna Corrado. “Too many older New Yorkers make difficult choices about purchasing food, medicine and paying their rent.”

Whether and how the city’s seniors can pay for housing, food and healthcare on fixed and limited incomes is an open question, one the city and advocates for the aging are attempting to address with initiatives to get more money in seniors’ pockets, to create and preserve affordable housing, and to maintain and grow supports and services that promote healthy aging at home. This year the de Blasio administration, through the Department for the Aging (DFTA), the Department of Finance, and the Human Resources Administration has embarked on a major push to expand enrollment in housing and food assistance programs. But many seniors are struggling.

National problem, worse here

How seniors can make ends meet is a question the whole country is grappling with. “Retirement Security” is a major topic at this year’s once-a-decade White House Conference on Aging, which gathers a group with diverse expertise in the aging field to develop policy recommendations for lawmakers regarding the nation’s seniors. Many older workers took hits to wages, investments and employment during the Great Recession, and about 75 million Americans – half the workforce – have no access to retirement plans through their employers, conference documents note. “These workers need more ways to save for retirement and prepare for unforeseen expenses,” it states. According to the National Council on Aging, almost 75 percent of single Social Security recipients aged 65 and older depend on that monthly check for all or most of their income. In New York state, 80 percent of households have “no meaningful retirement income beyond Social Security,” DFTA reports.

Although national poverty rates for seniors declined from 12.8 percent to 9.5 percent from 1990 to 2012, in New York City, the poverty rate among older adults increased by 15 percent during that period, rising from 16.5 percent to 19.1 percent, according to DFTA. The rise in the number of immigrant seniors contributed to that increase, since immigrants comprise nearly half the city’s total senior population. A quarter of immigrant seniors live in poverty as compared to 15 percent for U.S.-born New Yorkers, DFTA notes. The median income for immigrant seniors in New York City is $9,900 a year, as compared to $18,300 a year for native-born seniors, note the authors “The New Face of New York’s Seniors,” a 2013 report from the think-tank Center for an Urban Future.

Nationally, Social Security and Medicare benefits are widely credited with bringing down rates of senior poverty by providing retirement income and healthcare coverage to seniors, but in New York City, nearly a third of immigrant seniors do not receive Social Security benefits. Depending on when they arrived in the U.S., they may not have worked long enough to qualify, or they may have worked in jobs that paid them off the books. Those who immigrated in older age may not have worked at all. In cases where immigrants do receive Social Security, their benefits are often lower than those of native-born New Yorkers. “As a group, immigrant seniors have lower incomes than their native-born counterparts and much less in retirement savings,” and “receive far fewer benefits from entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare,” the CUF report notes.

Lowther worked as a nanny for decades, but qualified for Social Security with “just the bare quarters, nothing extra,” and the amount she receives each month reflects that, she says. “That’s one of the downfalls of that kind of work.”

“The last full-time job, I begged them to pay, but they would not do it,” says Lowther. “Your heart just breaks, to know how hard I have worked in this country. You know, I hustled, and they deprived me of that.”

A survey released by AARP this week found that 66 percent of Generation X voters, who began turning 50 this year, said they were at least somewhat likely to move out of New York City during retirement, largely for financial reasons.

Women fare worse

On a warm spring afternoon in Flushing, Fong Wing Lau, 50, holds her grandmother’s arm as they slowly walk down the sidewalk, then pauses to help the older woman remove her jacket. Zhong Huan Liu, 90, immigrated to New York from China’s Guangdong Province a decade ago and doesn’t like the city much, her granddaughter says. Liu is not a citizen and receives no Social Security, Lau says. Liu shares a one-bedroom apartment with her son, but while he works during the week, Lau takes care of her grandmother – all day, five days a week.

Lau’s unpaid caregiving is likely to cost her in her own retirement. Statistics from the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER) indicate that the average woman spends seven years out of the workforce doing unpaid caregiving. An estimated 2.3 million residents of New York State are caregivers providing support for activities of daily living to older individuals, a figure that does not include people under age 18 who provide such care, says a State Office for Aging spokesman.

Women face a number of hurdles to amassing adequate income to weather their later years. “Older women typically receive about $4,000 less annually in Social Security than older men due to lower lifetime earnings, time taken off for caregiving, occupational segregation into lower wage work, and other issues,” according to the National Council on Aging. “Women of color fare even worse.”

In New York City, more than one in five older women live in poverty, a rate 6.3 percent greater than that of older men, according to DFTA. Among older women who live alone, one in three is poor, DFTA finds.

In addition, women are projected to live longer, on average, than men. Current life expectancy at birth for men in New York City is about 78 years, while for women it is about 83 years. A woman who has already reached the age of 70 is now projected to live another 16 to 17 years, according to a 2013 report from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. That means women not only start with lower lifetime wages and savings but also need their income to last for longer periods of time.

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Across the U.S., caregivers – 69 percent of whom are women – provide $450 billion worth of unpaid care to the nation’s seniors. What’s more, they pay an estimated $5,531 in out-of-pocket costs annually, finds the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement. With present earnings and potential retirement savings lost during periods of caregiving, the work takes a heavy toll on current and future retirement income.

Challenge of caregiving

Caregiving is a key 21st century workforce issue for women, says Bobbie Sackman, public policy director of LiveOn, an organization of more than 200 senior services agencies formerly known as the Council of Senior Centers and Services. “The talk is always about childcare, but what about eldercare?” she asks. “That’s what’s going on.”

Indeed, one of Sackman’s colleagues at LiveOn, who asked not to be named to protect the privacy of her 91-year old mother, says she has paid $40,000 of her own money to have a home-health aide to help her mother, whose medical expenses are not entirely covered by Medicare, remain in their home. Her mother was a teacher whose pension and Social Security benefits carried her through her 70s and 80s, but “now all of her money is going to home care,” her daughter says.

The daughter, who is 56, single, and has savings from a previous job, says she wants to do whatever she can to care for her mother, just as her mother did in raising her. But she does worry, “in the sense that, ‘hey, money I’m spending [on her mother’s medical bills] is not money I’m putting in a 401k or saving,’ and I also think, ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen to me when I’m that age?'”

“People don’t get it that it’s not just the older person who’s affected,” she says.

James Kim, a social worker and president of Korean Community Services, which runs two senior centers in Queens, says he wishes there were more incentives and better tax credits to help families who care for older family members. Kim says although Korean culture favors family caregivers, housing and income hurdles have made it harder for families to live out this ideal, and between 35 and 40 percent of the seniors 60 and older he helps live alone. Families can file to have elder members qualify as dependents for tax purposes, but the process is complex and limited both on benefit levels and who qualifies.

New York City’s senior population is growing bigger than ever, living longer than ever, and getting poorer – in recent years the rate of seniors in poverty has risen to nearly one in five. Over 1.4 million New Yorkers are currently age 60 and older; by 2030, that number will rise to over 1.8 million, making seniors twenty percent of city residents. This story is the second in a three-part City Limits series looking at the challenges facing aging New York, and how the city is trying to respond.