Op-Ed

Helping struggling seniors and disabled

TNS

As the Baby Boom generation grays, about 10,000 Americans turn 65 every day. Although overall inflation rates are low, the costs of many basic necessities from healthcare to housing continue to rise, pushing many seniors into poverty.

According to the latest government figures, 6.4 million Americans over age 65 are living in poverty. In Florida, 11 percent of seniors over 65 live below the poverty line, which is $11,770 a year for a senior living alone. Florida shares the spot for eighth-highest poverty rate among seniors in the nation.

It’s even worse in South Florida. In Miami-Dade, more than 22 percent of seniors aged 65 and over live in poverty, in Broward County about 14 percent of such seniors live in poverty — that is more than 124,000 seniors in Miami-Dade and Broward counties living below the poverty line. Thousands of seniors, many who thought they were prepared for retirement before the 2008 recession decimated their life savings, now find themselves choosing between food and medicine every day.

Among particularly hard-hit seniors are those receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI). SSI is a safety-net program administered by the Social Security Administration that provides a very basic income to the poorest people among us — older adults and people with disabilities who have few or no other income or resources. It has not been substantially updated since it was signed into law in 1972, leaving many of its recipients living below the federal poverty line.

Unfortunately, Congress has been slow to respond to this crisis, including members of Florida’s own Congressional delegation.

The full federal monthly benefit available for individual SSI recipients is $733, a figure that requires recipients to live at just 75 percent of the federal poverty level. It’s no surprise that hunger, malnutrition and homelessness are on the rise for senior citizens in Florida and across the nation.

In 2013, 9 percent of all households that included seniors experienced hunger. Those numbers are projected to increase by 50 percent in the next decade, while homelessness among seniors is projected to double over the next three decades if present trends continue.

Fortunately, several lawmakers in Washington — led by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders — have introduced a bill to update the SSI program so that it can fulfill its promise of lifting seniors and people with disabilities out of poverty.

The SSI Restoration Act of 2015 (S. 1387 in the Senate, and a companion bill, H.R. 2442 in the House) would make some simple changes to the program so that the income and asset limits are more in line with today’s economic realities, enabling those seniors who rely on SSI to buy food, stay in their homes and continue to access the healthcare they need.

For example, one simple change would update the amount of allowable income from other sources (such as pensions or traditional Social Security) from $20 (which is worth only $3 in 1972 dollars) to $112 a month. That is a reasonable fix that would make life just a little bit easier for the more 550,000 Florida SSI recipients who have nothing else to fall back on.

With such large numbers of seniors living in poverty and dependent on SSI in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, Florida’s Congressional delegation should stop the foot-dragging and actively support the SSI Restoration Act of 2015.

As the Social Security program celebrates its 80th birthday this year, it’s time to commit not only to preserving the nation’s most successful anti-poverty program, but also expanding it so that it can continue to provide hope and dignity to growing numbers of seniors.

Timothy A. Canova is a professor of law and public finance at Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law in Fort Lauderdale.

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