LGBT Elders: Poverty's Challenges Worsen With Age

Published: June 3, 2013

At 81, George Stewart has been a longtime advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) older people in New York City. He’s a former Army clerk and U.S. Air Force court reporter, and last summer he was selected by the White House as one of six Champions of Change nationwide for LGBT Pride Month. Yet behind his active civic life and national profile lies another reality: George Stewart is low income, and as with millions of older people, he relies on federal assistance to supplement his income and on local services for community support. For many low-income LGBT older people, public assistance and support networks interlock as lifelines — ameliorating poverty, reducing isolation and helping to manage the slew of challenges that come with getting older. Unfortunately, despite the prevalence of poverty among elders in this country, including LGBT elders, these realities are rarely brought to light.

 Two reports issued this month do their part to begin filling the void. A new report from The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law provides new research on poverty among LGB people, while new analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation re-calculates poverty rates among elders when employing a more modern Census measure. Together, these studies substantiate what many in the LGBT aging field have known for years: the challenges associated with poverty intensify with age — and more so when one is lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender.

A new study from The Williams Institute, “New Patterns of Poverty in the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community,” shows higher and increasing poverty rates among lesbian, gay and bisexual people, with differing rates among lesbians, people living in rural areas, people with lower education levels, and African Americans, as four examples. (Transgender people aren’t studied in this report for a lack of related population data, according to the report’s authors.) The report cites that one in five LGB people who live alone report living at or below the poverty level, and many rely on public assistance, including food stamps. Unfortunately, the report does little to examine poverty rates among elders, and the authors rely on the official federal poverty measure for their analysis, which as described below, severely underestimates poverty among older people.

 On this topic, new analysis from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that poverty rates among people age 65 and older increase in every state (and double in size in 12 states) when using a new supplemental poverty measure adopted by the Census Bureau in 2011. Widely regarded as outdated, the official Census poverty measure has been criticized for not factoring out-of-pocket health care expenses or regional differences in cost of living (as two primary critiques). Using this new Census measure, Kaiser found that the national poverty rate among people age 65 and older grew from 9 to 15 percent. And when the same measure counted a more widely defined low-income population — elders with incomes up to 200 percent under the federal poverty line — it found that nearly 48 percent of people age 65 and older live in or near poverty. Overall, studies have consistently found that the highest rates of poverty are among elders age 80 and older, which should signal how poverty intensifies with age.

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