Hunger Increasing for Seniors
By Robin Stephenson
The lights have dimmed on the golden years for 8.8 million U.S. seniors who are facing hunger. The State of Senior Hunger in America 2011: An Annual Report, which was published in August, shows a disturbing trend—increasing rates of food insecurity for elderly citizens. From 2007 to 2011, the height of the Great Recession, the number of seniors experiencing the threat of hunger increased by 42 percent.
One of those seniors is Gloria, a Washington resident in her early 70s. In 2009, she was laid off from her job at a local hotel. After she went through her modest savings and was still unable to find work, getting enough food became a struggle. With the help of an emergency food box program and family support, she made it through—not to the idyllic life of leisure that is the promise of old age in this country, but to a more secure financial state.
“It’s almost impossible when you are older to get a job," Gloria says. "It’s a constant worry if you are going to make it through or you have to go bother one of your kids and live with them. I know a lot of seniors who feel that way. I’ve heard my friends say they don’t think the government cares about us.”
Gloria’s story is all too common; she is grateful to have recently found a part-time minimum wage job in the rural Washington community where she has lived most of her life. Social security provides her with a meager $800 per month—barely enough to keep food on the table and cover her bills.
The bulk of her working life was spent in the fruit industry—the sort of blue-collar employment that is a mainstay of rural economies. “The packing shed didn’t have a 401K,” she notes. “For most women in rural areas, there are not jobs that provide them with a retirement plan.
“You pay into the system when you work, but a dollar doesn’t go as far now," Gloria continues. "At this point in time, with the cost of living, the price of gas, I can’t see that I can retire.”
The report prepared for the National Council to End Senior Hunger concludes with a warning that mounting food insecurity in an aging population will lead to additional public health costs. To stem growing health care expenditures requires reducing food insecurity for older Americans.
For the elderly, health care and medicine are often their largest out-of-pocket expenses. Working helps Gloria afford supplemental insurance to augment her Medicare—for now.
As members of Congress return from recess, decisions that they will make could have dire consequences for the nearly one in six food insecure seniors. Unless sequestration is replaced with a balanced approach, it will continue to cut senior nutrition programs, like Meals on Wheels. Proposed cuts to the SNAP program would cast a pall on the golden years of even more senior citizens.
How we treat our elders, most of whom have spent a lifetime contributing to our economy, matters. Seniors will choose to experience their retirement differently, but a Christian response must include setting a context where those years can be spent in fullness and dignity—not in hunger.
Robin Stephenson is national social media lead and senior regional organizer, western hub, at Bread for the World.
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