How Many Seniors Live in Poverty?

Running out of money in retirement is a major financial worry among America’s senior population. AARP reports that 49% of seniors fear they won’t have enough to tide them over. As a result, more and more older Americans who are technically “retired” are returning to the workforce to supplement their incomes with part-time work — for instance, by participating in the gig economy and working as drivers for ride-sharing services such as Uber or Lyft. According to Forbes, the U.S. is one of only two “rich” nations (by OECD standards) with an elder labor force participation rate of more than 30%. Japan is the only other country with a comparable level of wealth to fall into this category.

A nurse helps an assisted living home

Many factors are to blame for American seniors feeling a financial squeeze, from a decline in company-sponsored pension plans to an uptick in the freelance workforce. Federal coverage for seniors is also weak because of cuts to Social Security, as well as income tax on Social Security benefits. Additionally, the Social Security system rewards Americans for delaying claiming their benefits until they turn 70. As AARP explains, 8% is added to a person’s monthly payout for every year past their full retirement age (66 or 67, depending on birth year) that they wait to collect. Only a small percentage of eligible Social Security recipients do this, however; most need this money by the time they become eligible to collect it at age 62, and so they receive a smaller amount. So just how many seniors live in poverty — and what can be done to help them? This article examines the contributing factors and highlights key statistics, while also detailing ways to help.

The Problem of a Growing Elder Population

The problem of senior-aged adults living in poverty is not expected to go away anytime soon. In fact, it’s likely to worsen in the future. For one thing, people are living longer than they did in the past. This means they need their money to last longer once they hit retirement age. There is also the fact that healthcare costs tend to increase with age. People need more funds to address age-related conditions such as arthritis and osteoporosis, for example, to cover everything from prescription medications to physical therapy.

In a vicious cycle, poverty itself is associated with poor health outcomes: Poor populations exhibit higher rates of emphysema, kidney disease, and liver disease, according to America’s Health Rankings. While a condition like diabetes worsens if not properly managed, without access to affordable healthcare and drugs, the condition can’t be managed. On top of it all, healthcare costs are rising. For example, the costs of two major insulin drugs — a necessity for many diabetics — rose almost 8% in 2017, CBS News reports. This makes the costs of eldercare even higher and further overburdens an already struggling healthcare system.

How Many Seniors Live in Poverty?

So just how many seniors live in poverty? According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), about 25 million Americans over the age of 60 are living at or below 250% of the Federal Poverty Line — or $29,425 per year (for a one-person household). Percentages of FPL are often used to calculate a person’s eligibility for public health insurance, food stamps, and similar subsidies. For example, 250% FPL makes a person eligible for certain Affordable Care Act cost-sharing reductions. At the FPL income level, people are considered to be living a subsistence lifestyle. They may be struggling to meet basic needs such as rent, healthcare, and even food.

The NCOA further reports that some 21% of married Social Security recipients and 43% of unmarried recipients depend on Social Security for 90% of their income. Social Security provides recipients with $435 per month on average — which is understandably not enough to live on comfortably. Older women are particularly vulnerable, as they receive an estimated $4,500 less per year in Social Security benefits than men. Unfortunately, these numbers likely don’t paint the full picture when it comes to how many seniors live in poverty. There may be millions of seniors struggling to make ends meet each month who are not considered “poor” by the NCOA because they technically make enough to fall above 250% of the FPL.

Career Options for Those Who Want to Help

The Population Reference Bureau projects that the number of Americans aged 65 and older will reach 95 million by 2060 — almost doubling from the 2018 number of 52 million. At this point in the future, the 65-plus age group will make up 23% of the population (compared to 16% in 2018). Given this growing aging population, there will be a great demand for professionals in the eldercare field who can provide compassionate and skilled care, especially in the senior living context. A diversity of career options is available.

Individuals who are interested in supporting the aging population can pursue careers such as:

  • Assisted Living Administrator: These professionals support elder patients living in retirement communities. Their job is to oversee a well-functioning community, ensuring elders receive the care they need while also getting the support necessary to maintain as much independence as possible.
  • Senior Care Consultant: This role involves providing elderly individuals with guidance about proper care, insurance, finances, and more. Advising seniors on money-related issues such as insurance premiums can help them save money.·
  • Assisted Living Compliance Officer: Compliance officers ensure that assisted living communities are run in line with health and safety regulations. They are employed by the state, usually by the health department, and they play a valuable role in making sure these communities are clean, safe, and free of fraud and abuse.
  •  Sales Consultant: The market for senior-specific products, from medical devices to emergency fall alert systems, is growing. Sales consultants in this niche area work with assisted living communities to make sure the seniors there have everything they need for optimum quality of life.

Given the steady demand for their expertise, professionals working in these eldercare fields should expect a reliable income. Salaries vary depending on the precise role, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For instance, the BLS reports a median annual wage of $21,160 for home health aides, compared to $81,940 for health services managers. Administrative services managers earn an annual median wage of $96,180, according to 2018 figures.

The Utility of a Bachelor’s in Healthcare Management with a Certificate in Senior Living Management

Individuals who are interested in a career supporting a healthier and happier senior population can benefit from Maryville University’s online bachelor’s in healthcare management with a certificate in senior living management. This program prepares students for a rewarding career in elder care, equipping them with the skills needed to enhance seniors’ lives.

The degree focuses on providing a foundational basis in healthcare along with the management skills needed to oversee organizations and lead others. The curriculum includes courses such as Introduction to Healthcare Industry and Management, Professionalism & Communications in the Healthcare Setting, Aging and Physiological Adaptation, and Long Term Care and Laws and Regulations. Graduates of this comprehensive program are ready to enter the working world and make a positive difference in the lives of America’s seniors.

Recommended Reading

How to Become a Senior Care Consultant

Careers in Healthcare Management

How to Become an Activities Director at a Nursing Home


AARP, “Almost Half of Americans Fear Running Out of Money in Retirement”

AARP, “When It Comes to Social Security, 70 Is the New 65!”

America’s Health Rankings, Public Health Impact: Poverty — Seniors

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Career Outlook, “Careers in Hospice Care”

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Administrative Services Managers

CBS News, “Big Pharma Ushers in New Year by Raising Prices of More Than 1,000 Drugs”

Forbes, “America’s Unusual High Rates of Old-Age Poverty and Old-Age Work”

Kaiser Family Foundation, “How Many Seniors Live in Poverty?”

National Council on Aging, “Economic Security for Seniors Facts”

The New York Times, “Your Uber Driver Is ‘Retired’? You Shouldn’t Be Surprised”

Population Reference Bureau, “Population Bulletin: Aging in the United States”

U.S. News & World Report, “The History of Your Social Security Payments”

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