During this season of Jack Frost at the window and fires in the hearth, it's time we sharpen our focus on the seniors who could be, quite literally, left in the cold. The challenges of navigating the winter months as a low-income senior are immense. For 6.3 million older adults in the United States, wintertime stretches the term "fixed income" into a reality of fixed poverty. For increasing numbers of seniors who face the multifaceted vulnerabilities of poverty even during the sunniest of days, the winter can cost more than many can afford.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts the U.S. average expense to heat a home with natural gas this winter to be $642 ($107/mo). For homes using electricity for heat, the average expense rises to $949 ($158/mo). For most low-income seniors, this added expense means a choice of less food or other necessities, or a dangerously cold living space. The aging homeless are particularly vulnerable in winter with a greater susceptibility to hypothermia and frostbite -- half of the people who die in the U.S. from hypothermia each year are 65 or older, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Cold weather also brings with it extreme physical risks for an aging population such as slipping on ice and falling, triggering a domino effect of injuries, hospitalization, medical expenses, and sometimes death. In snow and storms, many seniors face potential isolation from necessary resources such as food programs like Meals on Wheels or free rideshare programs to doctor visits, further stretching already stretched budgets. As you can see, being a poor senior -- especially in the wintertime -- is a matter of basic survival.
We must address the growing issue of senior poverty: No one should die from lack of heat in the winter. A good first step is to update the cornerstone federal safety-net program for low-income seniors and people with disabilities. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) was created by Congress in 1972 with the intention of covering the most basic needs of seniors and people with disabilities in extreme poverty - basic needs like heated shelter. Due to inflation and modern living costs, SSI now falls short of this intention and fails its recipients, including the 2.1 million adults over 65 who receive SSI. Some aspects of SSI have not been updated for 40 years, amounting to below-the-poverty-line incomes with financially-stagnating resource constraints.
At a basic level, the Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act, introduced in the Senate in March 2014, seeks to update the resource and income eligibility rules and repeal financial constraints of SSI that are hurting, not helping, elderly seniors' ability to make ends meet. For those who qualify (by either age and/or disability), SSI currently provides a federal benefit of only $721 per month to individuals or $1,082 per couple (in some states, the benefit is enhanced slightly by a state supplement). There is also a very low limit -- only $2,000 -- on how much someone can save for emergencies or plan for home expenses like higher winter heating bills and still receive SSI.
Another area in need of updating involves SSI's income disregard. The rules for qualifying for SSI disregard are $20 in other general income and $65 in earned income. These rules were meant to reward an individual who earned a pension or a Social Security benefit by working throughout their lives by not counting that income against them when determining the level of help they get from SSI. But these amounts -- $20 and $65 -- have not changed since 1972. Using the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the relative value of $20 of today's money would have amounted to $3.60 in 1972.
Most people have an idea of practical ways to keeps seniors safe this winter: space heaters, rubber-soled boots, or clearing your elderly neighbor's icy sidewalks. But the big-picture safety issues unfortunately cannot be solved with a shovel and some salt. If we truly want our seniors to be safe and warm during the winter, we must focus on their economic security and take action now to expand and improve SSI.