Last week, WOW’s Elder Economic Security Initiative unveiled the findings of a new WOW report on senior economic insecurity in Bergen and Passaic Counties, NJ, at a briefing hosted by the Institute for Learning in Retirement. The briefing, jointly sponsored by WOW and the New Jersey Foundation for Aging (NJFA), featured highlights of the report, which is based on focus groups with local seniors and data from the NJ Elder Index, as well as policy recommendations to address the issues it surfaces. A mix of AAAs, service providers, policymakers, researchers and other stakeholders participated in the gathering. The report was made possible by a grant from the Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation.
“STRUGGLING TO GET BY: ELDER ECONOMIC INSECURITY IN BERGEN AND PASSAIC COUNTIES” relates through vivid, first-person accounts the lived experiences of seniors trying to make ends meet in a challenging environment. WOW Senior Scholar Dr. Mary Gatta authored the report,conducting focus groups with 76 union retirees and residents of senior subsidized housing. WOW’s purpose was to get behind the numbers and statistics and show the reality of how seniors are living day to day—both to increase understanding and to inform policy and program development. Bottom line findings are:
- Economic insecurity exists across demographic groups.
- Public supports are essential, but often inadequate.
- Seniors’ economic security is frequently impacted by their families’ economic security.
- Seniors have significant concerns for the future (their own and others).
In addition to the report WOW developed a series of fact sheets focusing in on key findings from the research:
- Scarce Housing Assistance Is Crucial to Bergen and Passaic County Seniors Who Fall Below the Economic Security Line
- Public Assistance Can Fail to Keep Bergen and Passaic County Seniors Above the Economic Security Line
- Social Security Fails to Prevent Women in Bergen and Passaic Counties from Falling Below the Economic Security Line
I sat in on some of these discussions and heard individuals’ candid, compelling and often poignant stories. Many were caught by surprise as their resources fell short in their “retirement” years. For example:
Working those years, saving, I thought I would be 100 percent secure. Instead, I feel like I’ve got zero!
I spend my entire pension and Social Security every month, and I can’t save any money. If I have a problem with my car, I can’t fix it. This isn’t the way I imagined it would be when I retired.
Those who managed to get scarce public assistance appreciated it—but had doubts as to whether they could count on it to continue, given political and budgetary pressures. And a large number expressed anxiety about an uncertain future where health and long-term care costs continue to rise, adult children struggle to find and keep employment, and grandchildren lack funds for education and basic necessities.
If a silver lining could be found in these conversations, it lay in the resilience and humor these seniors displayed, and the willingness they demonstrated to stretch their own limited means to help their families, even as their struggling families tried to support them.
The challenges faced by older individuals documented in this report are hardly isolated to Bergen and Passaic Counties; they can be seen across the nation. With cuts in funding for basic supports such as food and housing assistance, as well as Older Americans Act and other services, many vulnerable older persons are at risk of worse days ahead. Our aim is to galvanize government at all levels to act—based on knowledge of what’s happening in real people’s lives—to support programs and policies that promote genuine economic security for seniors and their families.