Author Archives: Jo Reed

To Be Savored: A Victory for New Jersey Seniors

When I heard that Governor Chris Christie had signed the New Jersey Elder Index bill, I was thrilled. A long-term collaboration between Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) and the New Jersey Foundation for Aging had finally culminated in enactment of a bill (A3504/S2231) which will really make a difference for New Jersey seniors!

The new law, sponsored in the state legislature by Assemblyman Joseph Lagana and Senator Loretta Weinberg, gives NJ’s Department of Human Services (DHS) a powerful tool for assessing and addressing the needs of seniors in the state—the New Jersey Elder Economic Security Standard Index (NJ Elder Index). The NJ Elder Index is based on WOW’s Elder Economic Security Standard Index (Elder Index), which was developed by WOW in association with UMass Boston Gerontology Institute.  The Elder Index is a measure of what it costs older adults to make ends meet—at a very basic level—in every state and county across the nation.

In New Jersey, many Area Agencies on Aging and other nonprofits have been using the NJ Elder Index for years to understand and plan around the economic conditions of those they serve, but this legislation takes it to a whole new level. The state itself will update the NJ Elder Index annually, and will consult it in making recommendations for program funding, suggesting public benefit eligibility levels, benchmarking program impacts, designing public outreach, and evaluating case management.  On top of that, DHS will calculate long-term care costs for NJ seniors—a potentially very large expense for which older adults are often unprepared. Armed with this data and related research, DHS can create a more meaningful and effective response to senior needs now and in the future.

The victory is sweet for the citizens of New Jersey, specifically its seniors, and for WOW and the New Jersey Foundation for Aging (NJFA). NJFA’s Executive Director, Grace Egan and Program Manager, Melissa Chalker, have both spent many hours in briefings, presentations, and personal conversations with fellow nonprofit staff, county and state policymakers, and anyone else who would listen about the economic insecurity faced by NJ elders. A strong voice for policies and programs that help fill the gaps for struggling seniors, NJFA has constantly been in the trenches fighting to preserve and expand energy, food and housing assistance for those struggling to get by.

And so we pause to celebrate the moment, salute our partners, and acknowledge, with appreciation, the foresight of NJ’s Governor and legislators who have just taken a step forward for elder economic security. Hats off to all!

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NJ Elder Index Bill Blazes through State Senate

The New Jersey Senate moved quickly and unanimously today to advance elder economic security. By a vote of 39-0, Senators passed A3504/S2231, as reported out just a week before by the Senate Health, Human Services, and Senior Citizens Committee, following testimony by WOW and its partner, NJ Foundation for Aging (NJFA).

The NJ Assembly had passed the same bill by a near-unanimous vote on November 14th.  From here, it goes to the Governor’s desk for review and the hoped-for signature that would enact it into law.

The legislation requires the Department of Human Services to use and update the NJ Elder Index and related data, within the limits of available funds and resources, as a planning tool to improve the coordination and delivery of public benefits and services to older New Jerseyans. Loretta Weinberg, Senate Majority Leader, became a champion of the legislation early on, and worked across the aisle and across chambers—with  Assemblyman Joseph Lagana and other sponsors in the Assembly—to ensure that her colleagues understood the value and potential impact of using a more accurate measure of seniors’ financial condition and needs.

WOW and NJFA are delighted by the progress of this common sense bill. The use of the NJ Elder Index will contribute concretely to good stewardship of state human service dollars based on a clear picture of elders’ economic needs.

Say Yes to Elder Economic Security!

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Elder Economic Security and the FY2016 Budget

Older adults will find much to cheer about in President Obama’s just-released 2016 budget—and a few reasons to be concerned. Given WOW’s research findings that nearly half of fully-retired, elder-only households are economically insecure, budget proposals regarding federal programs that support seniors are critical.

Elder women–and women of color in particular–suffer markedly higher levels of economic insecurity, and have been heavily impacted by severe cuts in these programs in recent years. The President’s rejection of sequestration as “mindless austerity” is a welcome opportunity to begin restoring some of the losses in these programs.

We are also pleased by the Administration’s continued efforts to address the retirement savings crisis through proposals for auto-enrollment IRAs and access to retirement plans for part-time workers. Building retirement security is especially important for older women, who are significantly disadvantaged by the long-term effects of occupational segregation, interrupted work to provide care to children or elderly parents, and pay inequity, among other factors.

Other features of note in the budget :

Older Americans Act. The budget sustains core programs that assist older adults and people of all ages with disabilities. New funding is provided for home and community-based services, such as assistance with daily activities, rides to the doctor, pharmacy and grocery store, and adult day services.  Increases are also provided for senior nutrition programs—both congregate and home-delivered meals. In addition, an increase is proposed for Elder Rights Support activities to protect vulnerable older adults from abuse and exploitation.

Social Security. No cuts are proposed in Social Security and the budget would transfer some desperately needed tax revenue from the retirement (Old-Age and Survivors Insurance) trust fund to the Disability Insurance (DI) trust fund. Lacking replenishment, the DI fund will abruptly reduce benefits to individuals with disabilities in 2016. Reallocation between the funds has been done 11 times before, and this one would not significantly worsen Social Security’s larger solvency challenge. The transfer provision is a rebuke to House Republicans who passed a new rule in their rules package governing the 114th Congress to prevent such action unless the overall Social Security/DI solvency problem was addressed—pitting retirees against those with disabilities and setting the stage for “crisis” action that could result in poorly conceived “reforms” in Social Security.

The budget makes no reference to the chained consumer price index (C-CPI), an alternative formula for updating Social Security payments that would actually cut benefits. The Administration had included the C-CPI in its FY2014 budget, so its absence in the current plan is good news. Advocates will be watching for any reappearance of this proposal in the budget debate to come.

Medicare. The schedule for closing the Medicare Part D “donut hole” for brand drugs is sped up in this budget, targeting 2017 rather than 2020. The proposal, which builds on savings already achieved through the Affordable Care Act, would lower drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries. The Secretary is also given new authority to negotiate with manufacturers to reduce prices for high cost drugs and biologics covered under Part D. On the other hand, costs to beneficiaries would rise through a co-payment for new Medicare beneficiaries who receive home health care services and a surcharge on premiums for some. Higher premiums, deductibles and co-payments represent a cost-shift to beneficiaries that is opposed by senior advocates.

It is common to dismiss the President’s budget as DOA—dead on arrival—given the Republican majorities in the US House and Senate. But he has set forth a framework to which Congress and stakeholders must react. Its full impact is yet unknown—and it’s too soon for last rites.

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“I thought I would be secure…”– Seniors in NJ Face Tough Realities

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:

  1. Scarce Housing Assistance Is Crucial to Bergen and Passaic  County Seniors Who Fall Below the Economic Security Line
  2. Public Assistance Can Fail to Keep Bergen and Passaic County Seniors Above the Economic Security Line
  3. 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.

 

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Going the Distance—and Winning

QUOTATION OF THE DAY 

“I have three messages. One is we should never ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport but it takes a team.”

DIANA NYAD, upon completing a swim from Cuba to Florida after five attempts over 35 years.

Can any of us fail to be inspired by the pluck, determination and astonishing achievement of Diana Nyad?  At 64 years old and on her 5th attempt over 36 years, Nyad finally accomplished what no one had before:  an uninterrupted swim from Cuba to Florida, unprotected by a shark cage. It took nearly 53 hours. As she slogged, exhausted but jubilant, through cheering throngs on the beach at Key West, she wasted no time in getting three messages across—lessons that each of us, regardless of our age, ability, challenge or dream needs to hear and absorb:

Never give up. This spirit will see us through anything. I remember watching Nyad in an earlier interview comment that every time she was tempted to succumb to her pain or self-doubt in approaching this goal, she would say to herself, “Find another way.”  I often joke that my favorite function on my car’s global positioning system (GPS) is that reliable–if occasionally condescending–voice that says “Recalculating…” It means I’ll get there somehow. Nyad, like all champions, has internalized this function.

You’re never too old. What a statement about the enduring power of dreams–when we allow ourselves to keep them alive. Nyad embodies the truth that age is not a barrier to achievement. And effectively, she challenges the cultural norm that an aging body needs to be hidden. Nyad exhibits not just fitness and physical strength, but the beauty of character, confidence and a strong sense of mission.

It takes a team. Nyad acknowledges she could not have done this alone. This message, too, transcends sport and offers a path to resolution of all manner of contemporary social and political issues. Somebody has to lead. But without collaboration and support, even an individual of outstanding talents will only get so far.

Wider Opportunities for Women celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2014. Through these years, we’ve been pressing for empowerment, equity, and economic security for working women and their families. Eight years ago, WOW launched its Elder Initiative to extend those efforts to older adults, working or retired. Like those on whose behalf we labor, we resonate with the themes Nyad has articulated. We won’t give up. We are stronger for the years of experience we’ve accumulated. And we rely on and learn together with our team, both here and across our partner network. Thank you, Diana Nyad, for being a great model and inspiration for all of us.

 

 

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Massachusetts to Study, Strategize on Elder Economic Security; Sets the Pace for other States

This week, WOW’s Elder Economic Security Initiative (EESI) headed to Boston to celebrate a victory with our partner, the Massachusetts Association of Older Americans (MAOA):  just last month, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted and the Governor signed a Commission on Elder Economic Security—the first commission that we know of to focus on the particular economic challenges of elders in the state. The Elder Economic Security Commission will make recommendations that will help older residents remain in their communities.

Championed and soon to be led by MA House and Senate Elder Affairs Committee Chairs Sen. Patricia Jehlen and Rep. Jim O’Day—both respected senior advocates–the Commission was the brainchild of the MA Elder Economic Security Initiative, headed by MAOA Executive Director Chet Jakubiak and supported by WOW.  Chet reached out to leading MA aging advocates who in turn jumped in to promote the effort. While a number of Commission appointments await action by the Governor, already included are the Secretary of Elder Affairs and the Undersecretary of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, among others. MAOA and UMass Boston Gerontology Institute, which developed the Elder Index in conjunction with WOW, as well as many like-minded groups in the aging community, are also on board.

So why a Commission, and why now? According to a 2012 WOW state ranking of elder household income shortfalls, Massachusetts has the biggest gap between median income and necessary expenses for single elderly renters in the nation. In dollar terms, this gap is well over $10,000—meaning the median combined Social Security, pension and other retirement income for a single MA renter age 65+ covers only 62% of costs for such essentials as food, housing, transportation, and out-of-pocket health costs. Moreover, the elder economic security gap has widened in Massachusetts between 2006 and 2012, and is even more severe for senior women and—especially—elder women of color.

The Commission will spend the next year assessing the economic security of the Commonwealth’s seniors and exploring strategies to strengthen it. Its mission is to “identify the policy and program options now available to older adults, and consider best practices for enhancing elder economic security, including…using such measures as the Massachusetts Elder Economic Security Standard.” The commission will also look at funding needed to increase economic security for the growing elder population. Creating this kind of structure is one way state governments can demonstrate their concern for elders and move to assess and meet their needs. Such structures, or temporary government bodies, can borrow or create their own definitions of security as a starting point for action.

This work is both timely and significant. In convening the Commission, the MA Legislature is recognizing not only seniors’ needs, but also their important contribution to the Commonwealth’s economy now and in the future. WOW congratulates Massachusetts and MAOA on this important step forward, and urges other states to follow their lead.

WOW Elder Economic Security Initiative Director Jo Reed celebrates creation of MA Elder Economic Security Commission with MAOA Executive Director Chet Jakubiak in Boston.

MAOA Jo & Chet v.2

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Bad News Made Worse: The Chained CPI and Retirees

Michael Fletcher’s article, Fiscal Trouble Ahead for Most Future Retirees,” (2/16, Washington Post), offers a compelling analysis of the challenges facing future retirees. He notes that some 53 percent of American workers age 30 and older are on a path to an insecure future—a “sharp deterioration” since 2001, when only 38 percent of Americans were in this position, and even earlier in 1989, when less than a third anticipated such risks. This unfortunate trajectory results from a number of overlapping trends, including loss or erosion of personal earnings during and following the Great Recession, weakened public and private savings mechanisms (e.g. transition from defined benefit pensions to defined contribution plans), and the need to draw down retirement assets for current living needs.

In fact, that 53 percent calculation may represent a rosy scenario. The estimate is a near-match for the 52 percent of retired seniors (age 65+) who are already facing economic insecurity, according to an analysis of US Census Bureau data by Wider Opportunities for Women. Based on WOW’s National Elder Economic Security StandardTM Index (Elder Index), over half of elder-only households reported 2010 incomes that did not cover basic, daily expenses. The Elder Index shows that while an older woman living alone received on average $13,168 in annual Social Security income, she needed $22,848 to achieve security. Continue reading

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