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October 06, 2013 3:09 PM The New York Times on the scary growth in extreme poverty among the elderly: A for effort, F for policy prescription

By Kathleen Geier

Today’s New York Times features an important, and frightening, editorial about the alarming growth in extreme poverty among the elderly. According to the Times:

In analyzing the recent Census Bureau report on poverty, researchers at the National Women’s Law Center found that from 2011 to 2012, the rate of extreme poverty rose by a statistically significant amount among those 65 and older, meaning that a growing number of them were living at or below 50 percent of the poverty line. In 2012, this was $11,011 a year for an older person living alone.

$11,011 a year is “extreme,” all right — how can a person survive on such a miserably low income? Women, as usual, are disproportionately represented among the extremely poor in this age group. The Times also mentions that another report, The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, shows an increase among the elderly poor as well, “from 9.0 percent in 2010 to 9.3 percent in 2011 and 9.5 percent in 2012.”

This is a horrifying trend. It’s clear that our retirement system is a mess. The 401(k), which a lot of people never even had access to in the first place, was an experiment that has utterly failed us. Social Security has long been a bulwark against poverty among the elderly, but clearly it’s not enough, and it needs to be increased — dramatically. So that’s exactly what the Times is going to tell us, right?

Except — no. Here’s what they say the richest country in the history of the world should do in response to this impending cat food dystopia: nothing. No, really. This is what the editorial says, in its entirety, about how we as a society should react to the specter of growing numbers of old people eating out garbage cans:

For now, the best policy response is to do no harm. For example, budget proposals to cut Social Security’s cost-of-living benefit, ill advised in any case, would be especially unwise and untimely.

I’m happy that the Times covered this issue, at least — it’s an important one, and I’m afraid it will not be going away. But “do no harm” hardly cuts it as an effective response to this problem, policy-wise, politically, rhetorically, or morally.

The problem is simple: the Social Security is too damned low. Progressives must keep hammering this message ad infinitum. If we do, maybe even out-of-touch elites like the New York Times will get it. If we don’t, we can almost certainly look forward to a whole lot of Meow Mix in our not-so-golden years.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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