The Elder Index™
Low-income elders depend upon public programs like Medi-Cal and cash assistance (SSI) to make ends meet. The Federal Poverty Level (FPL) guidelines are often used to determine income eligibility for such programs. Although consumer spending patterns and our standard of living have changed substantially since the guidelines were created in the early 1960s, the FPL itself has not been modified. Nor does the FPL take into account the local cost of living, which is a significant disadvantage in high-cost states such as California.
The result: Thousands of seniors are struggling with severe economic insecurity, having "too much" income to qualify for public assistance yet not enough income to make ends meet on their own.
In response, gerontological experts devised a more accurate measure of poverty using widely accepted and credible national and state data sources such as the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This new measure, The Elder Economic Security Standard™ Index or "Elder Index," permits policymakers and planners to understand how much income is needed to meet basic needs and to set guidelines based on locality-specific measures of the cost of living. The UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the Insight Center for Community Economic Development have partnered to refine and disseminate this new tool in California.
The Elder Index has been used to produce ground-breaking analysis and research of the economic challenges facing California’s seniors:
The UCLA Center for Health Policy Research's Health Disparities Program analyzed the actual cost of living in California's 58 counties for the first time in 2009 in the policy brief Federal Poverty Guideline Underestimates Costs of Living for Older Persons in California. In 2010, these numbers were updated in the policy brief Older Adults Need Twice the Federal Poverty Level to Make Ends Meet in California. These calculations were based on local market rates for items such as housing, food, health care, transportation and other basic necessities.
This research found that even if the FPL guideline was doubled, it would still not be enough in most counties. The Elder Index shows that seniors making twice the FPL still need public benefits in California to make ends meet.
The Elder Index is part of a national effort and the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research was the first to use a state's Elder Index to characterize the population with incomes below the index. The policy brief Half A Million Older Californians Living Alone Unable to Make Ends Meet provided information on the numbers and proportions of older Californians who are economically insecure by race/ethnicity, age, and gender in each county.
Among the findings: Researchers determined that nearly half a million elders living alone in California could not make ends meet, lacking sufficient income to pay for a minimum level of housing, food, health care, transportation and other basic expenses. The impact was particularly severe among elders of color.
Data from the Elder Index was also used to examine the cost of in-home supportive services relative to seniors' income. For older adults who have disabilities and need help to remain safely at home, Elder Index calculations that include long-term care costs show that the basic cost of living for elders with disabilities is 20-100% higher than for those without disabilities. Essential health services such as in-home care were particularly unaffordable to many seniors. When paired with rent and food, long-term care costs exceed median income in 100 percent of California counties.
The California legislature has since introduced legislation to make The Elder Index a new standard of measurement in gauging income security among California's senior citizens and the Index is being looked at nationally as a potential tool in the reform of the FPL.
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View all research and data on the Elder Index.