More than half of Boone County’s residents 65 and older are “food insecure,” while about 3,500 are, by some definitions, living in poverty.
Theresa Hanners, director of The Caring Center in Lebanon, said that, based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2009 estimates, “we have around 6,755 residents 65 years old or older; 6.4 percent are in poverty.”
The number of seniors seeking food assistance from The Caring Center “always increases ... during November and December,” Hanners said.
While other Indiana counties are, on a percentage basis, in worse shape — about 80,000 of Marion County’s 88,000 persons older than 65 fall in the federal government’s low-income category — overall, older Hoosiers are, perhaps surprisingly, among the poorest, hungriest in the United States.
Indianahad the 12th-highest rate of seniors facing food insecurity in the nation in 2007, according to the Meals On Wheels Association of America. On a map indicating in dark blue the states where seniors are at greatest risk of being or going hungry, the entire South is dark blue. Indiana is the only other state that color.
Many seniors fall into the “working poor” category, said Susan A. Ellis, director of the Indianapolis-based Elders At The Table coalition, which includes Boone County.
The coalition used Internal Revenue Service figures to determine income, Ellis said. Some of the population figures EAT used were taken from the 2000 Census, and the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 estimates. The 2007 estimate was that 6,086 Boone County residents were 65 or older; more than half, 3,553, earned less than $20,000 a year.
“They may not fall into the poverty level, but it’s still a struggle,” she said.
“I think the big issue is that nobody is aware that there is a problem,” Ellis said. “It’s somewhat like childhood hunger; Children are not going to speak up, and neither are seniors, but for different reasons.”
A recent U.S. government study estimated that one of every seven Americans lives in poverty. It was the third consecutive year the poverty rate has increased.
“The whole hunger issue is disturbing, when you think we are living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, and we can’t feed our citizens,” Ellis said.
Those seniors caught in the “buy food or medicine” trap face another problem, Ellis said: “Medical costs not covered by Medicare have increased 200 percent in the last eight years, in addition to the increase in costs for all other expenses — utilities, taxes, insurance and food.”
Some of the income figures were based on the 2000 Census, Ellis said. As poverty rates have risen over the last decade, she fears what the 2010 Census will reveal.
A demographic report based on those decade-old numbers showed about nearly one of every four Boone residents 65 and older earned less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level — most of those earned between $5,000 and $9,999, while an estimated 1,800 earned less than $15,000 a year.
Nationally, single persons who make less than $18,000 annually are considered in danger of being “food insecure,” Ellis said. In August, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services set the “poverty guideline” — the annual income below which a person is considered impoverished — at $10,830. The guideline for a household of two persons is $14,570.
To be food insecure, Ellis said, means a person “may or may not know where their next meal is coming from.”
Other challenges face food insecure seniors, Ellis said, including finding transportation to a grocery store.
The Boone Area Transit System, operated by Boone County Senior Services, Inc., “does quite a bit to alleviate that,” Ellis said.
Another barrier is pride.
“Seniors are much less likely to take advantage of food stamps,” Ellis said. “They are much less likely to ask for help. It becomes a silent problem, because they won’t admit to anyone there is a problem; they’ll just make do.”
Some seniors, she said are “quite astounded to find themselves in a situation where they can’t take care of themselves.”
An example of that, Ellis said, is a woman named Margaret, who is in her 70s. “She came from a typical farm family,” Ellis said. “The only job she could get when her husband died was as a bank teller; you know what kind of salary and benefits you get as a bank teller.”
Margaret had some savings, but that money didn’t last very long, Ellis said. “She had to retire because of macular degeneration,” an eye disease that slowly and irreversibly eradicates a person’s vision.
Margaret now is living only on Social Security — and Social Security payments are based on how much a person earned when they were working.
The “early baby boomers” who are now collecting Social Security did not work for high salaries, Ellis said, so their benefits are very low.
“If you are dependent on that, you’re in trouble,” Ellis said.
Other factors in food insecurity are being single, female, having a high school or lower education, and health concerns.
“Even with Medicare, health concerns take a huge bite out of incomes,” Ellis said.
Those health issues make employers less likely to hire older workers, because medical insurance premiums will be higher.
Coupled with an unemployment rate in Indiana of 9.7 percent, and seniors who haven’t got the skills for the few jobs that do exist, exacerbates the problem.
“There are only so many Walmart greeters they can hire,” Ellis said.