All the Older Single Ladies in Poverty

Extreme poverty among elderly women shot up between 2011 and 2012. What's going on?
Christian Hartmann/REUTERS

America's community colleges may need to start teaching courses for women on "How to Be Old," because America's ladies are not doing a great job of figuring it out on our own.

Extreme poverty among women over age 65 who lived alone jumped between 2011 and 2012, according to a new report from the National Women's Law Center, "Insecure & Unequal," analyzing recently released Census data.

"It's really something that was unexpected," said Katherine Gallagher Robbins, a senior policy analyst at the National Women's Law Center. After being fairly stable for the last decade, the percent of women over 65 subsisting on shockingly low annual incomes—less than $5,500 each year—edged up from 2.6 to 3.1 percent. "That's a big jump," she said, an 18 percent increase in just one year.

Overall, 18.9 percent of women over 65 who lived alone were below the federal poverty threshold of $11,011 for single individuals. That's a high share of a rapidly growing group: The number of working people working over 65 is up 67 percent in the last decade.

Gallagher Robbins didn't have an explanation for why the rate of extreme poverty jumped, but suggested one thing her group was considering was that reductions in Social Security Administration funding might have made it harder for individuals eligible for and dependent on SSI funding to get it. But, she was quick to add, that was "pure hypothesizing."

What's not causing the jump: the collapse of the private pension system or changes in demographics. Those two broad long-term changes are expected to increase poverty rates among the elderly over time as Baby Boomers age, but would show up as increases in poverty overall, rather than increases in extreme poverty.

And, observed Gallagher Robbins, "The poverty rates overall for elderly individuals were pretty much unchanged."

Indeed, poverty among elderly women went down between 2000 and 2012, according to the law center's report -- from 12.1 percent to 11 percent -- which is what made the one-year bump in extreme poverty among single women so striking. The was no statistically significant change over the last decade in overall poverty among the subset of women over 65 who lived alone -- but there was a jump in extreme poverty among them from 3.4 percent to 4.7 percent over that time, with much of that jump coming last year. The rate for single women over 65 jumped from 3.6 percent to 4.7 percent between 2011 and 2012. There was no equivalent increase in extreme poverty for single men.

Women living in extreme poverty in 2012 were 62 percent non-Hispanic whites, 17 percent African Americans, and 16 percent Hispanics (who could be of any race). A further 4 percent were Asian and 2 percent were Native American, one of the groups of elderly with the highest poverty rates.

The big question now, said Gallagher Robbins: "Will this be a trend or a blip?"

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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