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Income for elderly falls short, study finds

Massachusetts seniors face largest gap in US

The elderly in Massachusetts struggle with the nation’s largest shortfall between income and costs, with the age group’s median income covering only about 60 percent of basic living expenses here, according to a study to be released today.

The study, a joint project of advocacy group Wider Opportunities for Women and University of Massachusetts Boston, compared income and expenses for the elderly in all 50 states and found that income in all cases fell short of basic expenses. The largest gaps occurred in the Northeast, where living costs are among the highest in the nation. Five of the six New England states were represented in the top 10.

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In Massachusetts, for example, themedian income of retired residents 65 or older is just under $17,000. It falls more than $10,000 short of what the study estimates it costs for basic necessities, such as food and shelter.

“From what we’re seeing, it seems like a lot of our seniors are being left behind,’’ said Deborah Banda, the state director for Massachusetts AARP, the lobby for older Americans. “This is Massachusetts, which prides itself in being ahead of the curve in so many respects, and where we’re ranking in this study, it really is disgraceful.’’

The study aims to underscore the importance of entitlement programs - Social Security and Medicare - that support the elderly and face potential cuts as Congress grapples with long-term deficits. Without changes, the costs of the programs are expected to explode as the baby boom generation moves into retirement. The first of the baby boomers turned 65 last year.

The study was based on the Elder Economic Security Standard Index, created by Wider Opportunities for Women, or WOW, and the Gerontology Institute at UMass Boston. For each state, the Elder Index estimates the cost of basic necessities such as housing, transportation, and food and compares them with the median incomes for the elderly.

It excludes government support, such as subsidized housing and fuel assistance in its calculations.

John MacPherson, an 85-year-old Dorchester resident and World War II veteran, gets assistance for heating costs from Action for Boston Community Development Inc., or ABCD, an antipoverty agency in Boston. That makes it a little easier to live on his fixed income of less than $15,000 a year, he said, but he still has to stretch his Social Security and veteran’s benefits checks to cover his water, electricity, and other bills.

“I don’t go out anyplace,’’ he said. “I don’t drink. I don’t smoke.’’

Even though Massachusetts residents tend to have higher than average incomes in their working years, it’s common for many elderly residents to live only on Social Security in retirement, said Jan Mutchler, the graduate program director at UMass Boston’s Department of Gerontology. Once they stop working, they must contend with the state’s high housing and medical expenses, which drive the cost of living for the elderly, she said.

“I think it’s clear that if Social Security is cut,’’ said Mutchler, “it would really negatively affect many seniors across the country.’’

Mary Power, 93, lives alone in West Roxbury on an annual income of $9,372. Power, who worked as waitress and hostess, and in other hospitality jobs until she was 80, lives mainly on Social Security, in addition to a pension of $147 a month.

“I’m glad I don’t have a family to support,’’ she said. “I don’t think I could do it.’’

Nicci Meadow, director of elder services at ABCD, said she sees many seniors like Power who worked in low-paying service jobs, in which employers contributed little or nothing to Social Security. As a result, they may not receive enough from Social Security to support themselves.

“We know that there are more low-income people who have worked outside the mainstream, either as nannies or cleaners or landscapers,’’ she said. “So there’s a great need to help the lowest income elders to get the assistance they need.’’

Gail Waterhouse can be reached at gail.waterhouse@globe.com.
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