Federal Poverty Level Cripples California’s Middle-Income Seniors

By: David J. Canepa San Mateo County District 5 Supervisor, dcanepa@smcgov.org, 650-363-4572

Federal Poverty Level Cripples California’s Middle-Income Seniors
By: David J. Canepa San Mateo County District 5 Supervisor, dcanepa@smcgov.org, 650-363-4572
Almost every day I hear from our county staff and nonprofit service providers that our aging population in San Mateo County increasingly faces a gloomy retirement. Many earn far too much to qualify for certain services based on the “federal poverty level” and far too little to afford anything more than housing.
I come across older Americans in our community all the time who must choose between paying the mortgage or rent versus eating.
I’m encouraged, however, that the San Mateo County Commission on Aging has started a “Middle Income Seniors Committee” to address why federal poverty level standards for service are inadequate in this region.
Data from the University of California, Los Angeles, Center for Health Policy Research in 2015 indicates an individual renting a one-bedroom in San Mateo County needed to earn $31,776 a year, the highest in California. The U.S. Federal Poverty Guidelines to determine financial eligibility for certain federal programs, however, is $12,140 for 2018.
The guidelines, referred to as the federal poverty level, apply to every individual in the country, whether you live in rural Mississippi or a metropolis such as the San Francisco Bay Area.
The FPL greatly understates poverty in high-cost areas such as San Mateo County.
To combat the disparity, the California Legislature passed a law in 2011 called the Elder Economic Planning Act, Assembly Bill 138.
The act’s intent is that the California Department of Aging and the local Area Agencies on Aging utilize the Elder Economic Security Standard Index (Elder Index), when available, as developed and updated by UCLA, as a planning tool in the development of local area plans and as a guide in allocating existing resources that support senior services in their communities.
UCLA’s Elder Index shows that the cost of living in every California county far outpaces federal poverty guidelines. Our state’s high cost of living makes the national income standard essentially obsolete and causes more than 770,000 older Californians to be denied federal aid – a group identified as the “hidden poor.”
The Commission on Aging is an all-volunteer group that advises the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors on policy related to older adults. The Middle Income Seniors Committee has mapped out a two-year plan to research AB 138 and how the Area Agencies on Aging in California have implemented the Elder Index so far. The mission of the committee’s work is to determine how San Mateo County is serving and not serving the needs of our middle-income older adults.
The federal poverty level is unfair to California especially considering this state is among 13 that sends more tax money to Washington D.C. than it gets back in federal spending. The FPL does not work for California and many other states. It’s time for the federal government to take serious action on this matter or our aging population will find itself in a nearly unsolvable crisis.
May was Older Americans Month with this year’s theme being “Engage at Every Age” – an inspirational phrase we should all live by, especially if we want today’s children to all reach happy, dignified retirements.
David J. Canepa serves District 5 on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors

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