UCLA study finds many 'hidden poor' among California seniors

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Listen to story

Download this story 0MB

More than 770,000 seniors in California aren’t making enough to get by but aren't considered poor by the federal government, according to a UCLA health policy study that is challenging the definition of poverty.  

The study brief released Monday was written by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

According to the study, about 340,000 Californians 65 years or older are considered poor based on the Federal Poverty Level, which makes them eligible for public assistance programs.

But in an analysis of 2009-2011 U.S. Census data, the researchers concluded that about 772,000 more seniors in the state could use the help but aren’t considered poor enough. She calls this group the "hidden poor."

"They don’t have enough income to meet a minimally decent standard of living," said study lead author Imelda Padilla-Frausto, a graduate student researcher at the Center for Health Policy Research.

The "hidden poor" made more than the 2011 federal poverty level, which was $10,890 a year for someone living alone, but their annual income was less than $23,364 – the amount a senior needs to make ends meet, according to the "Elder Index." 

The Elder Index is part of a national effort among health policy advocates to estimate cost of living expenses county-by-county, taking into consideration how much people spend on housing, medical care, food and transportation.

Padilla-Frausto said the federal poverty level is too rigid to measure whether people need assistance, because it sets an across-the-board guideline no matter how expensive one state or area may be compared with the rest of the country.

"This is so ingrained in all of our policies," she said. "It’s hard to really address poverty when you don’t have a more accurate tool to measure poverty."

The UCLA study found more single seniors among the "hidden poor" in rural areas such as Nevada, Plumas and Sierra Counties in Northern California.

Imperial County had the highest percentage in the state: More than 40 percent of its elderly residents living just above the federal poverty line but below the California Elder Index.

Grandparents raising grandchildren and seniors who have adult children living with them are more likely to be among the "hidden poor," according to the study.