Opinion: Reality check on seniors’ poverty and inequality in B.C.

As recently as 40 years ago, old age meant living in poverty for more than a third of Canadian seniors. Thankfully, public programs like the Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement changed this, cutting B.C.’s seniors’ poverty rate to a low of 2.2 per cent in the mid-1990s, among the lowest in the Western world.

Instead of building on this social-policy success, however, we have let it lapse, and seniors’ poverty rates are on the rise again — now 13 per cent. Nearly 100,000 B.C. seniors were living below the poverty line in 2014 (the latest data available), and many more have incomes only marginally above the line.

The challenges faced by these seniors are largely invisible. We tend to think of seniors as a homogeneous group of well-off retirees, but such generalizations ignore a bigger picture of deep income and wealth inequality across generations.

While most seniors (particularly those living with their spouse) are doing OK, a disturbingly large number of single seniors — 44 per cent — have incomes between $15,000 and $25,000 a year. Many of them aren’t technically considered in poverty, but they struggle to cover basic living expenses and pay for the additional costs that come with declining health, reduced mobility and loss of spousal and community support in older age.

Single women face a particularly high risk of economic insecurity in old age and a staggering one-third of single senior women live below the poverty line. This is largely the result of gender inequality in the job market, which translates into unequal pension income in old age.

The typical senior woman in B.C. receives 21-per-cent less income from CPP than the typical man. Senior women are also less likely to have access to private retirement income, including employer-sponsored pensions and RRSPs, and those who do receive 45-per-cent less on average than men.

Seniors have higher average wealth and are more likely to own a home than working-age families, largely because they have had more time to earn income and save. However, a closer look at how wealth is distributed reveals that a significant number of Canadian seniors have very little. In 2012, the median wealth of the poorest 20 per cent of senior families in Canada was $15,000 compared with over $1.6 million for the richest 20 per cent.

While many seniors own their homes mortgage-free, others face unaffordable rents. One in five senior households in B.C. rents and therefore faces the same challenges associated with low vacancy rates and an increasingly unaffordable rental market that working-age renters do. In fact, senior households who rent are much more likely than non-senior renters to be in ‘core housing need,’ meaning they spend more than 30 per cent of their income on housing or live in units that require major repairs.

The hardships faced by lower-income seniors are worsened by gaps in access to health services. Our public health-care system doesn’t adequately cover home support, residential care, prescription medications, community mental health, vision or dental care. Instead of fully paying for these essential services together as a society, the way we pay for doctors’ visits and hospitals, we have largely shifted the burden of costs to the sick and elderly, and their families.

Seniors are paying more out-of-pocket for prescription drugs after B.C. replaced its age-based drug plan with the so-called Fair PharmaCare program, which includes considerable deductibles and copayments even for low-income families. As another recent Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report found, access to subsidized home support and residential care services has declined, and the number of private-pay-assisted living and seniors’ residences has grown rapidly. Higher-income seniors can afford to buy the services they need privately, but many others can’t.

In the face of inadequately funded home and community health services, the burden of caring for frail elderly parents falls on family members, predominantly women, who are working to support their families and often caring for children, too.

We can’t afford to stay complacent about the economic security of seniors at a time when people are living longer and the population in our province is aging.

Addressing the gaps in public supports for seniors need not detract from or mask the serious and growing economic insecurity experienced by younger generations. B.C. must develop more effective ways to support vulnerable members of our community no matter their age. Without broader efforts toward poverty reduction, reforms that curb income and wealth inequality, and measures to close the gender gap in our economy, today’s struggling working-age adults will become tomorrow’s struggling seniors.

Article originally appeared here on April 12, 2017.

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