A. Garcia / SFVS

Seniors go to Las Palmas Park in San Fernando for Senior Nutrition Program.

Raquel Perez makes end meets “by the Grace of God” every month.

At 76, Perez rents a room for $300 from another senior who frequents the Senior Nutrition Program at San Fernando Las Palmas Park. The rest of her $800 monthly Social Security check, her sole income and only means of support, goes to cover everything else.

 What is “everything else” can be unexpected situations that, although unfair, can still fall squarely onto the laps of seniors. After a troubled son crashed her car, she now owes $10,000 for car repairs on top of the $2,500 impound fees she had to pay.

“It’s not easy. I wish I didn’t have to live this way,” she said.

She has an appointment with a social worker to see if there are additional benefits that she can qualify for and, although she doesn’t like “hand outs,” Perez has reached the point where she has no choice but to ask for help.

Seniors may not have family support to assist them and as challenging as that is, they may still be the center of financial and emotional support for others.

At 77, Jose Romero is not doing much better. He pays $300 rent for a room in an apartment he shares with several other people in Sylmar. His only income is the $897 check from the Social Security after working as a carpenter for more than three decades.

Romero would like to have his own apartment, but simply can’t afford it. So he manages the best way he can. He isn’t permitted to cook at the apartment, and is forced to buy prepared food that can be more costly. He buys a little fruit so that he can eat it at night with his medicine. To get a little extra income, he offers rides to other seniors and they give him a couple of dollars.

More than three-quarters of a million Californians older than 65 are “unofficially” poor, unable to afford basic needs but often ineligible for government assistance, according to a new study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

The study, funded by the California Wellness Foundation, highlights the plight of the “hidden poor” — those who live in the gap between the federal poverty level and the Elder Index’s poverty measure, which is considered a more accurate cost estimate of what it takes to have a decent standard of living.

The national federal poverty level guidelines say a single elderly adult living alone should be able to live on $10,890 a year, while the Elder Index estimates that person in California on average requires $23,364.

San Fernando Senior Nutrition Program

Both Perez and Romero, as well as 40 other seniors, come to the Senior Nutrition Program offered in their local city that operates Monday through Friday, except holidays. Twenty-eight other seniors who are homebound receive the meals by delivery.

In order to get the meals, they must arrive at Las Palmas Park before all the meal tickets are gone.Many walk through the doors by 8:00 a.m.  although the meal isn’t served until 11:00 a.m.  They are given a cup of coffee while they patiently wait.

For $2, they get a nutritious lunch. This Wednesday, Sept. 2, the menu is stuffed bell pepper with tomato sauce, whole grain roll, carrots and zucchini, as well as orange juice and baked apple slices with cinnamon.

Lina Alvarez, a volunteer at the program, knows that for some of her fellow seniors the lunch they get at Las Palmas Park is the only full meal of the day.

 “I’ve seen people who eat half of it here and the rest they save it for their dinner,” she said.

Ismael Aguila, San Fernando Recreation and Community Services director, said they would like to provide meals for additional seniors but there’s just not enough funds. The program is paid for by money provided by the Los Angeles County. The City of San Fernando pays the salaries for staff.

Aguila acknowledged that many more seniors would come if there were more meals available and there is more of a need then a supply.

 “A lot of them don’t have that much money. This gives them access to healthy food and a social atmosphere,” Aguila said.

 There have been past instances when seniors were turned away — and seniors shared their meal with those who couldn’t get a ticket. With transportation often being a challenge, after a time fewer seniors come to the park for their meals.

Now, with fewer seniors, on some days there may even be a few extra tickets.

In addition, on every first Monday (this month it will be on Sept. 21), the city organizes a free food distribution for low income seniors at the park through the Los Angeles Food Bank.

Poverty And Older Californians

According to the UCLA study, about 772,000 elderly adults in California who are heads of households belong to this group of hidden poor,”which is more than double the number of elderly (342,000) who meet official federal poverty level guidelines. Unlike the “official” poor, the hidden poor often do not qualify for public assistance.

“Many of our older adults are forced to choose between eating, taking their medications or paying rent,” said D. Imelda Padilla-Frausto, a UCLA graduate student researcher at the center and lead author of the study.

“The state might be emerging from a recession, but for many of our elder households, the downturn seems permanent,” Padilla-Frausto said.

The study used 2009-2011 American Community Survey data and the 2011 Elder Index data to show that in terms of sheer numbers, whites make up more than half of elders in the financially pinched group (482,000). Proportionately, grandparents raising grandchildren, older adults who rent, Latinos, women, and the oldest age group (75 and over) were the groups most affected.

Geographically, the researchers found that in all counties between 30 and 40 percent of elderly adults who are single, and 20 to 30 percent of older couples, are among the hidden poor.

Groups with large proportions and populations of hidden poor include:

• Grandparents raising grandchildren. Although a small subset of elder households, grandparents raising grandchildren are a particularly vulnerable group as neither the grandparents nor child is able to generate additional income to cover basic living expenses. Of the 16,000 households in California in which grandparents have primary responsibility for their grandchildren, more than half (9,000) have incomes below what the Elder Index defines as adequate for basic living. And more than half of those (5,000) are among the hidden poor.

• Older adults housing adult children. Older couples whose adult children live with them were six times more likely to qualify as being among the hidden poor according to the Elder Index than those considered poor, according to the federal poverty level (25.7 percent vs. 4.1 percent, respectively).  Similarly, single elders housing adult children were four times more likely to qualify as among the hidden poor by the Elder Index than those considered poor according to the federal poverty level guidelines (35.7 percent vs. 9 percent, respectively).

“Older adults raising grandchildren or housing adult children have taken on more financial burdens with limited earning capacity and are living right on the edge of a cliff,” said Steven P. Wallace, associate director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and co-author of the report. “They have few options, and one unexpected expense can put them right over.”

• Single women who head households: Nearly 466,000 have incomes below the Elder Index, and more than half of those (286,000) are among the hidden poor.

• Single elders head of households, age 75 and older: Of the 359,000 households with incomes under the Elder Index, almost two-thirds (224,000) are among the hidden poor and unable to cover basic living expenses.

• Single elders who are renters or homeowners: Housing is one of the biggest drivers of economic insecurity, particularly for single elders. Almost 70 percent of single older renters have incomes below the Elder Index and more than half of those are among the hidden poor. Among single older homeowners paying a mortgage, nearly half (49.7 percent) have incomes below the Elder Index, and, among this group, 4 out of 5 struggle to make ends meet.

Ethnicity And Poverty

In comparing race and ethnicity, among the older population of African-Americans in California, couples who head households were five times more likely to be among the Elder Index hidden poor than to qualify as poor, according to the federal poverty level guidelines (21.2 percent vs. 4.2 percent, respectively).

Similarly, older white couples were five times more likely to be among the hidden poor than among the poor (16.3 percent vs. 3.8 percent, respectively.)  The highest proportion of hidden poor among single elders who head households was found among African-Americans and Latinos (37.4 percent and 36.8 percent, respectively).


The authors have recommended ways to address the needs of those living in the gap between the federal poverty level and the Elder Index, including:

• increasing and protecting income as is proposed in Assembly Bill 474 and the Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act;

• raising income eligibility limits for housing assistance and using former redevelopment funds for construction of affordable housing;

• helping seniors with the cost of health care by raising income eligibility to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, from 100 percent;

• and expanding and updating food benefits.

“It’s very clear that income level is a major predictor of health outcomes — at any age. This research underscores that elders’ economic security is a health equity issue,” said Judy Belk, president and CEO of the California Wellness Foundation.