GAO report: Poverty is a death sentence for older Americans

Senator Bernie Sanders

A report commissioned by Sen. Bernie Sanders that was released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), shows that wealth and income disparities are wider in American households headed by those aged 55 and older than in other advanced economies.

The report, entitled “Comparison of Income, Wealth, and Survival in the United States with Selected Countries,” also found that longevity among older people is highly correlated with income and wealth in the United States, and that the link between income and wealth with longevity is stronger in this country than in the United Kingdom.

“It is absolutely unacceptable that the United States has more income and wealth inequality than any major country on earth,” said Sanders. “The widening wealth gap between rich seniors and other older Americans is not only immoral, it is directly linked to life expectancy.”

In recent decades, income and wealth disparities have been increasing among older Americans to the point that they exceed those in Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Sanders said the “GAO report tells us, not only are wealthy seniors becoming even wealthier, they are living much longer lives than the millions of senior citizens who are living in poverty. Poverty in America is a death sentence.”

“Other major countries have adopted much stronger policies to protect seniors and to reduce poverty and so should we,” said Sanders. “At a time when half of older Americans have no retirement savings and 55 percent of seniors are trying to survive on less than $25,000 a year, our job is not to cut Social Security.”

“Our job is to expand Social Security and make sure that every senior in America can retire with the dignity and respect they deserve.,” said Sanders. “It is a policy choice – and a policy failure – to allow so many older Americans to become poor and die prematurely in the richest country in the history of the world.”

According to the GAO report, the median income of the top 20 percent of older households in the U.S. was about 13 times greater than the bottom 20 percent of households, compared to about 8 times in Canada, 7 times in the U.K., and 6 times in Germany.

Similarly, wealth is much more concentrated among older households in the U.S. than in the U.K. and Canada: The median wealth of the top 20 percent of older households in the U.S. was about 610 times greater than the bottom 20 percent of households, compared to about 236 times in Canada and 60 times in the U.K. In 2019, while the median wealth of the top 20 percent of older households in America was more than $1.8 million, the median wealth of older households in the bottom 20 percent was just $3,000.

In perhaps the starkest finding of the report, the GAO found that higher-income and wealthier individuals in the U.S. live significantly longer than poorer people, and that this longevity disparity between higher- and lower-income people is greater in the U.S. than in the U.K.

Looking at a sample of individuals from 2002, aged 60-69 in the U.S., the lowest earning 20 percent had a 69 percent chance of living anther 10 years while those in the top 20 percent had an 88 percent chance. In the U.K., those numbers were 76 percent and 89 percent, respectively.

Moreover, as the GAO puts it in its report, “… in the United States, the proportion of individuals in their seventies at the beginning of the study period who were alive at the end of the 10-year period ranged from 68 percent for those from the wealthiest households, to 44 percent for those from the least wealthy households.”

While most of the income and wealth concentration among older households in the U.S. is due to market income, the report makes clear that our peer countries’ old-age income security benefits are more redistributive than ours.

During his 2016 campaign for president, Sanders rekindled the Democratic Party’s ideal for an economic system that shares prosperity more fairly between rich and poor people and ignited a broad progressive movement that is still at odds with much of the political establishment, including President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Governor Phil Murphy.

Sanders inspired insurgent Senate candidacies in New Jersey of Lisa McCormick and Larry Hamm, as well as a handful of successful congressional contenders across the country including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush and Rashida Talib.

“Right now, two votes in the Senate are blocking the agenda of the American people. From expanding voting rights, to strengthening our nation’s unions, to addressing the climate crisis, we have been blocked again and again from passing meaningful legislation that would address the long-neglected needs of working people in this country,” said Sanders. “In a time where the ultra-rich are only growing richer, working people are falling further behind and are losing even more support from their elected representatives. It’s a status quo we can’t allow to continue.”

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