Help For Those Who Are Elderly and Poor

Jun 20, 2017

More than 32,000 Hawai'i residents rely on Social Security as their primary source of income.
Credit Wayne Yoshioka

One in 6 residents in Hawai’i relies on Social Security benefits.  But as HPR’s Wayne Yoshioka reports, many of the elderly recipients live on the borderline of poverty and homelessness and need public assistance.    

“I live on less than 10-thousand a year.”

Barbara Armentrout receives 775 dollars a month in social security disability benefits.

“And it’s hard.  People don’t realize you’re one accident away from being on work comp, not having enough credits and getting on something for the rest of your life.  And then you have to live like that and it’s hard.”

Armentrout is not alone.  More than 32-thousand residents, 15 percent of those over 65 years of age, rely on social security as their primary source of income.   Craig Gima is the communications director for AARP Hawai’i.

“Social Security income was never meant to be the sole source of retirement income for any one.  But with pensions disappearing from private industry a lot of people are left with their retirement savings and in many cases it’s not enough.  The average social security check in Hawai’i is now about $13-hundred a month.  And if you think about rent, food medicines if you’re sick, that doesn’t cover everything.  They’re gonna need some sort of public assistance to live.”

But without social security, many seniors would be in greater financial trouble.  Nicole Woo is the senior analyst for the Hawai’i Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice.

“The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington DC , estimates that over a hundred thousand people – mostly seniors – are kept out of poverty by social security.  It really is the only sort of guaranteed income that most seniors have that won’t run out no matter how long they live.  And so,  in many ways, we need to protect that.”

Woo says Hawai’i has the highest cost of living in the U.S., and the focus should be on building more senior housing.

“The state government and city government could look to see what other jurisdictions have done and try to access any federal funds out there for senior affordable housing.  And, hopefully, developers can work with them and maybe take a little less for profit or try to take some risks to see if there’s a way to help house our seniors who are in poverty.”

Woo says government-sponsored retirement savings plans could also help future generations.   Gima says AARP Hawai’i will join 30 other states to push for a “Work and Save” retirement program during the next legislative session.  Money will be automatically taken out of a worker’s paycheck before it’s issued and that should help everyone.

“Half of the workers in Hawaii, about 216-thousand workers, do not have payroll savings.  If low income workers were able to save a thousand dollars a year, the state would be able to save $32.7 million in public assistance costs, like Medicaid, you know, food stamps costs for people who only depend on social security to survive.  And state and federal savings would be more than $160-million, just for the state of Hawaii.”

Meanwhile, Armentrout continues to be an advocate for seniors living on the borderline of poverty but wishes more of her contemporaries would join her and speak up.

“Because of the culture here, a lot of the elderly Japanese and Chinese ladies and stuff.  They don’t come to places and raise the issues, even though they got those issues.  There’s a lot of people like that.”

For HPR News, I’m Wayne Yoshioka.