As a group, the nation's elderly have achieved economic parity with the rest of the nation, but government and private studies show vast pockets of poverty still exist among the aged.
Private researchers and a report released this week by the Council of Economic Advisers show that the financial well-being of the elderly has increased faster than that of the general population in the last 20 years and that the poverty rate for those over 65 years of age was lower than that of younger people.
But the CEA report also pointed out that many elderly women and minorities as well as very old people still have financial problems.
"There are some elderly who are very well off and some elderly who stay at the bottom and not much good happens to them," said Marilyn Moon of The Urban Institute. "It's not true, really, to say that all the elderly are better off. Some are pretty miserable."
The CEA report said that incomes of the elderly improved largely because of increases in Social Security benefit levels and coverage and that their income relative to the rest of the population has improved since 1970. The report concluded that, as a group, the elderly are no longer a relatively disadvantaged group; their median income has more than doubled since 1950 and their income has increased faster in the past 20 years than the income of the nonelderly.
"Today, elderly and nonelderly families have about equal levels of income per capita," the CEA report said.
The report said, however, that the "encouraging" statistics do not tell the whole story. "The elderly are not a homogeneous group. Those with spouses have relatively high levels of family income. . . . But many of the elderly live alone and these individuals, particularly women, often have very limited financial resources. They are often poor," the report said.
The poverty rate for people age 65 and older was 14.1 percent in 1983, compared with 15.3 percent for younger people, the CEA study said. The rate for elderly blacks is 36.3 percent, compared with 23.1 percent of the elderly of Spanish origin and 12 percent for whites.
However, the Villers Foundation, a group concerned with the needs of the elderly, claimed that the elderly aren't getting better off. Instead, they claim that the poverty rate for the rest of the nation is increasing. Four years ago, the poverty rate for the nonelderly was 11.7 percent, the foundation said.
The foundation also said that the elderly have more people who are nearly poor than the rest of the population.
A large proportion of the elderly poor are widows, particularly those beyond age 75, Moon said. In 1983, women constituted 71.1 percent of the elderly poor, although they were 59.1 percent of the total population of people 65 years and older, Moon said. In many cases, these elderly women live alone.
In 1983, about 1.3 million of the approximately 3 million elderly poor were women living as unrelated individuals, mostly by themselves in houses.
Many elderly couples above the poverty line are only just above that threshold so that when the male spouse dies and his retirement benefits expire, the woman drops below the poverty level, Moon said.
Women who live alone have incomes about 70 percent of those of elderly men, and their assets are worth only about 65 percent of those owned by men, Moon said. One reason for the income disparity is that many elderly women did not work as long as their male counterparts or earn as much money so that their retirement benefits are smaller.
In addition, many private pension plans allow the man to receive benefits only for himself and not for his spouse in the event of his death, Moon said.
Elderly blacks also tend to be poorer than the rest of the aged population because they tended to be poorer all of their lives, Moon said. At the same time, they are less likely to have pensions or asset income.
A large number of blacks also are in the ranks of the nearly poor -- people with incomes 125 percent of the poverty threshold, Moon said.
Of the 4.95 million elderly blacks, 796,000 are under the poverty level, Moon said. In total, there are 26.3 million elderly people.
One other group that tends to be poorer than most is the oldest of the elderly, whose income is less because they tended to earn less than more recent senior citizens and are less likely to have pensions and benefits from assets. In many cases, the oldest of the elderly have had to draw down their assets to pay for medical care and other necessities.