Millions of aged Americans are forced into lives of poverty and despair by the very federal programs that were created to help them, the House Select Committee on Aging was told yesterday.
Opening the first of a national series of hearings he called the Congress' first comprehensive look at elderly poverty, committee Chairman Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) called the problems "a national disgrace."
Sargent Shriver, director of the Johnson administration's war on poverty, and the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, former chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led the chorus of witnesses urging reform in Social Security, Medicaid. Medicare and other prgrams benefitting the elderly and the poor.
People over 65 constitute about 10 percent of the population, yet they are 29 percent of the population living in poverty, according to statistics gathered by the committee staff.
The median income for a family headed by an elderly person is more than 43 percent below that for all U.S. families, and for aged individuals the median income is more than 33 percent lower than for individuals generally, the staff reported.
Shriver, who proposed a "new war on poverty" by Congress, told the committee that the effort under that title in the 1960s was not a failure. Instead it "degenerated into a skirmish," he said, "while the 'police action' in Vietnam escalated into a full-scale war."
Tyically, the elderly live on about half the income of younger persons, but their expenditures are clearly more than 50 percent of the rest of the country, Shriver said. In fact, food, housing, medical care and drugs, the biggest costs for the old, are the areas hardest hit by inflation, he said.
Among the many inequities in programs for the elderly, staff analysis for the hearing pointed out the disparity between the income test and assets test for Suplemental Security Income, the major federal payments programs for the aged, blind and disabled.
A needy individuat with assets, such as a car or life insurance, for expample, that are worth 1 cent over the maximum permitted, can be denied SSI eligibility, but another person with income within $1 of the maximum might be eligible, the staff found.
While the rigid assets test helps to confine SSI benefits to the targeted group, it also many other persons into the program who are better off than more needy others athat are excluded, committee staff members concluded.
"We must end the confusion and inequities in programs for the aging," Abernathy pleaded with the Committee. He said his work as a minister and a "human rights leader' produces complaints from the elderly indicating the need for a comprehensive health care programs, a consolidated agency to handle elderly services, a guaranteed annual income, exemption from sales taxes and jobs for those who want to work.
The committee also heard from a group of the elderly poor, all Washington resident's brought in by the Institute of Law and Aging, a George Washington University Law Clinic.
Among them was Ernest Warren, 70, a former country club servant, aircraft inspector during the war, chauffeur and but ler, now disabled and ratired, who testified that he and his wife live on $209 a month.
Warren said his eight children could afford to supplement the couple's income, but anything beyond holiday gifts would jeopardize their SSI and Medicaid coverage. Leniency is Health, Education and Welfare Department rules limiting support from relatives was one of the changes that Pepper and several witnesses said is needed to reduce elderlypoverty.