From the First Tuesday newsletter
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When most of us think of hunger and those in need, we think of children. As our recent Kids Count Data Book points out, too many Michigan children are currently facing poverty and hunger. But there’s another group of people who are also struggling with hunger, and it might come as a surprise: baby boomers.
I was alarmed to read a recent report by Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, that found 13 million adults age 50 and older now receive some sort of charitable food assistance. Due to their specific economic and health concerns, members of the baby-boom generation are particularly susceptible to hunger. Individuals age 50 to 64 don’t yet qualify for Medicare or Social Security and suddenly find themselves facing increased costs with limited and waning resources.
According to the study by Feeding America, 62% of older adult clients at food banks and pantries fall into this age group. These increased numbers are being seen in Michigan, too. The food-insecurity rate among older adults in Southeast Michigan rose from 7% in 2010 to 17% in 2014.
Over the next 25 years, the number of older adults is expected to more than double, with the baby boom quickly becoming the “senior swell.” From policymakers to advocates and service providers, we all have to be ready to make sure our seniors don’t have to go hungry.
For decades, our seniors have worked hard to build lives and raise families here in Michigan. They have done their part, and they deserve the utmost dignity and support as their needs change. That means that Michigan needs to have sound public policy and a strong safety net for older Michiganders. Unfortunately, state lawmakers have made a series of policy changes that have hurt seniors and low-income families and created barriers to financial stability instead of eliminating them.
In 2011, the Homestead Property Tax Credit was cut, inordinately hurting seniors. On average, seniors’ Homestead Property Tax Credit refund fell by 20% in 2012, 8% more than other taxpayers. The special tax exemptions for seniors were also eliminated, and the Michigan Earned Income Tax Credit was cut and continues to be threatened.
While we have to undo these inequitable tax changes, the state’s changes to public assistance are just as harmful. Michigan was one of the states that was hardest hit by the recession, and many of our at-risk populations have yet to experience any type of economic relief. In 2011, Michigan legislators went directly against the grain and made it harder for low-income people to get help by passing a $5,000 asset limit for food assistance. Meanwhile, 70% of the states have eliminated their asset tests.
As a reminder, food assistance or SNAP is a federal program paid for with federal dollars. This asset test does not save Michigan taxpayers any money, but it adds a major hurdle for those in need.
The $5,000 asset test includes cash and some savings. A household’s primary home and one vehicle are exempted, and the first $15,000 is exempted from a second vehicle if the household has more than one vehicle. As you can imagine, this would disqualify a significant number of baby boomers and seniors who may be in immediate need for assistance despite having accumulated some assets over their lives. Low-income boomers who have responsibly built up a savings nest egg now have to make a choice between reducing their savings accounts or going without needed food assistance—a lose-lose situation. Michiganders, including older residents, should be eligible for state assistance if they qualify based on their income, not their assets.
Not every working adult has the luxury of being secure in retirement, but they also don’t have the ability to keep working indefinitely. As the number of aging baby boomers in Michigan continues to grow, the need for some to receive state assistance is going to increase as well. State policymakers should be anticipating this need and preparing for it, and that can start with eliminating Michigan’s unnecessary asset test on food assistance.
– Gilda Z. Jacobs