In our past two posts we have looked at the influence that so-called Baby Boomers and Millennials have exercised over food – on what we eat and on how they (and we) think about food. Today we want to consider the impact that the swelling numbers of Millennials and the younger Generation Xers may have on senior hunger rates in America and on what this means for senior nutrition programs today and into the future. It’s all in the numbers, so that is where we focus.
The aging of the Baby Boomers began a trend that shows no signs of lessening. About a decade ago we were warned that Baby Boomers were ushering in a new era of unparalleled growth in the older population that was likely to put a strain on existing social programs designed to assist them. The prediction was correct: the ranks of the elderly bulged with the coming of the Boomers. Now, their numbers are dwindling “as the number of deaths among them exceeds the number of older immigrants arriving in the country,” according to the Pew Research Center. In 2015, Pew reports, Boomers numbered approximately 74.9 million — but were surpassed by Millennials, whose ranks totaled about 75.2 million and are increasing daily through the influx of young immigrants. By 2028, the Gen Xers will have surpassed the Millennials in numbers, Pew predicts.
It is not hard to imagine the pressure that this elder growth will have on discretionary programs like congregate meals authorized and funded under Title III of the Older Americans Act. But we believe we need to do more than just imagine; we need to begin preparing now for that not so distant future. In our lexicon, preparing means rethinking. To give some context to that preparation, we have examined the data that is universally available through the AGID database that is produced, maintained and hosted by the Administration for Community Living of the federal Department of Health and Human Services. Data are currently available for years 2006 (which, coincidentally, is the year the first Boomer turned 60) to 2015—so we have compared those figures to determine what has been occurring in Title III programs. We consider these statistics to be the analytical springboard from which we should formulate our collective vision for the future.
Ponder just these facts about poverty, minority status, and residing with a grandchild in the house, categories that NFESH-commissioned annual research has consistently shown to be risk factors for hunger threat. Here was some apparently good news. From 2006 to 2015 the percentage of “All Persons 60+ for Whom Poverty is Determined” – that is, those with incomes below the poverty level – fell from 28.2 to 19.9. Likewise the percentage of “Minority Persons 60+ for Whom Poverty is Determined” also declined from 19.75 to 17.73. It seems like an improvement and it is; however, a deeper dive below the surface, which we derived from the AGID numbers but that was not explicitly presented there, reveals another story line. Unfortunately, in 2015 within that cohort of all persons age 60+ below poverty, 44% were minorities. That was an increase from 40.7% and certainly reflects a circumstance over which those individuals had no control. The disparity can be ameliorated, however, through decisive outreach efforts and case management decisions. We cite this as one example of how important it is to fully analyze the facts and figures. Here is another. Under the category “#of Grandparents Caregivers” the AGID database lists only 16,488 individuals. As a proportion of Title III Registered Clients that amounts to a meager six tenths of one percent. By contrast, Census Bureau data indicates that in 2015 1.6% of individuals age 60+ were responsible for their grandchildren and 5.5% lived with them. The distinction is noteworthy on two counts. First, the independent academic research produced for NFESH makes clear that simply residing with a grandchild, regardless of whether or not the senior is “responsible” for the child, puts the older individual at risk. Therefore, the data are of little value because the metric employed fails to capture the full at-risk cohort. Second the low percentage of grandparent caregivers as a fraction of Title III clients would seem to indicate a lack of recognition of the importance of concerted efforts to enroll these individuals as clients.
Taken together with other pertinent facts, concentrating on known and quantifiable risk factors helps chart a pathway forward. Although spending on Title III congregate meals has increased substantially over the nine years the database covers, both the number of meals that have been served and the number of clients who received them have dropped dramatically. Specifically, the number of clients served has declined by 8%, resulting in 135,418 fewer seniors receiving nutrition services. During the same period the number of meals served dropped even more significantly by 18,751,781 or 19%. The combined impact was not only that fewer individuals were served, but that those who were received fewer meals, from an average of 57 meals per year in 2006 to 51 meals per year in 2015. Neither amount seems sufficient to achieve the nutrition programs’ primary purpose to reduce hunger or the additional one “to promote health and well-being.” We believe the message is clear. We need to put much more focus on outreach to those whom the statute demands we target – like low income, minorities, grandparents and other particular cohorts that the data does not track. It’s a matter of “getting the right people in the room.” That must be priority number one if we hope as a nation to make a dent in the epidemic called senior hunger. That, also, after all, is what the law spells out as the primary purpose of the congregate nutrition programs.