Retirement and Poverty

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain the historical and current trends of poverty among elderly populations

As already observed, many older adults remain highly self-sufficient. Others require more care. Because the elderly typically no longer hold jobs, finances can be a challenge. And due to cultural misconceptions, older people can be targets of ridicule and stereotypes. The elderly face many challenges in later life, but they do not have to enter old age without dignity.


In figure (a), an older man and woman are shown from behind walking in a public plaza setting. In figure (b), a homeless person is shown sitting on a city sidewalk begging for change from passers-by.

Figure 1. While elderly poverty rates showed an improvement trend for decades, the 2008 recession changed some older people’s financial futures. Some who had planned a leisurely retirement have found themselves at risk of late-age destitution. (Photo (a) courtesy of Michael Cohen/flickr; photo (b) courtesy of Alex Proimos/flickr)

For many people in the United States, growing older once meant living with less income. In 1960, almost 35 percent of the elderly existed on poverty-level incomes. A generation ago, the nation’s oldest populations had the highest risk of living in poverty.

At the start of the twenty-first century, the older population was putting an end to that trend. Among people over sixty-five years old, the poverty rate fell from 30 percent in 1967 to 9.7 percent in 2008, well below the national average of 13.2 percent (U.S. Census Bureau 2009). However, given the subsequent recession, which severely reduced the retirement savings of many while taxing public support systems, how are the elderly affected? According to the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, the national poverty rate among the elderly had risen to 14 percent by 2010 (Urban Institute and Kaiser Commission 2010), and up to 15 percent by 2015 (The Kaiser Family Foundation).

Before the recession hit, what had changed to cause a reduction in poverty among the elderly? What social patterns contributed to the shift? For several decades, a greater number of women joined the workforce. More married couples earned double incomes during their working years and saved more money for their retirement. Private employers and governments began offering better retirement programs. By 1990, senior citizens reported earning 36 percent more income on average than they did in 1980; that was five times the rate of increase for people under age thirty-five (U.S. Census Bureau 2009).

In addition, many people were gaining access to better healthcare. New trends encouraged people to live more healthful lifestyles by placing an emphasis on exercise and nutrition. There was also greater access to information about the health risks of behaviors such as cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, and drug use. Because they were healthier, many older people continue to work past the typical retirement age and provide more opportunity to save for retirement. Will these patterns return once the recession ends? Sociologists will be watching to see. In the meantime, they are realizing the immediate impact of the recession on poverty among the elderly.

During the recession, older people lost some of the financial advantages that they’d gained in the 1980s and 1990s. From October 2007 to October 2009, retirement accounts for people over age fifty lost 18 percent of their value. The sharp decline in the stock market also forced many to delay their retirement (Administration on Aging 2009). Among those older Americans who were not directly impacted, many assisted their grown children who did experience serious financial difficulties during this time.[1]

Watch It

Watch the selected second half of this video to learn more about the cultural implications of aging, including some of the challenges facing the elderly in America.

World War II Veterans

A group of elderly men, many in wheelchairs, all dressed in blue shirts and baseball caps, are shown standing and sitting in a memorial setting, with a fountain and pillars behind them.

Figure 2. World War II (1941–1945) veterans and members of an Honor Flight from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, visit the National World War II Memorial in Washington, DC. Most of these men and women were in their late teens or twenties when they served. (Photo courtesy of Sean Hackbarth/flickr)

World War II was a defining event in recent human history, and set the stage for America to become an economic and military superpower. Over 16 million Americans served in the war—an enormous amount on any scale, but especially significant considering that the U.S. had almost 200 million fewer people than it does today. That sizable and significant group is aging. Many are in their eighties and nineties, and many others have already passed on. Of the 16 million, less than 300,000 are alive. Data suggest that by 2036, there will be no living veterans of WWII (U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs).

When these veterans came home from the war and ended their service, little was known about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These heroes did not receive the mental and physical healthcare that could have helped them. As a result, many of them, now in old age, are dealing with the effects of PTSD. Research suggests a high percentage of World War II veterans are plagued by flashback memories and isolation, and that many “self-medicate” with alcohol.

Research has found that veterans of any conflict are more than twice as likely as nonveterans to commit suicide, with rates highest among the oldest veterans. Reports show that WWII-era veterans are four times as likely to take their own lives as people of the same age with no military service (Glantz 2010).

In May 2004, the National World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, was completed and dedicated to honor those who served during the conflict. Dr. Earl Morse, a physician and retired Air Force captain, treated many WWII veterans. He encouraged them to visit the memorial, knowing it could help them heal. Many WWII veterans expressed interest in seeing the memorial. Unfortunately, many were in their eighties and were neither physically nor financially able to travel on their own. Dr. Morse arranged to personally escort some of the veterans and enlisted volunteer pilots who would pay for the flights themselves. He also raised money, insisting the veterans pay nothing. By the end of 2005, 137 veterans, many using wheelchairs, had made the trip. The Honor Flight Network was up and running.

As of 2017, the Honor Flight Network had flown more than 200,000 U.S. veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War to Washington. The round-trip flights leave for day-long trips from over 140 airports in thirty states, staffed by volunteers who care for the needs of the elderly travelers (Honor Flight Network 2021).

Further Research

Veterans who served in the U.S. Armed Forces during various conflicts represent cohorts. Veterans share certain aspects of life in common. To find information on veteran populations and how they are aging, study the information on the web site of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Learn more about the Honor Flight Network, the organization offering trips to national war memorials in Washington, DC, at no cost to the veterans.

Think It Over

  • Think of an older person you know well, perhaps a grandparent, other relative, or neighbor. Ask them what they think about aging and how it’s perceived? In what ways does this person defy certain stereotypes about aging?

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  1. Mather, M. (2015). Effects of the Great Recession on Older Americans' Health and Well-Being. Retrieved from