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My Turn: Inequality can affect us at any age

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Saturday, April 14, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of seven essays written by authors with local ties that will explore why inequalities in income, wealth and opportunity are bad for Franklin County and what the community can do about it.

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As someone who lobbied lawmakers on Beacon Hill on elderly issues for over 30 years, I learned that sustained pressure from the outside is the only force that can overcome the inertia of state government. To impact economic inequality, the best place to start is the state and local level. This November, we will vote on as many as six ballot questions addressing important economic issues.

In 2016, a report from the UMass Boston Gerontology Institute titled “Living Below the Line: Economic Insecurity and Older Americans,” found that nationwide half of older adults living alone lacked the financial resources required to pay for basic needs. The study measured costs faced by elderly households living independently — although it did not count long-term care costs like nursing homes.

In Massachusetts, 61 percent of single elders were living below the income level for basic and necessary living expenses, unable to age in their homes without relying on benefit programs, loans or gifts. The Bay State ranked second to the bottom in the nation for percentage of elders living in economic insecurity, behind only Mississippi.

For Franklin County, the Elder Economic Security Index for renters in 2016 was $25,248 annual income for a single elder, and $37,428 for an elderly couple. Those with incomes below this level were economically insecure.

The Massachusetts Legislature, concerned by this report, formed an Elder Economic Security Commission, which examined the economic risk of current and future older Massachusetts residents. The Commission issued its report in the spring of 2016. Here are some key policy recommendations:

Extend the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for working people over age 65 (eliminate the age cap), increase the amount singles without children can receive, and increase the percentage of the federal credit that the state credit is based upon.

Expand the nonprofit state retirement plan to nonprofits and businesses with fewer than 100 employees, so more families have a small pension in their retirement years.

Increase Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payment amounts for Massachusetts recipients.

Provide enhanced protections for older adults in debt collections, like predatory loan practices.

Ensure access to the federal fuel assistance, weatherization programs and provide a state supplement to the fuel assistance.

Provide affordable energy efficiency programs and green energy conversions that are accessible to older homeowners and renters with incomes below the Elder Index.

Change the MassHealth rules to remove the $2,000 asset limit, for people under 65, and expand the income eligibility standards for MassHealth.

Inform older adults of tax deferral, and credit programs, like the circuit-breaker credit, available to lower the impact of property taxes.

Expand eligibility standards for the Medicare Savings Programs (MassHealth Buy-In Programs) to lower out of pocket health care costs.

Raise income eligibility for the elderly home care to 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

Amend MassHealth regulations to allow spouses to be paid caregivers under the “personal care attendant” and “adult foster care” programs,

Amend MassHealth regulations to allow personal care attendants for consumers who require cueing and supervision, like those with Alzheimer’s.

Expand Funding for Options Counselors. No one goes into a nursing home without knowing the community care options.

Expand Funding for Benefit Enrollment Specialists so elders can get help with complicated MassHealth enrollment forms and other benefit programs.

Support passage of legislation to establish a Direct Care Workforce Task Force to research raising the wages for home care aides, home health aides and certified nurse assistants.

Support passage of legislation to assist older adults applying for MassHealth Nursing Home Care. Help community spouses of nursing home residents retain their Individual Retirement Accounts and protect elders from ineligibility for MassHealth nursing home care for certain transfers of assets.

It is an embarrassment that Massachusetts ranks second in the nation for the percentage of its older population living in economic insecurity. Most of the items on this commission’s list have been ignored by the Legislature and the Baker administration.

Here is a list of six voter issues we may see on the November ballot if the Legislature takes no action by the end of April, and if question sponsors gather sufficient signatures by July 3:

Implement a 4 percent state tax on incomes over $1 million.

Limit the number of patients a nurse can be assigned to at once.

Provide workers in Massachusetts up to 16 weeks of paid leave to care for a family member and up to 26 weeks of paid personal medical leave.

Incrementally raise the minimum wage from $11 an hour today to $15 an hour by 2022.

Establish a state commission to push for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, limiting corporate money in politics.

Require health facilities that accept state money to provide records of their financial health.

All these ballot questions illustrate how important the role of citizens has become. Economic insecurity can be cured. For starters, clip and mail this article to your state senator and representative.

To get the phone numbers and emails for all state senators, go to: https://malegislature.gov/Legislators/Members/Senate.

For all state representatives: https://malegislature.gov/Legislators/Members/House.

If you don’t know who your elected officials are, or where to vote, go to : http://www.sec.state.ma.us/wheredoivotema//BAL/MYELECTIONINFO.ASP.

Tomorrow: “You have to steer by anticipation.”

Al Norman, a Greenfield resident, worked in the elderly home care field in Massachusetts for 38 years.