Seniors facing unprecedented financial distress

It could be worse. In fact, it was worse. In the 1800s, if you were both poor and elderly, the chances are that your family was too poor to care for you. Moreover, contemporary researchers note that, “The elderly poor were regarded as ‘a burden on the local taxes’ and were ‘despised and often treated as outcasts.’” In some places you could attend an auction selling the labor of old persons, who were then forced to work in agriculture. Gives me the heebie-jeebies.

If you were poor and elderly you were likely to spend your final years in the poorhouse. There was no pretense about these being your “golden years.” The poorhouse of that century has been described as “dreary, vermin-infested, and laden with human waste.”

The situation was little better in the early decades of the 20th century. In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, about two-thirds of older Americans lived in poverty. Finally, social movements and progressive politics resulted in the passage of The Social Security Act of 1935, and 30 years later, Medicare and Medicaid. In addition, pensions were fairly common in both the private and public sectors into the 1970s. The majority of seniors could age with dignity.

Then it started to unravel. During the second half of the 20th century wages

stagnated, Social Security benefits were increasingly watered down, and out-of-pocket expenses for Medicare increased. Perhaps worst of all, the private sector almost completely abandoned traditional pensions, replacing them with insufficient, risky and volatile retirement plans such as 401(k) accounts. In recent years the public sector has been following suit. The predictable consequences were not long in coming.

Earlier this year a group of university-based researchers, led by Deborah Thorne from the University of Idaho, published a study entitled, Graying of U.S. Bankruptcy: Fallout from Life in a Risk Society. The findings of this study are most disturbing.

Since the early 1990s, the rate of filing bankruptcy by younger persons has steadily decreased while the rate of filing bankruptcy by persons age 65 to 74 has doubled. During this same period of time the rate has tripled for those age 75 and older. Furthermore, the rate of increased bankruptcy filings for seniors is so pronounced that it cannot be explained by the general trend of an aging U.S. population.

Another way of looking at these findings is to consider the bankrupt population as a whole. In the words of the researchers:

One in seven bankruptcy filers is of retirement age, 65 years or older. This is nearly a five-fold increase over just two and a half decades. This is a notable demographic shift. Within the oldest cohort, those age 75 and older, there has been a near ten-fold increase since 1991.

Typical reasons for personal bankruptcy include:

uninsured medical expenses

unemployment or a decline in wages (for example seasonal work, or taking a new job that pays less)


extensive use of credit cards

small business failure

military service

adult children returning with grandchildren to live with grandparents

aggressive debt collection agencies

But ultimately, however — and this is extremely important—personal bankruptcy is not an individual problem or a “personal failing.” It is the logical outcome of national policies. The researchers who conducted the study emphasize this critical point:

Our data suggest that older Americans’ financial decline and eventual bankruptcies can be linked to the dismantling of the United States’ social safety net and the corresponding financial risks placed on individuals. During the twentieth century, countries that embraced the modern welfare state assured their citizens [a range of benefits such as healthcare and pensions for the aged]. These policies of shared risk decrease the financial risks of aging citizens and obviate the need to take out unmanageable debt. The United States not only has not followed suit, but has also weakened many programs designed to help seniors through their retirement and final years

Finally, bankruptcy for seniors does not often have a good outcome. Bankruptcy is designed to “wipe the slate clean,” so to speak, so that an individual or family can start out the rest of their lives on a new financial footing. That might work for younger people, but older people are likely to run out of time and capability to build a better financial future.

The world of financial consultants and bankruptcy attorneys is complex and fraught with dangers. Enter this world educated and with your guard up. A good place to start is the Federal Trade Commission Consumer Education website at They encourage you to visit their website, but you may be able to get limited help on the phone at (202) 326-2222.

Timing is important. If you sense you are having financial troubles, learn about your options before you are in too deep.

Lawrence D. Weiss is a UAA Professor of Public Health, Emeritus, creator of the UAA Master of Public Health program, and author of several books and numerous articles.

Author Bio

Lawrence D. Weiss is a UAA Professor of Public Health, Emeritus, creator of the UAA Master of Public Health program, and author of several books and numerous articles.