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Recently, the White House has considered changing how the federal government calculates the poverty line by altering how inflation is measured. As a result, this change would potentially result in fewer people falling below the poverty line. While the idea of having fewer people in poverty sounds great, this proposal would actually cause a smaller number of people to qualify for badly needed government assistance.

The poverty line is critical because it’s used to determine if people are candidates for specific benefits associated with programs like Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Presently, individuals who make less than $12,490 a year are under the poverty line, which includes 4.7 million seniors.

Let’s take Medicare as an example. The administration’s change to the poverty line’s calculation would increase the costs of prescription drugs and premiums for low-income seniors. This would impact approximately 250,000 seniors who use prescription drugs and could force 150,000 elderly people to pay more than $1,000 for continued coverage for doctors’ visits.

Sadly, changing the poverty line calculation would also decrease the benefits for older Americans associated with Medicaid. At the moment, millions of adults have qualified for Medicaid expansion through the ACA, including older adults between 50 and 65. Under the administration’s proposal, changing how inflation is measured for the poverty line would cause 250,000 people to lose their Medicaid expansion coverage over a 10-year period.

Unfortunately, the negative impact of changing the poverty line calculation does not stop with healthcare. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) helps people in this country with their energy bills, like those for heat and air conditioning. According to a 2018 survey by the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, seniors are in 46 percent of households that receive LIHEAP. Are we really suggesting cutting benefits from low-income seniors who need help with their energy bills, especially in states with extreme weather like Florida and Minnesota?  

When Congress passed tax cut legislation in 2017, B’nai B’rith argued that ballooning deficits could cause lawmakers to campaign for cuts to important social programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Our press release from December 2017 stated, “Perhaps the biggest danger this Congressional tax plan includes is the likelihood of future cuts to critical federal programs such as Medicare and Medicaid to help pay down what most economists say will be a massive increase in the deficit that will result from these tax cuts. Experts predict that the ensuing revenue short-fall would have to be made up by drastic cuts to programs fundamental to seniors in need.”

So here we are! The U.S. budget deficit ballooned to $738.6 billion during the first eight months of the 2019 fiscal year, and, as we predicted, proposals have been rolled out that cut benefits from older Americans.
Seniors living below the poverty line are not likely to gain full-time employment to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Consequently, I hope the administration rethinks this policy so our country can help meet the challenges faced every day by older Americans.


​​Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Assistant Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School.  Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.​​