If a nation were judged by how well it cares for its weakest and most vulnerable citizens, the United States would not get high marks. Today's senior citizens are people defended us in war, helped us through the Great Depression and made our country the envy of the world. We cannot turn our backs on them.
In America today, while the wealthiest people are doing phenomenally well, poverty among seniors is increasing and nearly half of all seniors are now unable to afford their basic living expenses, according to a recent study from the Economic Policy Institute. Four million seniors live on less than $11,000 a year, and 8 million seniors face the threat of hunger. Tragically, according to the AARP Foundation, the number of hungry seniors in the U.S. more than doubled from 2001 to 2009. As distressing as these national statistics are, poverty and hunger are even worse for older women, minorities and those living in rural areas like Vermont.
One of the most effective programs devised to address the needs of vulnerable seniors is the Older Americans Act. It was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 along with the better-known Medicare and Medicaid programs. The Older Americans Act serves 11 million people across the country, including 58,000 Vermont seniors.
In an extremely cost-effective way, this program is providing high-quality nutrition to more than 1 million frail and isolated older adults through the Meals on Wheels program. It also provides subsidized meals at senior centers throughout the country and employment opportunities for low-income older Americans.
This is a program that not only works well in easing isolation, hunger and suffering, it also saves taxpayers substantial sums of money. Not surprisingly, seniors who are malnourished are more likely to suffer serious illnesses, to break hips because of a fall or, for a variety of reasons, end up in hospital emergency rooms at great expense. To my mind, it makes a lot more sense to provide adequate nutrition to frail seniors than to spend money on preventable hospital costs. The simple truth is, we can feed a senior for an entire year for the cost of one day in a hospital. Further, a Brown University study determined that providing adequate nutrition reduces the need for nursing home care, which costs $80,000 per year.
Despite the success of the Older Americans Act in keeping seniors healthy, independent and out of hospitals and nursing homes, this vitally important program has been inadequately funded for years. Today, only a small percentage of seniors who need the services provided by the Older Americans Act are able to receive them. From one end of the country to the other, there are waiting lists for the Meals on Wheels program. Only 9 percent of seniors eligible for home-delivered meals are getting them. Sequestration has made a very bad situation even worse by cutting more than $40 million from senior meals programs, resulting in as many as 19 million fewer meals served. In Vermont, there are more than 150 centers that provide food for more than 1 million meals a year to more than 15,000 seniors in their homes or at senior centers.
In the year 2013, in the United States of America, seniors should not be worried about where they will get their next meal. They should not be forced to choose between paying their electric bills or buying the prescription drugs they desperately need. They should be able to live with dignity and with a sense of security.
The Older Americans Act and the Meals on Wheels program not only protect our seniors and keep them healthy, they also bring our communities together. More than a million volunteers help out in these programs by delivering hot meals in their cars and by assisting at senior centers. Let me take this opportunity to thank the many Vermonters who, every day, volunteer their services to check in and deliver meals to seniors who otherwise would be isolated and without proper nutrition.
The congressional authorization for the Older Americans Act expired in 2011. While it has been extended with stopgap measures, it deserves not only to be fully reauthorized but to be expanded to address the current crisis. The choice is clear: Either we continue to allow some of our mothers, fathers and grandparents to live in hunger and unnecessary pain or we provide them with adequate nutrition through the Older Americans Act. Either we waste billions of dollars on emergency room visits and unnecessary hospital stays, or we provide elderly Americans the resources they need to live healthy lives.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is chairman of the Primary Health and Aging Subcommittee, which is considering legislation to reauthorize the Older Americans Act.