As Congress struggles to find a solution to the debt ceiling crisis, religious and social services advocates fear it will take a “slash and burn” approach to programs that provide supplemental nutrition to impoverished seniors already living on the edge.
That concern prompted those advocates to host a statewide legislative policy session focusing on senior hunger and economic insecurity.
Participants at the Aug. 11 meeting at Northern Ocean Resource Center in Lakewood painted a stark picture of seniors increasingly having to choose between medicine and food, a growing strain on food banks, and an expanding need for meals-on-wheels programs and feeding sites for those living on Social Security.
“The senior population in New Jersey is expanding and will probably double in the next 15 to 20 years,” said Jacob Toporek, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federation, who moderated the event. “The problem is that more people are aging into poverty. We need to make sure Congress understands the concerns of our aging population.”
The program was sponsored by the nonprofit New Jersey Foundation for Aging along with other organizations focusing on hunger or the elderly.
“Twenty-five percent of seniors in New Jersey rely solely on Social Security,” said Grace Egan, executive director of the foundation. The average annual social security allotment for a woman is $12,741, $16,581 for a man, she said.
Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg and 10 other congressional members and state legislators sent representatives to the gathering.
Participants worried that too few seniors are aware of supplemental food programs or that they have difficulty accessing them.
“We are robbing people of their pride and dignity,” said Jim Sigurdson, executive director of community services for Ocean County. “They are ashamed to use food stamps.”
Diane Riley, director of advocacy for the Community Food Bank of New Jersey in Hillside, said a survey conducted in 2009 showed that demand spiked at the facility that year with 10 percent of its clientele being seniors.
“Seniors more than any other group make choices between medicine and food regularly,” she said. “And since 2009, the economy has gotten worse, not better.”
Recently Congress slashed the Emergency Food and Shelter program from $200 million to $100 million, using the money to fund other programs.
Advocates also fear that some entitlement programs, which are open to anyone who meet criteria and have no set funding limit, may become capped programs, which are allocated a finite amount of money.
“I think we have people at the federal level who want to slash and burn,” said New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition director Adele LaTourette. “I think people have no idea what will happen in this country at the most basic level. What will happen will be enormous and be unprecedented. All that is needed is a couple of federal cuts, and we will see a disaster in terms of hunger.”