Mashpee Senior Poverty Rate Climbs To Highest On Cape Cod
By: Elsa H. Partan
Over the last five years, Mashpee had the largest percentage of people over 65 living below the poverty line of all towns on Cape Cod, according to data released last month by the US Census Bureau.
The American Community Survey showed that approximately 9 percent of Mashpee people over 65 were living below the federal poverty line between 2005 and 2009, when the survey was conducted.
That is on par with the poverty rate among seniors across the state, which was also about 9 percent. But it was elevated over the rest of Cape Cod, which had a poverty rate of just 5 percent among seniors. The poverty line for people over 65 is defined as income of less than about $13,000 a year for a family of two.
The percentage of impoverished seniors appears to have gone up in Mashpee over the last 10 years. The poverty rate among people over 65 in Mashpee was just 3 percent 10 years ago, according to the survey taken during the 2000 US Census.
But a statistician for the US Census Bureau, Alemayehu Bishaw, cautions that the methods for collecting the data were different between the two surveys, making a direct comparison challenging.
For example, for the most recent data, 1,024 people were surveyed over five years, while the year 2000 figure was the result of interviewing 1,716 people in Mashpee all at once. The margin of error for the five-year survey for the Mashpee senior poverty rate was about 6 percent, meaning that the actual poverty rate could be 6 percentage points higher or lower than the stated 9 percent figure. The margin of error for the 2000 survey is smaller, but Mr. Bishaw did not have that figure immediately available. “But you can still use this information to complement what you know about the economic conditions that exist in your area,” Mr. Bishaw said.
For the people who assist the elderly in Mashpee and across Cape Cod, it is clear that need among seniors has grown.
“I have seen a significant increase in seniors who are struggling financially,” said Lynn F. Waterman, the outreach coordinator for the Mashpee Council on Aging. “Some are dealing with foreclosure, some are having trouble keeping up with the cost of living or paying for medication.”
Ms. Waterman directs seniors to various agencies that do everything from reducing prescription drug costs to advising seniors on how to handle credit card debt. Other programs that have increased in popularity include fuel assistance and food stamps.
“There’s not an easy solution to any of this,” she said. “You have to move resources around to make ends meet.”
According to figures provided by Richard J. Reilly, manager of the St. Vincent de Paul Society food pantry, the percentage of elderly who came to pick up a free bag of food each week jumped from 17 percent of the total customers in 2007 to 30 percent in 2008. In 2009 and 2010, seniors represented a consistent 21 percent of the total clientele.
Over that time, the pantry dramatically increased its service to everyone. In 2007, it served 3,640 people. By the end of 2010 that number had grown to 10,250.
Mashpee Human Service Director Gail Wilson said she has seen a larger demand for the free counseling service she provides to Mashpee seniors.
“When you see seniors who are in financial distress, you see increased numbers of elders who experience depression,” she said. “It goes hand in hand.”
Exactly why Mashpee appears to have a higher level of poverty among seniors than other Cape Cod towns remains a mystery. Mashpee Town Planner F. Thomas Fudala suggested that it might be a statistical effect caused by Mashpee’s relatively small population.
For example, 56 units of senior housing at Asher’s Path on Carlton Drive were built three years ago, dramatically increasing the amount of housing for low-income seniors. The income-restricted one-bedroom apartments are reserved for people over 55 years old.
The 2000 survey estimated that 63 people out of the total population of 2,318 residents over the age of 65 were living below the poverty line. That represents the 3 percent poverty rate cited in the survey results. The number could be easily influenced by a few dozen low-income people over 65 moving in.
According to Leila Botsford, the executive director of the Mashpee Housing Authority, about 20 percent of the applicants for the Asher’s Path apartments were already Mashpee residents at the time. Thus, the Asher’s Path apartments may have increased the net number of low-income seniors in Mashpee.
Looking beyond Mashpee’s borders, the economic downturn and the losses in the stock market have been significant setbacks for people over 65 across Cape Cod, according to Leslie E. Scheer, the executive director of Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands.
“We’re seeing the implications of higher poverty among seniors,” she said. “It tends to be harsher for seniors than younger folks. When a young person can’t afford a doctor, there could be some health impacts, but young people tend to be healthier. When senior can’t afford a doctor or to take their medication, they often find themselves hospitalized.”
Both Ms. Scheer and Mashpee Council on Aging Director James P. Long said the future promises more seniors living in poverty, not fewer, especially as the baby boomers age.
“The financial problems and the down stock market have created a chasm for people,” Mr. Long said. “I don’t see the poverty numbers going down over the next few years.”
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