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The Truth About Those ‘Greedy’ Seniors

This was published as a Wall Street Journal Think Tank column on June 13, 2014.

What’s your image of America’s seniors? Are they “greedy geezers” who can afford to pay a lot more than they do today for their health care? Sure, some seniors are wealthy. About 4% of people on Medicare have more than $100,000 in income, and 6% have more than $1 million in savings. But most seniors live on much less, and some groups, such as those in their 80s and 90s, older women, and black and Hispanic seniors, have strikingly low incomes and modest savings.

You can check out all the stats on seniors and Medicare beneficiaries in this new Kaiser Family Foundation infographic, but  here are a few especially revealing numbers:

* Half of all people on Medicare had annual incomes of less than $23,500 per person in 2013. (Medicare beneficiaries include seniors as well as younger disabled beneficiaries).

* Half had less than $61,400 in lifetime savings per person in 2013.

* Half had less than $66,700 in home equity per person in 2013.

* For black and Hispanic Medicare beneficiaries, median savings were much lower: $10,300 for blacks and $9,300 for Hispanics in 2013, compared with $89,500 for white people on Medicare. Even among college graduates, median savings were at least four times greater among white ($261,600) than black ($50,150) or Hispanic ($61,600) Medicare beneficiaries.

* Half of all women on Medicare had less than $21,800 in income ($25,850 for men) in 2013; half had less than $54,700 in savings ($69,600 for men).

* Median savings among widows was very modest ($42,550), and less than half that of widowers ($106,550).

* Looking ahead to 2030, the numbers are projected to improve somewhat. Median income is projected to rise from $23,500 in 2013 to $28,250 in 2030, in inflation-adjusted dollars; median savings is projected to increase from $61,400 in 2013 to $101,150 in 2030.

Whatever image you may have of America’s seniors and of people on Medicare, the reality is that when more of us baby boomers are “seniors,” most will have very modest means and will be dependent on their families and public programs such as Medicare and Social Security for their retirement security.

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Filling the need for trusted information on national health issues, the Kaiser Family Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Menlo Park, California.