How to Get Help If You're Old and Poor

Older man checking billsBeing old and poor doesn't sound like much fun. Here's what you need to know to avoid that fate -- or get help if you can't.

One quarter of baby boomers, ages 46 to 65, appear to be headed for poverty in their old age, according to a recent Harris poll, because they have no retirement or personal savings.People with no savings are likely to be among the 21% of married couples and 43% of unmarried persons aged 65 or older for whom Social Security is virtually their only source of income, according to Social Security's 2010 statistics.

The average Social Security check is $1,177 or $14,124 a year. The 2011 U.S. poverty level for a single person is $10,890. So someone surviving on Social Security alone is only $270 a month better off than someone just barely scraping by.

If you have no savings, the best advice is to start saving right away. If you can put away $250 a month for 20 years and earn a modest 3% interest, you'll have about $83,000. That isn't a fortune, but it's a lot better than nothing. According to ImmediateAnnuities.com, if you spend $75,000 on an immediate annuity at 66, you'll get about $490 a month for life, which added to your Social Security, raises your income to more than $20,000 a year -- or nearly twice the poverty level.

If it's absolutely too late to save and you can't work, it's time to look for help elsewhere. The best place to start is the National Council on Aging's BenefitsCheckUp.org.

Type in information about yourself, your spouse and your financial situation and this website will point you toward services that can make living in poverty much easier. While you don't have to be old to use BenefitsCheckUp -- some programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are available to people of any age -- most of the programs are limited to seniors or their caregivers.

BenefitsCheckUp includes information about more than 2,000 public and private programs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Marlene Schneider, vice president of decision support services for NCOA, says these programs are the most widely available and likely to be of the most help to the most people. Each listing on BenefitsCheckUp.org includes eligibility requirements and links to online applications. All you have to do is answer the questions.

Here are the programs most impoverished seniors are likely to qualify for:

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP is the new name for the federal Food Stamp Program. The program is administered differently in every state. First you locate your state, then BenefitsCheckup will walk you through that state's application. There are special rules for people 60 and older. A two-member household can qualify for as much as $367 in food coupons per month.
  • Help paying for Medicare Part D, prescription drug costs. If your income is less than $16,245 if you're single and $21,855 if you're married, you may be eligible for as much as $4,000 in help paying for prescription medications. Fill out this application to determine your eligibility.
  • Help paying your phone bill. LifelineSupport.org provides about $13 monthly toward the cost of a landline or cell phone.
  • Property tax reductions. In some states, low-income homeowners are eligible for assistance paying property taxes.
  • Veteran's Benefits. Anyone who served in the military is eligible for veteran's benefits and their spouses could be eligible as well. If you are a Vietnam-era veteran and unfamiliar with the program as it is now, it is well worth exploring the details. Some of the benefits don't have income limits.
If you have a low income, don't neglect to do your 2010 tax form -- even if you made less than $7,100, the IRS cut-off -- and you don't have to file. If you fill out the IRS form you are likely to qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Making Work Pay Tax Credit. This will net you several hundred dollars and is well worth the hassle.

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