(WOMENSENEWS)–About 60 percent of American women over age 65 lack sufficient income to cover basic living expenses, compared with 41 percent of men, according to a study released today by Wider Opportunities for Women, a Washington-based organization that works to improve the economic security for women and families.

Using the Elder Economic Security Standard Index, which defines the basic expenses facing retired adults over the age of 65, the organization’s researchers found that an older adult required from $19,100 to $29,000 a year, depending on the individual’s housing situation. Forty-nine percent of white women and 61 percent of older Asian women were unable to meet their monthly expenses for housing, food, health care and other necessities. Three out of four African-American and Hispanic women had insufficient funds.

"These numbers not only show the troubling number of women who are struggling financially in retirement, but also bring to light the impact of systematic economic inequality that follows women for their whole lives," said Donna Addkison, president and CEO of WOW, as the organization is called. WOW crafts non-traditional employment, job training and educational programs for women. "Issues like wage disparity, occupational segregation and discrimination are not problems isolated to the work force. These are injustices that affect all of us, our children and our grandchildren."

The report found that the annual income of the typical older woman was $14,000, compared with $24,300 for men. Retirement income of women was less because they had worked in low-wage industries and were paid less in male-dominated fields.

Women’s caregiving also took a toll. Because they took time off to raise families and care for parents and other relatives, their lifetime earnings are lower. In addition, women were less likely to have income from pensions. Only 36 percent of older women had income from a retirement plan or pension, compared with 52 percent of older men. The pension of the typical man exceeded the typical women’s by $5,700 a year.

The study indicated that women were more reliant on Social Security. Among those living alone, Social Security payments constituted 59 percent of older men’s total income, on average, compared with 77 percent of women’s income.

While older women rely on Social Security for the bulk of their income, they typically receive smaller annual payments: median women’s payments lagged behind men’s by $4,500 per year.

WOW compared 2010 incomes for older people who lived alone or with a partner to the Elder Index, which looks beyond the federal poverty level to account for the actual costs of housing, food, transportation, personal items and health care.

The Elder Index takes into account local differences in the cost of living, providing the most accurate picture of what adults in every part of the country need to have economic security. Older adults with inadequate incomes are often forced to choose among basic needs, including medications, nutritious food and adequate heating and cooling.

High Cost of Living Alone

Living alone also contributes to women’s economic insecurity. Fifty-six percent of older women live by themselves, compared with 67 percent of older men. Even among the oldest people –age 85 and older – 60 percent of men live with a spouse while 83 percent of women live alone.

In addition to spending less per person on housing, food and other necessities, older couples also report median household incomes that are more than twice their single counterparts ($40,400 versus $18,000).

The report found that women are more likely to be renters than men. Thirty-two percent of single women rent, 51 percent own their homes with a mortgage and 14 percent own their homes outright. Among women in couples, 8 percent rent, 68 percent own a home with a mortgage and 22 percent own their homes outright.

Older people who rent are vulnerable to dramatic changes in housing costs, the researchers noted. Retired adults living on fixed incomes often find themselves quickly priced out of rental markets. As a result, 74 percent of older people who rent have incomes that fall short of economic security.

Owning a home with a mortgage also can bring economic insecurity, the report found. Older people who own their homes with a mortgage require the highest incomes to be economically secure–about $10,000 more per year than those who own their homes outright. However, older people in this group also reported the highest median incomes of any housing status.

The Elder Index was developed by WOW and the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Elder Index data for all states and counties in the United States can be obtained from WOW’s Economic Security Database.

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Sharon Johnson is a New York-based freelance writer.