When the last national census was taken in 2010, 48 percent of the population was classified as poor or low-income (earning less than 200 percent of the poverty level). Anyone who's ever tried to live on a low income knows how difficult it can be to make ends meet when cost increases for essentials like healthcare, housing, food and energy outpace their earnings. This can be especially challenging for seniors living on a fixed income.
The good news is there are literally thousands of federal, state and private assistance programs designed to help seniors and others cover their basic needs. Your challenge might be finding ones for which you're eligible. Here are a few suggestions:
The nonprofit National Council on Aging offers BenefitsCheckUp (www.benefitscheckup.org), a free, confidential web-based service that helps seniors and their caregivers find financial assistance for healthcare, housing, food, utilities, in-home services and much more. After answering several questions, you're issued a personalized report describing programs and services for which you may be eligible, including links to their websites and applications.
Several government-sponsored programs help people with limited income and resources pay for medical coverage, including Medicaid and Medicare. For a good round-up of these programs, go to www.medicare.gov and click on "Get Financial Help."
Most pharmaceutical companies offer patient assistance programs (PAPs) that provide uninsured and low-income people access to prescription drugs they couldn't otherwise afford. Ask your doctor, pharmacist or health clinic for details. Other good resources include: Medicare's alphabetical list of drugs available through PAPs (www.medicare.gov/pap/index.asp); Partnership for Prescription Assistance (www.pparx.org); RxAssist (www.rxassist.org); and NeedyMeds (www.needymeds.com).
In addition, as a result of the Affordable Care Act, Medicare Part D participants who reach the so-called doughnut hole coverage gap now receive a 50 percent discount on brand-name prescription drugs and a 14 percent discount on generics. (These discounts will gradually increase until 2020 when the doughnut hole will disappear altogether.)
The IRS tax code includes several benefits that target seniors (and often, other lower-income taxpayers), including:
* A higher standard deduction amount for most people who don't itemize deductions if they and/or their spouse are over 65 or blind.
* An additional tax credit for lower-income people who are over 65 or disabled and file a 1040 or 1040A tax form. (For full details and eligibility, see IRS Publication 524 at www.irs.gov.)
* Free tax return preparation assistance and counseling from IRS-trained volunteers is available to people over age 60, as well as low-to-moderate income folks and military families.
* IRS Publication 554 provides comprehensive help for seniors to prepare their tax returns.
Many government-sponsored benefits, grants and financial aid programs exist to help seniors, low-income families and others pay their bills, including:
* LIHEAP (Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program) provides grants to help pay utility bills. To see if you qualify, go to www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ocs/liheap.
* SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) helps millions of lower-income Americans buy nutritious food each month. Visit www.fns.usda.gov/snap for qualification requirements.
* Rental assistance for low-income families is available from several U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development programs as well as other state and local agencies (see www.hud.gov/renting/index.cfm for details).
* Go to www.usa.gov/Citizen/Topics/Benefits.shtml for a comprehensive overview of additional aid programs.
And of course, don't forget to ask about senior discounts whenever you shop, travel or buy insurance – 10 percent here and there can really add up.
Jason Alderman directs Visa's financial education programs. To Follow Jason Alderman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney.