Overview of the Wisconsin Elder Economic Security Initiative

Initiative Overview


The Wisconsin Elder Economic Security Initiative (WiEESI) seeks to build economic security for older adults through the multi-pronged framework of:

  • Coalition-building;
  • Research;
  • Education;
  • Advocacy, and
  • Media outreach — community, state, national

The WiEESI promotes:

  1. Economic well being, whether or not an elder has the capacity to be fully self- reliant or needs public support.
  2. Autonomy, independence and aging in place.
  3. Personal dignity, gender equality and economic justice for all elders.

An Accurate Measure: Calculating the Wisconsin Elder Economic Security Standard Index

At the heart of this initiative is the calculation of the Wisconsin Elder Economic Security Standard Index (Elder Index). The Elder Index provides a new, more accurate measure of an independent elder’s income needs given daily costs of living, including affordable and appropriate housing and health care.

Calibrated to household size, geographic area and life circumstance, the Elder Index will be used to inform the policy agenda and delivery of services affecting elders. The Index Elder will take into account not only geographic differences, but also whether or not an elder lives alone or with someone, if they own or rent, if they are healthy or not, and if they are in need of long term care.

WiEESI will use the Elder Index as a practical tool for evaluating public policy changes, educating the community, and helping agencies assess economic need, all in an effort to promote the self-sufficiency of our elders.

WiEESI and the National Initiative

The WiEESI is part of the National Elder Economic Security Initiative managed by Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW). WOW has partnered with the Gerontology Institute (GI) at the University of Massachusetts Boston to calculate the Elder Standard at the national, state, and county level. Wisconsin recently joined Massachusetts, California, Illinois and Pennsylvania as the five initial pilot states for the National EESI. The national initiative currently includes seventeen states, and will expand to include a total of 20 states and a national database of Elder Index data.

The Wisconsin Women’s Network (the Network) leads the WiEESI. The Network has made the WiEESI a priority focus for 2010, recognizing that women of all ages are disproportionately impacted by poverty.


The elderly face economic hardships due to high health care costs, housing expenses and utility bills occurring at a time of reduced employment and earnings. Social Security, Medicare, and other economic supports have helped to reduce the elder poverty rate from 35% in 1959 to 10% in 2005. However, the most utilized measure of poverty, income at or below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), is seriously outdated and flawed.

The FPL fails to take into account health care, long-term care, transportation, or housing costs. Of concern for many women, the measure also fails to reflect the financial impact of death or disability of a spouse and periods of reduced employment due to caregiving. As a result, reliance on the FPL has created another underprivileged class: those people with income too low to pay for their basic costs of living, yet who have income too high to qualify for dignity-saving economic supports.

Elder Economics

The elderly consistently face the hardships of poverty due to elevated health care costs, soaring utility expenses, retirement phase-outs, and reduced employment that typically accompanies aging.

Elder economics is not just an elder issue. America is aging with the largest generation in U.S. history already entering their 60s and turning 80 by 2026. Increased poverty experienced by elders will result in a greater financial burden for all Americans. Despite this obvious and known demographic shift, little data exists regarding the financial costs on families caring for aging relatives. Furthermore the grassroots strength of caregivers and their advocates has yet to translate into sufficient resources and funding to support the caring of America’s growing population of elders.

Elder economic security has become, and will remain, an increasingly important policy issue at the national, state, and local level. From the restructuring of Social Security and Medicare to county-based Aging and Disability Resource Centers, government policies are being made today that will shape the lives of elders well into the future. Yet, how can these policies improve elder self-sufficiency when their underlying assumptions are 40 years old?

Impact on Women

Elder issues are women’s issues. The female life span continues to outpace that of men. Elder economic insecurity is a woman’s problem. Despite the social and professional advances of the last 40 years, elder women are nearly twice as likely as their male counterparts to be poor. Women of color are disproportionately impacted by poverty as they age.

Social Security benefits exemplify the problem facing older women. Women are less likely than men to have sources of retirement income other than Social Security (46% of elderly unmarried women relied on Social Security for 90% of their income). Yet despite relying heavily on Social Security, women receive less social security income on average than men.

Based on “work years,” the average annual Social Security income received by men is $12,381 and the average for women is $9,408.

Unfortunately, economic justice issues follow women and minorities into old age. With elder issues gaining national, state and local prominence, an opportunity exists for improving the lives of women. Women as elders, and women as caregivers for elders, face threats to their economic security, personal dignity, and independence.

Our Funding Partners

The Helen Bader Foundation, Inc. supports innovative projects and programs that advance the well-being of people and promote successful relationships with their families and communities. The Foundation is named for the late Helen Bader, a Milwaukee businesswoman who became a social worker. With offices in Milwaukee and Jerusalem, the Foundation awards an average of $12 million per year in grants, totaling more than $163 million in grants since it was established in 1992.

Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) leads two national networks promoting economic security within the United States: the Family Economic Self-Sufficiency Project (FESS) focusing on the needs of low- income working families and the Elder Economic Security Initiative, addressing what income seniors require to age in place. WOW works in 35 states, the District of Columbia, and at the federal level to promote programs and policies that accurately measure the income and assistance needs of families and the elderly.

The Atlantic Philanthropies is dedicated to bringing about lasting changes in the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable people. Atlantic focuses on four critical social problems: Aging, Disadvantaged Children and Youth, Population Health, and Reconciliation and Human Rights.