Nearly a quarter of elderly people in China live below the poverty line according to a new comprehensive survey conducted by researchers at the China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study (CHARLS) at Peking University in Beijing.
The survey is based on face-to-face interviews with 17,708 individuals over the age of 45 across 28 of China’s provinces. The interviews were conducted in 2011 and 2012.
When measuring poverty by consumption per capita, the researchers found that 22.9 percent of individuals over the age of 60 lived below the poverty line, compared to just 15.1 percent for those between the ages of 45 and 59. With about 160 million people over the age of 60 living in China, this equates to over 42 million elderly people living in poverty.
The numbers were even steeper when the researchers calculated poverty on the basis of income. Using this indicator, the elderly poverty rate rose to 28.5 percent and 19.6 percent for those between the ages of 45 and 59. This measurement is less accurate for elderly people, however, given that many don’t have a steady income.
China’s official poverty rate for rural areas is 13.9 percent. The CHARLS survey included respondents from both rural and urban areas, which in theory should have lowered the poverty rate as urban areas in China typically have relatively fewer poor than rural areas.
The high level of poverty among the elderly is especially alarming given that the researchers also found “that there is a very strong positive relationship between health and wealth; those who have less wealth also have worse health status.” For example, the percentage of elderly people needing assistance with daily activities was 26.2 percent among the poor compared to 22.7 percent among the non-poor.
Furthermore, people living below the poverty line who were over the age of 60 in both rural and urban areas were less likely to have health insurance, albeit the overwhelming majority of respondents reported having some kind of health insurance (92.1 percent of elderly in urban areas and 94.0 percent in rural places.)
The survey also found that a number of other factors were highly correlated with one’s health, including gender with the researchers finding that women in China are on average less healthy despite ultimately having a longer life span. According to the report, this is consistent with findings from other countries.
Overall, the survey underscored the enormous challenge the Chinese government will face in caring for its growing elderly population, which it is estimated will grow from 8 percent of the population in 2010, to over 25 percent by 2050. Although similar demographic challenges are facing highly developed nations in Europe, North America and Japan, the report notes that China will be forced to confront an aging population at a point much sooner in its development.
Without policy changes urbanization is likely to exacerbate these trends as older people often remain in rural areas even when their children move to the city for employment. This is important as the survey found that the elderly that lived alone were significantly more likely to face health problems and financial difficulties. Furthermore, 88.7 percent of respondents who reported needing help with daily activities currently receive that help from family members.
According to South China Morning Post, the CHARLS survey parallels similar ones being done in 30 other countries, and will be updated every two years.