Despite modest gains in the economy in 2012, national poverty rates remain virtually unchanged from last year.
However, a new study highlights one group that has unexpectedly fallen deeper into poverty: elderly women. Among women 65 and older, the 'extreme poverty' rate rose 18% in 2012. Extreme poverty is defined as an annual income of $5,500 or less for older individuals living by themselves.
"The cause has to be something that hits elderly individuals particularly hard," said Kate Gallagher Robbins, a senior policy analyst at the National Women's Law Center, who conducted the study. "We also know that poverty for elderly men and women was statistically unchanged so we are talking about a group of individuals who went from being poor to extremely poor."
The extreme poverty rate for elderly women ticked up to 3.1% in 2012 from 2.6% in 2011. An additional 135,000 elderly women became categorized as extremely poor, bringing the total number of elderly women in extreme poverty to 733,000. Sixty-two percent of elderly women in this group are white, non-Hispanic, 16% are Hispanic, 17% are black, 4% are Asian and 2% are Native American.
The National Women's Law Center is currently exploring potential reasons for the sudden increase.
"One factor might be cuts in recent years to Social Security Administration funding which may be making applications for [Supplemental Security Income] more difficult," Robbins wrote in an email to MSNBC.com. "Without Social Security, almost 15.3 million more elderly individuals would have been poor in 2012, yet many policy makers are debating switching the cost-of-living adjustment to the chained CPI which will reduce the value of benefits for current beneficiaries. Clearly these data show that making such cuts would be unconscionable."
Another cause for the rise in the extreme poverty rate for this group may have to do with unemployment insurance benefits. Since older workers are more likely to be unemployed for longer periods of time, the likelihood that their unemployment insurance benefits expired, or even cut, between 2011 and 2012 is high.
Overall, the poverty rate for women in 2012 was 14.5%, much higher than men's poverty rate at 11%. The extreme poverty rate for women -- 6.3% -- was 1.5 points higher than it was for men who ranked at 4.8%. The center's data shows that poverty and extreme poverty rates for men have consistently been well below the rates for women.