The Public Policy Institute of California recently updated its California Poverty Measure in its annual “Poverty: Just the Facts” analysis, reporting that Santa Barbara County now has the fourth-highest poverty rate in the state (13.5%).

Surprisingly, this was good news.

In prior years, Santa Barbara County’s poverty rate had been as high as 20.7%; in other words, as many as 1 in 5 people in our county were living on less than $35,600 for a family of four.

However, the cash and noncash benefits (such as the Earned Income Tax Credit) provided during the COVID-19 pandemic enabled many individuals and families to attain economic stability and lift themselves out of poverty.

And, for the first time in recent years, Santa Barbara County’s child poverty rate dropped substantially.

Unfortunately, many of the relief programs designed to help Americans during the pandemic did not take into consideration our most vulnerable population: seniors.

PPIC’s October 2022 report shows that 14.8% of seniors — defined as 65 years of age, or older — have the highest poverty rate among all age categories in Santa Barbara County. This equates to 10,181 seniors living below the California Poverty Measurement.

Furthermore, data from the 2020 census indicates that more than 7,300 seniors in our county are living below the federal poverty measurement, which is less than the California measurement.

Federal poverty levels in the United States are defined as an individual living on less than $12,880 per year and a couple living on less than $17,420 per year.

Why are so many of our seniors struggling? Past increases to Social Security benefits have not kept up with the high cost of living in our county.

While seniors will see a 8.7% increase (on average $140 per month) in Social Security benefits and Supplemental Security Income payments in January, many will still be unable to keep up with their rent or mortgage, pay utility bills, buy prescriptions or pay medical expenses.

And, because they are no longer in the workforce, when costs rise they have few additional resources other than public benefits or depleting their savings to manage expenses.

These financial limitations may leave them vulnerable to predatory practices and abuse, can result in isolation, and ultimately may have a negative impact on their mental health.

Paying for minor home repairs, ensuring that their homes are energy efficient to reduce costs, or outfitting their homes with devices such as grab bars to avoid falls is simply not an option.

Worse yet, sudden disruptions such as a fall or an unexpected major illness can instantly derail seniors’ living situations, causing them to lose their independence and sense of community.

The National Institute on Aging reports that 1 in 4 seniors aged 65 and older fall each year in the United States, and data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that “falls among adults 65 and older caused over 34,000 deaths in 2019, making it the leading cause of injury death for that age group.”

CommUnify’s Senior Safe at Home program helps to prevent our low-income seniors from hospitalization or ending up in a long-term care facility that, according to Medicaid health providers, can cost taxpayers up to $7,000 per month. Providing preventative safety measures can realize significant cost savings to our public health system.

CommUnify’s Senior Safe at Home program helps seniors age in place safely by providing minor home repairs, installing slip-and-fall prevention devices, energy-efficient appliances and new windows, at no cost to income eligible clients.

Most of our clients live on an average fixed income of $1,285 per month, and many live in mobile homes. Close to 70% of our clients are female and live alone, 48% are 75 years of age or older, and 51% are disabled. Services are offered to homeowners and renters alike.

“Thanks to your program, when taking showers, I don’t feel fear anymore,” said Cathy, one of our Senior Safe at Home Clients.

“Your staff was top notch and the funds you placed in my gas account helped me big time. I am so grateful for your help.”

CommUnify’s staff and contractors provide all the direct service components of the Senior Safe at Home program.

With respect to outreach, CommUnify partners with other community-based organizations — such as VNA Health visiting nurses, Hospice of Santa Barbara, Dignity Health, Central Coast Commission for Senior Citizens, CenCal Health, Family Service Agency, Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, Santa Barbara County Adult & Aging Network and others — to ensure these seniors receive the critical services they need. 

California’s population is aging, and per California’s Master Plan on Aging, 10 years from now, 1 out of every 4 Californians will be an older adult. They may live longer, have to work longer and have less economic security than our seniors have had in the past.

Affordable housing, caregiving, and health care are all issues the Master Plan on Aging seeks to address.

In the meantime, CommUnify remains dedicated to ensuring that the seniors we serve can obtain the minor home repair services, slip-and-fall prevention devices, and energy and weatherization services they need to remain safely in their homes. 

If you know a senior in Santa Barbara County who could benefit from the Seniors Safe at Home program, please contact CommUnify at, or call 805.617.2897.

Patricia Keelean

Patricia Keelean

Patricia Keelean is CEO of CommUnify, a nonprofit organization empowering Santa Barbara County’s most vulnerable families, children, teens and seniors through education and coordinated services so they may achieve economic stability, improve overall well-being, and thrive. Click here for more information about CommUnify’s 16 programs or call 805.964.8857 for assistance. Follow CommUnify on Twitter: @CommUnifySB. The opinions expressed are her own.