WASHINGTON — SEVENTY-EIGHT-YEAR-OLD Alfonso Diaz shakes his head and his cheerful eyes darken when he is asked if he knows any older people who go hungry in Adams Morgan, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood which sits on a hill in the nation's capital.
``Yes,'' he says in his native Spanish. ``There are lots of them. They don't know where to go for help, or they don't want it. Too ashamed.''
The first recent, national study to focus on hunger among the elderly will be released here today. It found that between 1.5 million and 2.5 million elderly Americans go hungry regularly. As many as 4.9 million worry about having enough to eat. The study found the highest rates of hunger among Hispanics, followed by blacks. Whites have the lowest levels of hunger.
``One of the things I found startling was that the people who do use the [federal] food assistance programs are at least as badly off as the people who don't,'' says Martha Burt, the study's author and a researcher at the Urban Institute, a liberal think tank here.
But the study does indicate that substantial progress has been made. Thirty years ago, an estimated 30 percent of elderly Americans lived in poverty and more than half regularly went hungry. Today, only 12.9 percent fall beneath the poverty level and only an estimated 5 percent are hungry.
Analysts credit the improvement to the implementation of Medicare, Supplemental Social Security, and the Elderly Americans Act during the 1960s and early '70s.
However, ``despite all the talk of how rich the elderly are and how much they get in entitlements, there is a small percentage that has been left behind,'' says Douglas Besharov of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
The Urban Institute study, funded by The Philip Morris Companies, found hunger greatest among seniors with incomes below the individual poverty level of $6,786 a year. Those with health problems also were more likely to be hungry. ``They often have to make the decision between buying their medications, paying rent or utilities, or buying food,'' says Ms. Burt.
The report also found high rates of ``food insecurity'' - constant worry about finding food - among the 27 percent of seniors whose income falls below 150 percent of the poverty level.
The highest rates of hunger and food insecurity were found among Hispanics. ``That's because it's a primarily poor population. Elderly poor Hispanics are only the younger poor Hispanics getting old,'' says Dr. Marta Sotomayor, director of the National Hispanic Council on Aging.
Many poor, elderly Hispanics held low-wage jobs, like farm worker or domestic worker, that were not reported to the Social Security System. As a result, 28 percent of elderly Hispanics are not eligible to collect Social Security, compared with 20 percent of blacks, and only 13 percent of whites.
The study also found that federal outreach programs, like Meals on Wheels, do not reach two-thirds of the eligible population of all races. Dr. Sotomayer says that many Hispanics simply don't know about the programs. Others are ashamed to use them because of their strong work ethic.
``I don't know whether changing the value of `verguenza' [embarrassment] is good,'' she says. ``What we need to change is the system that makes it difficult for Hispanics to get good educations and skills so they can get high-paying jobs.''
Both the liberal Burt and the conservative Besharov agree the best way to address the problem of hunger among the elderly is to shift resources from the wealthier seniors to the less fortunate. While bucking the senior citizens' lobby has proved politically dangerous in the past, they argue, it is absolutely essential in a time of shrinking federal resources. ``The answer is educating the electorate,'' Besharov says. ``At some point the American people will come through. They always do.''