The "social safety net" for older Americans may not be as taut or as tightly woven as the Reagan administration has said. Information gathered by congressional researchers leads critics of White House budget cutting to conclude that millions among the nation's elderly will be adversely affected by federal program reductions. Defending the administration's program on Capitol Hill this week, Budget Director David A. Stockman admitted that "there might be unanticipated adverse impacts" and indicated that the White House could be "flexible" in this area if overall budget goals are reached.
Concern for the elderly focuses on two facts: They tend to be poorer, on average, than other Americans, and they rely more heavily on government social service and income-maintenance programs.
The federal government estimates that the elderly constitute the fastest-growing portion of impoverished Americans. Between 1978 and 1979, according to the US Census Bureau, the number of older poor rose at its steepest rate in two decades. More than 60 percent of older persons living alone have annual incomes of less than $5,000. One out of six elderly Americans have incomes below the poverty line.
Al the same time, according to government statistics, the elderly are three times more likely to live in substandard housing, have annual medical bills more than twice the national average, and must pay a bigger part of their income on energy costs.
Using Reagan budget figures, Rep. Claude Pepper (D) of Florida, Chairman of the House Select Committee on Aging and the oldest member of Congress, has calculated what the administration's proposed cuts would mean for older Americans. Some examples:
* More than 727,000 low-income elderly tenants would have to pay about $200 -a-year more in rent because of reduced subsidies. Some 52,000 would lose rent subsidies altogether.
* Nearly 87,000 older Americans would lose the "homemaker and chore services" that have helped enable them to live in their own homes rather than institutions.
* The administration would maintain the medicare program, but put a "cap" on spending for medicaid (health services for the poor). Medicaid serves one out of five elderly persons and pays nearly half the nationhs nursing home costs.
* Some 50,000 older Americans would be among those whose public service CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) jobs are eliminated.
* About 187,000 elderly persons would lose civil legal aid if the Legal Services Corporation is eliminated, as the White House plans.
Speaking before Mr. Pepper's committee this week, Budget Director Stockman said administration spending proposals still provide "a generous level of support for aged Americans."
Total federal spending for the elderly (who comprise about 12 percent of the population) will rise from 24.9 percent of the federal budget to 27.4 percent by 1982, he said, "a more than proportionate share of federal resources."
Congressional critics say that social security (which accounts for 58 percent of the $191 billion Stockman cites) ought not to be included here because it is a separately funded program and one to which recipients themselves have contributed.
When social security is factored out and the current inflation rate is figured in, Stockman concedes, the elderly actually do lose. But the administration holds firm to its belief that the Reagan "economic recovery program" -- particularly its effect on inflation -- will be most helpful to those on fixed incomes.