“The message we are sending is ‘America to seniors: drop dead because we don’t want to provide healthcare, social security, or employment.’” Anthony Sarmiento, executive director of Senior Service America, Inc., told the Gerontological Society of America’s 2011 conference that’s the message older workers are hearing, as they face increased hardships because of budget cuts that affect employment opportunities for older workers, and the debates over Medicare and social security.
Andrea Parrott wrote this article as part of a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.
It can be easy to stop at the characterization of the top 1 percent as gray-haired baby boomers out to burden the young while they enjoy lavish lifestyles. Yet the 99 percent also includes older workers who are 55 years and older. At the November conference in Boston, Sarmiento highlighted the many challenges that older workers face. “Healthier, more educated baby boomers is not the whole story,” Sarmiento said.
Although the labor market has seen growth in the 55 and over age group, many workers in the same age range have not been lucky enough to remain in the labor force. In general, people aged 45 and over are more likely than other workers to remain unemployed over 99 weeks. Especially hard hit have been low income workers, minorities, and women.
According to reports issued by the National Academy on an Aging Society, low income workers are more likely than high income older workers to be unemployed or underemployed. Examples of underemployment include going from working full time to part time and working for reduced wages. It can also mean a loss of health benefits.
The same report states that low income and minority workers “face triple jeopardy in the labor market: limited education and job skills, greater likelihood of unemployment, and more difficulty in finding work when unemployed.”
Andrew Sum, professor and director at Northeastern University, also spoke at the conference. He emphasized that the unemployed are those who want to work but cannot find a job. Faced with long-term unemployment, many simply drop out of the workforce. Others turn to early retirement, resulting in a reduction in their monthly social security benefits.
“This year we’re missing 5 million people from the labor force who were projected to be there 3 years ago,” Sum said.
Unsurprisingly, the lack of employment can lead to life dissatisfaction and depression in some groups of older workers, Sum reported.
The recession has also led many older workers to spend funds from their savings and increase their credit card debt. Particularly for low income workers nearing retirement, spending savings and increasing debt leads to the necessity to keep working past planned retirement. On the other hand, with long periods of unemployment making it even harder for many to gain employment, forced retirement contributes to prolonged poverty.
Sum cited statistics indicating that those who were poor in their late 50s were more likely to remain poor for the rest of their life.
A federal program called Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) seeks to serve the low-income senior population. The program provides jobs skills training for low-income unemployed individuals aged 55 and over. The income requirement for program eligibility is 125% of the federal poverty level. SCSEP places eligible individuals in minimum wage community service jobs, providing the job skills training that will help them gain unsubsidized employment upon leaving the program.
SCSEP has not been immune to federal budget cuts. This year the program suffered cuts in funding that have reduced the number of jobs it can provide and the number of hours per week an employee can work.
Taryn Galehdari is a program specialist at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. According to Galehdari, last year state and national providers of SCSEP for Minnesota served 2,443 people. Due to budget cuts, national providers lost 356 positions for Minnesota workers and state providers lost 73 positions.
“It was really dramatic,” Galehdari said about the budget cuts. “We will not be able to serve that many people.”