Jobs Program for Older Americans Struggles

Jan. 4, 2012 / By, News Report, Pamela A. MacLean, Posted: Jan 02, 2012

Photo courtesy of Senior Service America

With passage of the 2012 budget Congress failed to restore any of the deep cuts made last year to the largest federally funded program that employs older adults. Last year’s cuts have already taken a heavy toll.

At a time when workers between 55 and 74 with limited education and jobs skills are far more likely to lose a job and stay out of work longer, Congress held steady on the funding level for the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) at last year’s amount — cut 45 percent from two years ago.

The impact on SCSEP’s ability to counsel and provide subsidized jobs for older adults has been “devastating,” according to Tony Sarmiento, executive director of Senior Service America, Inc. in Silver Spring, Md. The good news is Congress didn’t impose any additional cuts.

Sarmiento compared the third quarter of 2011 to the same period in 2010, prior to the budget cuts. For the entire country, jobless older workers joining the SCSEP program dropped from over 13,000 in that quarter of 2010, to 1,900 in the same period of 2011, an 85 percent loss, Sarmiento said.

In 15 states, he noted, the reduction in SCSEP participants was 95 percent. Five states had no new participants, including Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon and Wyoming. California had 54, instead of the 889 from a year earlier, representing a 94 percent drop.

The news is not good for low-income older workers, who are four times as likely to be unemployed as their higher-earning contemporaries, according to a labor economist at the recent Gerontological Society of America’s national conference in Boston.

SCSEP is the largest federally funded program for older adults and is the last vestige of the jobs programs that began during the depression-era New Deal under the Works Progress Administration. It s a community service and work training program for older adults. Participants work an average of 20 hours a week and are paid minimum wage. Subsidizing jobs at day-care centers, senior centers, schools and hospitals are intended to help older adults find unsubsidized jobs.

Participants must be over 55, unemployed and with an income of less than 125 percent of the federal poverty level.

Currently the Department of Labor, which oversees the program, reports 46,000 participants in fiscal year 2011, but that is down from the 100,000 participants in year earlier. Of the 46,000, roughly 89 percent were at or below the poverty level.

For these workers the Great Recession has been particularly tough. During 2010, more than 8.3 million people from 55-74 lived in households with incomes of no more than $20,000 a year, representing roughly 15 percent of that cohort, according to Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies and an economics professor at Boston’s Northeastern University.

This low-income older population is far more likely to be female, black or Hispanic, a high school dropout, and unmarried, Sum said.

The current 7 percent unemployment rate for workers over 55 is below the national average, but it is the highest rate since World War II for this group, Sum told the GSA conference.

Pamela MacLean wrote this article as part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.

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