Double Jeopardy: Seniors Facing Hardships Hit by Budget Cuts

While advocates for elders are decrying political proposals that would cut budgets “on the backs of seniors and the poor,” Howard Bedlin of the National Council on Aging (NCOA) says that's already happening.

Bedlin, NCOA's policy and advocacy chief, said in an interview that much of the media's attention to “drastic” proposals to reduce the national debt by House Republicans and the White House fails to reflect the deep cuts to seniors' program that have already been made in the 2011 budget.

The 2011 compromise budget, he said, includes stark reductions for seniors in such safety-net programs as low-income housing, home-energy assistance for those in extreme weather, and job training and placement.

Bedlin and other experts on aging are dissecting how the national budget crunch will impact older Americans at this week's Aging in America conference in San Francisco.

One in Three Seniors Is Economically Insecure

“One out of three seniors in the United States is economically insecure,” Bedlin stated, living under twice the federal poverty line, or $22,000 per person. “Yet the public perception is that seniors are doing fine and not struggling,” he said.

In addition, according to the Social Security Administration, ethnic seniors are especially vulnerable. About half of African-American, Asian and Latino elders in the United States rely on Social Security for at least 90 percent of their income, compared to only one-third of whites.

“We want to underscore the disproportionate effects of these budget cuts,” said Sandra Nathan, who heads NCOA's Economic Security Initiative. For example, she said, 46 percent of participants in the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) are in ethnic communities, and 60 percent are women.” The program trains older workers and places them in community jobs.

NCOA's new One Away campaign for elder economic security just released a national survey, conducted for the organization by Harris Interactive, which revealed widespread misperceptions about the financial vulnerability of seniors.

Among the survey's findings are:

• Less than one-third of Americans knew that low-income elders now pay 25 percent of their incomes for health care out of pocket, despite having Medicare.

• Only one in six people understood that 40 percent of seniors recently faced such housing problems as being unable to pay their mortgages or living in dilapidated housing.

• Only one in five knew that nearly 6 million older Americans are at risk of going hungry.

• Fewer than one-fifth of those surveyed knew that average credit-card debt for seniors was $10,000.

“The unemployment rate for older workers is 25 to 30 percent, the rate of foreclosures is very high, and their credit card debt is the highest of any group,” Nathan said. “African-American and Latino elders use credit cards for rent, food – just to cover their basic needs.”

Strikingly, even though few respondents were aware that so many older adults were struggling, nearly two out of three Americans surveyed said that they personally knew a senior who was struggling economically—and that figure was even higher (70 percent) among young people ages 18 to 34.

Cuts to Jobs Programs Are “Foolish”

For this fiscal year, Congress and President Obama agreed to slash 45 percent of funding for SCSEP, eliminating 59,000 training and employment positions for older workers – a move Bedlin called “pennywise and pound foolish.”

A new analysis of SCSEP by Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies shows that even without the cuts, the program only helps one in nine of the 1.1 million impoverished Americans 55 or older who are eligible for the program.

In the study, the center’s Ishwar Khatiwada and colleagues called the program’s already low funding a “massive underutilization of the nation’s low-income work force.”

Underfunding SCSEP, they wrote, creates a “lose, lose, lose” situation, with lost earnings, reduced physical and mental health, lost output for society, reduced taxes and an increased burden on strained public programs from Medicaid to food stamps.

Anthony Sarmiento, head of Senior Service America (SSA), which commissioned the study and, like NCOA, runs some of the SCSEP jobs programs, noted that all of the local programs have long waiting lists.

“If politicians really believe it’s all about jobs, why are they cutting SCSEP?” Sarmiento asked.

“I want to be able to take care of myself,” said Iola Lowe, 59, of Sioux City, Iowa, who learned computer skills and got on-the-job experience at the community's nature center through the program.

After training older workers, SCSEP pays them a stipend to gain work experience at local nonprofits or community agencies.

Lowe, who previously had a heart attack, said her “health and mental state are a lot better. Now, I feel there's nothing I can't do.” She currently has an unpaid position at Wal-Mart.

Willie Ford, 63, of Chattanooga, Tenn., a former factory worker, leaned computer skills so well through SCSEP's Digital Inclusion Initiative that the Alexian Brothers Senior Neighbors program asked her to serve as their computer coach. (“They love Facebook,” she said of the seniors in the program.)

For SCSEP's employment program alone, NCOA's Bedlin noted, “The return on investment to communities is enormous. For every dollar spent on the program, $10 to $20 comes back to the community,” making the cuts to this program that much more “incoherent.”

Safety Net Could Be “Torn Apart”

“We're trying to address the fact that we now have a frayed social safety net that might be torn apart,” said Bedlin. House Republicans are proposing cutting both Medicare and the federal-state Medicaid program, while governors of both parties are looking to cut state Medicaid programs.

At the federal level, in addition to the senior employment reductions, the 2011 budget agreement President Obama recently signed for next year will do such things as axe $425 million of Section 202 housing subsidized for seniors (cutting current funding in half); slash $390 million from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, including eliminating funds to help protect seniors from dramatic price hikes and extreme weather; and delete funding for housing counselors who help homeowners avoid mortgage scams.

The president's budget proposal for 2012 is not much better, said Bedlin, and Republicans are calling for even deeper cuts to social programs.

“If there's a compromise somewhere between the House bill and the White House,” he said, “we'll be in pretty deep trouble.”