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Congressional briefing sheds light on poor seniors' employment struggles

An expert panel speaking on Capitol Hill today demonstrated that the Great Recession has had a disproportionately negative impact on low-income older workers, although programs such as the federal Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) have managed to provide some valuable benefits to this disadvantaged demographic group.

The congressional briefing held on the eve of National Employ Older Workers Week was titled, "Older Workers: Multiple Returns on Our Public Investment." It was sponsored by The Gerontological Society of America (GSA) and the American Society on Aging, and supported by Senior Service America, Inc. (SSAI). This event precedes the release of GSA's forthcoming research brief, "America's Job Crisis: Low-Income Seniors Hit Hardest."

"Our nation can ill afford to overlook the record levels of joblessness among older Americans," said Tony Sarmiento, the executive director of SSAI and chair-elect of GSA's Public Policy Committee. "Providing jobs and training, especially to those with less income and education, helps older adults stay healthy and independent as well as helps meet our nation's workforce demands."

The unemployment rate for low-income older workers tripled during the last decade, rising from 6.7 percent in 2000 to 20.9 percent in 2010, according to Andrew Sum, the director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, who spoke at the briefing. His work features prominently in the new research brief. Sum's figures refer to the number of people aged 55 to 74 with a total household income under $20,000, and do not include those working part time but desiring full-time jobs, those working at jobs below their education or career level, or those who have given up looking for work. Unemployed workers age 55 and over currently face an average of 53 weeks without a job, compared to 41 weeks for those under age 55.

Furthermore, SCSEP, the only federal jobs program targeted at older adults, is currently under threat. The federal budget for FY 2011 cut the program's funding to $450 million, a 45 percent reduction from the FY 2010 level. In previous years, SCSEP provided subsidized part-time community service positions to over 100,000 jobless individuals aged 55 and older with poor employment prospects. Its budget cut has led to significant reductions in the number of persons who can be served. SCSEP falls under Title V of the Older Americans Act and is administered by the Department of Labor.

At the briefing, Dennis Streets, director of the North Carolina Division of Aging and Adult Services, described the impact of the recent funding cuts on low-income older adults and the aging services network in his state.

"Unfortunately, the decision to reduce funding for SCSEP has not only reduced employment and training opportunities, it has also reduced community service staffing at a time that needs are growing and alternative resources diminishing," Streets said. "While we appropriately adjust our education, training, and economic policies and programs, we cannot ignore the plight and potential of those who want to contribute today."

Altha Newman, chief professional officer for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hawk-Houston in Dothan, AL, explained how SCSEP enables low-income older adults to work part-time in her agency and in more than 200 other Boys & Girls Clubs in 38 states. The exceptional work and dedication of her SCSEP participants prompted Newman to hire several on her agency's own payroll.

Another panelist, Laura Spiecker of Cookeville, TN, shared her personal experiences as a former SCSEP participant and spoke of how the program helped her develop skills required by both non-profit and for-profit employers.

"Many seniors that I know often have to choose between purchasing food and medicine. This program helps them develop skills so they can work and better provide for their needs," Spiecker said. "I have witnessed the transformation from despair to pride in their accomplishments."

The new research brief summarizes the findings of a recent issue of Public Policy & Aging Report, titled "Older Workers: Problems and Prospects in an Aging Workforce." Reporters may request electronic review copies of both publications.


Contact: Todd Kluss
The Gerontological Society of America

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