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'Seniors Need Jobs Too'

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By Linnie Frank Bailey –

New America Media fellow Linnie Frank Bailey examines the plight of older ethnic workers looking for their share of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in this two-part series.

“I wish more of the stimulus funds had gone to the senior community,” says Anthony Bell, California Program Manager for the National Indian Coalition on Aging (NICOA). “Everyday we get heartbreaking calls from older workers who have lost jobs and are desperately looking for work to save their homes.”

Seniors are an often overlooked demographic when jobs and the economy are mentioned, even though they are staying in the workforce longer than in years past. Out of the $787 billion stimulus, just $120 million, or less than 0.01 percent went to senior employment, although older Americans are returning to work in greater numbers.

The Recovery Act did provide $100 million for nutritional programs for older Americans, and SSI recipients got an extra, one-time check for $250 as part of the stimulus. While that might have paid a few bills, Bell says, $250 is a “a mere pittance to seniors who are struggling with job and housing issues.”

Working Longer

There are a variety of reasons why American workers are remaining in the labor force past the standard retirement age of 65, however a struggling economy, and America’s 78 million baby boomers, the first of whom reached 65 in 2009, are credited with changing retirement patterns in America. The most recent figures from the Labor Department show the number of unemployed workers age 55 to 64 has nearly tripled since the recession began.

Officially, the unemployment rate for seniors is about half that for younger Americans. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

8.5% of African Americans and 8.0% of Latinos over 65 are unemployed, but that doesn’t count seniors who want to work, but don’t meet the government’s definition of actively looking for a job.

Bell, whose organization runs a senior employment program, believes ethnic elder unemployment is higher than the rates for non-ethnic seniors. “We know African- Americans and Hispanics face higher unemployment across the board,” he states.

“You have to remember,” he says, “ethnic elders are facing both race and age discrimination.”

Ethnic elders in the Inland Empire (western Riverside and San Bernardino Counties) are competing with younger workers for nonexistent jobs. The area has some of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

Of 49 metropolitan areas with a population of 1 million or more, the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, Calif., area came in second in unemployment with a rate of 15 percent. (The Detroit-Warren- Livonia, Mich., reported the highest unemployment rate at 15.6%)

From his Riverside office, NICOA director Bell sees seniors who are anxious to return to work. “Some have faced a life-time of under employment, but we are seeing an increasing number of seniors who have been employed all of their adult lives and lost their jobs. Some have Master’s and advanced degrees, but they are desperate for anything – even minimum wage -- to help them survive this recession.” Bell says that one of the few areas that shows promise for older workers is employment as security guards. “I can get them training and certification and find jobs in this field,” he says. “Otherwise they must compete with younger workers for minimum wage jobs, mostly in retail.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2015 one in five (or 20%) of America’s workers will be over the age of 55. The report also shows that the most significant employment growth will come from workers over 65. The numbers of workers between the ages of 65 and 74 and those aged 75 and up are projected to grow by more than 80 percent.

“It’s a shame the value of older workers isn’t always recognized,” he adds. “They bring maturity, stability, and loyalty to the workforce. We hear this again and again from those who employ them.”

The State of California received over two million dollars in stimulus funding for SCSEP, of which $173,940 was allocated to Riverside County and $91,106 was awarded to San Bernardino County. Bell reports that Inland funds have been exhausted, and that they were used to employ 35 people who are working 20 hours a week at $8 an hour.

“It’s not enough,” says Bell. “Each year the situation gets compounded as more and more people fall into the senior age group. We need another stimulus – we need to pump more money into work for this age group. There is a continuous decline in their standard of living.”

Senior Community Service Employment Program - (SCSEP)

The only national senior employment program to receive stimulus funds is the Senior Community Service Employment Program - (SCSEP), a program designed to offer employment options for low income seniors. To be eligible for SCSEP workers must:

Must be 55 years or older Must not exceed low-income guidelines (generally, income must be below 124% of federal poverty rate)
Must be a resident of the state
Must not have worked in the prior 7 days

In the Inland Empire and other locations across the country, SCSEP is operated by the National Indian Council on Aging (NICOA) – one of 18 program sponsors across the county.

In addition to California programs, NICOA runs SCSEP in Arizona, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

The organization stresses that although they are a Native American group, they offer SCSEP to seniors from all ethnic groups.

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