Informing policy. Inspiring change. Improving lives.
1200 18th Street NW, Suite 301
Washington, DC 20036
202 785-5100
iwpr@iwpr.org

The Recession and Older Americans

by Betsy Keating

According to recent Senate testimony from a panel of experts, older Americans are under enormous financial strain and would be severely impacted by cuts to programs like Social Security and Medicare. A participant in a program for employing older Americans also gave moving testimony on the difficulties older Americans have in entering the job market.

Raising Public Awareness on the Struggles of Older Americans

On Tuesday October 18, IWPR President Heidi Hartmann testified on a panel entitled “The Recession and Older Americans: Where Do We Go from Here” before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) began the hearing by stressing his desire to raise public awareness of seniors’ struggles in the recession and recovery, particularly regarding their employment prospects and income levels as well as the role of Social Security in their lives.

In her testimony, Barbara Bovbjerg, Managing Director of Education, Workforce, and Income Security Issues at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), shared findings from a GAO report on the income security of older Americans between 2007 and 2009. While those over 55 years old are less likely to lose their job than those in other age groups, those who do lose their job have a much harder time in seeking reemployment. The median duration of unemployment for those aged 55 to 64 nearly tripled between 2007 and 2010, from 11 weeks to 31 weeks.

Recession Has Increased Reliance on Social Security

Dr. Hartmann further elaborated on the challenges facing older Americans, drawing on IWPR’s most recent reports that present findings from the IWPR/Rockefeller Survey of Economic Security. Because of the recession and extended unemployment spells, more older workers are drawing on their retirement savings or other assets to survive, leading to a precarious outlook for their futures. Indeed, the IWPR/Rockefeller Survey found that many more men and women now express “a lot” or “a fair amount” of worry about having enough to provide for their retirement years than in 2007.

Older Americans Facing Daily Challenges to Make Ends Meet

Senator Sanders asked the panelists to address the human elements of the statistics by focusing on the daily detrimental effects of unemployment, income loss, and asset depletion for seniors. Gail Ruggles, a Vermont resident and participant in the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), shared her own personal story, poignantly describing the daily struggles of many older workers and the lasting impact that government programs can provide.

In 2008, Ms. Ruggles was juggling five part-time jobs. “My financial situation was awful; no matter how hard I tried on my own, I couldn’t make ends meet,” she said. “I was frustrated and knew I needed help.” After joining SCSEP in 2009, a program authorized by the Older Americans Act originally passed in 1965, Ms. Ruggles found the help she needed; SCSEP placed her in a job at a local non-profit, where she gained valuable job training. This position opened doors to further employment opportunities and gave Ms. Ruggles a sense of confidence in her own abilities to succeed on the job.

With training and skills from SCSEP, Ms. Ruggles now has a full-time position, has begun contributing to a 401(k), and has helped support her two children through college. Not only did SCSEP offer an avenue for her to reenter the workforce, it also gave her the ability to provide for her children’s education and general well-being, something she felt would have been impossible given her financial outlook in 2008.

As Senator Al Franken (D-MN) noted, SCSEP, like many programs authorized under the Older Americans Act, grants older workers a “hand-up” rather than a “hand-out,” allowing them to continue in the labor force and maintain self-sufficiency.

Support Programs Essential to Keep Seniors Above the Poverty Line

For Ms. Ruggles, and many like her, the Older Americans Act has been a key component in regaining a sense of economic security. Other panelists, including Dr. Hartmann, echoed this sentiment in their testimony by stressing the key role of the government in protecting the livelihood and dignity of seniors.

While many seniors are currently experiencing great hardship, their lives would be far worse without the safety net of Social Security and other public assistance programs. Dr. Hartmann pointed out that among those aged 65 and older, one-third of men and half of women rely on Social Security for 80 percent or more of their income.

Without Social Security benefits, many more seniors would fall below the poverty line and be unable to meet their basic needs. Both Senators Franken and Sanders emphasized the importance of continued support from the federal government for seniors, citing the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act and protection of Social Security benefits as crucial means to ensure their economic security.

Betsy Keating is a Research Intern with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Go to Home Page