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Old And In The Way: The Politics, Policies and Poverty Of Aging
A perfect storm is brewing in the United States made up of several converging factors; an aging Baby Boomer population, a crashing economy, the draining of Social Security to pay the government's bills combined with the rise of ageism in the workplace. All of these factors are coming together to create a new demographic of poverty among those that are too old to work and too young to retire.
More and more blogs, news sites, newspapers and magazines are publishing stories about older Americans losing their jobs in the worst economy since the Great Depression. These stories are about people in their fifties and sixties that have had their 401Ks and retirement funds wiped out and have frequently worked for the same companies and corporations for the bulk of their working lives. They are laid off and, despite years of experience, proven track records and skill sets that are far beyond anything most younger people have, cannot find a job. Many of these people are also supporting either young adult children who cannot find jobs themselves or their even more elderly parents.
Some of the publications write only about bits and parts of it.
Recently, the Wall Street Journal published an article about older people simply not being able to retire. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903639404576520772216559438.html This story ignores the fact that if an older person loses their job, chances are very good they may not be able to get another and will never work again for the rest of their life. It seems to assume that no matter how old someone is, as long as they can work they can find a job.
The AP ran an article about the fact that Social Security Disability (which is separate from regular Social Security Retirement) is on the verge of insolvency.
According to the article, a great deal of the pressure on the system is coming from aging Baby Boomers, with disabilities related to aging, who are applying for disability benefits as a last resort when they can't find a job. Applications are up over 50% from a decade ago due to this phenomenon. This is despite the fact that disability payments are roughly only half of what full retirement would be if the worker were allowed to work and continue to contribute to the system. The Director of Social Security, himself, calls this the result of "economic desperation". This problem is becoming so bad that Congress recently allocated $4 Billion to Social Security to invest in programs to comb it's rolls and drop people being overpaid and who no longer qualify.
Compounding this problem are the calls by the GOP to raise the retirement age to 70. This isn't based on any evidence that people are working longer and don't actually need it, but on the fact that people are living longer and draining from the fund longer than in years past. In fact, the real belief is that many who have to retire before 70 will do so for health reasons on truncated benefits and die before they ever reach 70, thus saving the system money. Those few that actually can and do work until 70 will continue to pay into the system, so it's a win/win move. Added to that is the fact that earners in the top half of the economic strata have a longer life expectancy than those in the bottom half and have a far greater chance of making it to 70 and drawing full benefits.
Saddest of all are the personal stories showing up daily on the internet of older people falling between the cracks; able to work, need to work and cannot find jobs due to the rising ageism of employers. Employers are reluctant to hire older workers who may not be with their company more than a few years and are seen as costing more, due to years of experience, than younger prospective employees who are willing and eager to work for less money over a longer period of time. Simply put, in a society that translates everything into business terms, older workers are seen as a "bad investment". This ageism is insidious and, despite the fact that it's illegal, virtually impossible to prove. These people are draining savings and retirement accounts, if they have anything left after the market roller coaster of the last few years, simply to survive. And their money is running out.
In an article around a year ago in the Washington Independent (http://washingtonindependent.com/87333/too-young-not-to-work-but-too-old-to-work) it was stated that the unemployment rate for those over 55 is the highest it's been since 1948. The government is aware of the subtle ageism in this rate and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has held hearings about it. Laurie McCann, a senior attorney at the AARP Foundation Litigation and expert on age discrimination, stated, "...the phenomenon is so prevalent that discrimination simply seems like reality. As a society, we’re willing to tolerate age discrimination, more so than other kinds of discrimination. People sense that, and it gives older job-seekers a sense of futility. Why even bother applying for jobs, or bringing a discrimination case? I won’t win.”
To date, the U.S. Government has been very lax in addressing this problem and there doesn't seem to be much hope that it will be in the near future as the economy continues to deteriorate both at the public and governmental levels. The most that can be done is that those who work with the poverty stricken prepare for a social storm that has every possibility of reaching hurricane proportions; an unprecedented upsurge in poor elderly that has the chance of being monumental in scope.
In the end, the ones that may be sacrificed on the altar of economics will be society's oldest and frailest. This is the true "death panel" and the older worker faces it with every job interview.
(This is the final draft of an article I wrote to be published in a professional political blog as a guest post. You get to read it here first.)