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The U.S. Must Do More to Help Its Diverse Elders

Many Americans in this often-ignored population face financial difficulties. It's time for the nation to help.

By Robert Espinoza | September 8, 2012
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Robert Espinoza is the Senior Director for Public Policy and Communications at Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), the country’s largest organization focused on improving the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender older people.

The United States is growing both older and more diverse. But large numbers of elders with various ethnic and social backgrounds — including African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanics, American Indians and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) older adults — face financial difficulty.
 
The causes of this economic insecurity have roots in past discriminatory practices, when redlining, segregation and labor market discrimination was the norm. Today, diverse elders often suffer the cumulative consequences of a lifetime of discriminatory practices.
 
Above-Average Poverty Rates
 
While their circumstances and histories are in many ways different, African-American, Hispanic, American Indian, Asian-American and Pacific Island and LGBT elders also have similarities, including disproportionately higher poverty rates.
 
(MORE: The Retirement Crisis Facing Blacks and Latinos)
 
Older Latinas face the nation's highest elder poverty rates (43.1 percent), followed by older African-American women (34.7 percent.) And, according to the Senior Financial Stability Index, a measure created by Brandeis University's Institute on Asset and Social Policy, 52 percent of African-American elders and 56 of Latino elders are “economically insecure.” That means they don’t have adequate resources to maintain a secure standard of living for the remainder of their lives.
 
A Coalition to Help Diverse Elders
 
Recently, seven organizations known as the Diverse Elders Coalition (including the Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, where I work) held a Congressional briefing in Washington, D.C., to discuss their new policy report on the economic challenges facing millions of these seniors. The report, "Securing Our Future: Advancing Economic Security for Diverse Elders," was written by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, a think tank based in Oakland, Calif.
 
The event brought government attention to the plight of elders who often struggle with additional aging-related challenges, such as widespread discrimination, profound health disparities and the cultural and linguistic incompetence of health professionals.
 
Members of the Diverse Elders Coalition believe that their unique perspectives are excluded from some of the mainstream policy conversations that govern their lives.
 
“As newer immigrants to this country, communities from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are often invisible, and we are often left out of the issue debates,” says Doua Thor, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.
 
(MORE: Microfinance Miracles for the Poor)
 
For Karyne Jones, president and CEO of the National Caucus and Center on Black Aged, this coalition reflects the importance of working together. “Gains in civic and human rights did not come from one group or people," she says, "but from a force of common interest in fairness and justice shared in seeking change.”
 
Policy Proposals to Assist Diverse Elders
 
The Diverse Elders Coalition report offers these key policy reform ideas:
 
  • Congress should make Social Security more inclusive to extend spousal benefits and survivor benefits to same-sex couples.
 
  • The federal Senior Community Service Employment Program, which provides part-time, subsidized jobs and training to hundreds of thousands of older workers, should be expanded.
 
  • New retirement savings tools should be implemented, especially for low-income workers who normally do not work for businesses offering retirement benefits. For example, the Automatic IRA proposed by President Obama would require employers with more than 10 employees but without retirement plans to enroll workers in a Roth IRA. (See the Next Avenue blog post, “Is This the Solution to America’s Retirement Crisis?”)
 
Making the Goals a Priority
 
As the number of diverse elders grows dramatically over the next few decades — eventually it will comprise the majority of the population age 65 and older — such policy conversations will become even more important, according to the coalition’s leaders.
 
“Focusing on addressing the present needs of this aging population, and implementing long-term goals for our future seniors, should be a priority,” says Jones.
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