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The Older Women’s League has come out with their 2012 Mother’s Day report. Their reports are always thorough, up-to-date, and readable. This year the topic is on women in the U.S. workforce and highlights what women are faced with as they grow older. As OWL’s president mentions in her message to readers, this is a timely report since mid-life and older women are the fastest growing segment of our workforce and the economic downturn presents new challenges in their ability to find work, keep their jobs, and build their retirement wealth.

Women and the Workforce: Challenges and Opportunities Facing Women as They Age

MDR2012

From the OWL National Website: “This year’s report looks at how factors such as unemployment and underemployment, pay inequality, caregiving, age and gender discrimination, and education, training, and technology are impacting women age 40 and older. The report highlights existing programs that produce real results and offer innovative solutions and policy-driven recommendations to expand economic diversity and accelerate our nation’s productivity.”

Today, after listening to the President speak, I started thinking about the economy’s impact on older Americans. I found an interesting report from The National Academies Press titled:  Assessing the Impact of Severe Economic Recession on the Elderly. You can read the document here, which summarizes a workshop called by The National Institute on Aging. The report’s main goal is to reflect on what we already know and what we need to learn about the current recession’s effect on older adults. Unfortunately, what we already know is quite bleak.

How People are Coping: All age groups are being affected by the recession but older workers are often unable to completely recover from these kinds of financial shocks. The most common ways people are coping with income loss are to reduce spending, reduce saving, utilize unemployment benefits, withdraw money from savings, get financial assistance from friends or family, and borrow money (i.e. credit cards, loans). Some older workers are also choosing to delay retirement as an additional coping method.

Our Health and Well-Being: Our health is being negatively effected by the economic recession. GDP is strongly, inversely related to mortality over the long term, and older workers who lose their jobs are at greater risk for certain health conditions than those who remain employed. Still the Gallup Well-Being Index found that people’s well-being significantly declined in the fall of 2008 but went back up substantially by May 2009. I am nervous, now that we lost our AAA rating and the current stock market is in turmoil, if people’s well-being will again decline.

Unemployment or Retirement: Unfortunately, older adults who lose their job are less likely to get hired back into the labor force compared to younger workers. Those who do find work are often making significantly less than they made at their previous job. Researchers find that age discrimination in the workplace continues to exist, particularly for older women. It is therefore not surprising that many older adults who lost their jobs are deciding to retire. This early retirement, however, could hurt future finances. Increases in Social Security’s full retirement age, less time to invest in your retirement accounts, fewer vested years with your employer, or simply having less in wages over your lifetime can all have negative effects on your finances in old age.

What Can You Do: The report summarizes a depressing situation and then has limited suggestions (and most of them seem pretty intuitive to me). I don’t know if it will tell you anything new but here they are along with my own comments:

  • Buy low, sell high – Experts suggest raising your contribution rates (if you can) to your stocks, bonds and pension accounts while the market is doing poorly. If the markets bounce back before you retire you may gain substantially (the younger you are the more you are likely to gain). If you are retired and have spare cash, consider moving it into low-risk funds so that you too may gain from the markets being low (Please consult a financial adviser who will learn about your personal situation. Do not take this as professional advice).
  • Reduce your spending – A no-brainer but often hard to do. Consider what you really need now and what can wait. Did you know that “I don’t need it” is the most common reason eligible individuals refuse welfare? Figure out what you really need, what you can live without, and what is most important to you.
  • Stay in your home – Selling now is not a great idea, so consider modifications if your home is currently not a safe place to grow old.
  • Keep your job – If possible, consider waiting to retire. If you have been laid off, consider looking for new employment and working a few more years before you retire. Collecting your Social Security benefits early will mean a lower monthly paycheck for the rest of your life.
  • Utilize family – Your family may be able to provide some insurance against financial shocks. It’s important to have someone you can call on for help, even if you don’t use them.
The report highlights a ton of questions we need to research before we can understand what is going on. Unfortunately all that means is the recession’s impact on older workers will be understood after it’s all over, providing them little support in the meantime.

On Tuesday, January 12th, a massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti. As of January 25th, the U.S. Geological Survey has located 53 aftershocks of magnitude 4.5 or greater. The U.S. government has mobilized resources and people to aid in the relief effort, coordinating with the United Nations and the international community. In the mist of all this funding and support, what is being done for the older Haitians?

Haiti’s first census in 24 years, conducted in 2003, revealed a number of pressing problems. When we reflect on this information after the natural disaster it provides evidence that the needs of the Haitian elderly are great. Approximately 800,000 people in Haiti are over the age of 60. The maternal mortality ratio and the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate are the highest in the Western Hemisphere, with 523 deaths per 100,000 live births, and a rate of between 4 and 5 percent respectively. This indicates a large number of grandparents are raising their grandchildren, leaving them with the added responsibility of caring for their needs as well as their own in this time of crisis. As the sole caretakers, the relief becomes even more important, as the lives of children are also at stake.

The census also showed that over 50% of the population is below the poverty headcount ratio at $1 a day, and 78% of the population is below the $2 a day ratio. This ranked Haiti the twelfth poorest nation in the world prior to the earthquake. The quake struck in the most populated area of the country and the International Red Cross announced that as many as 3 million people had been affected.

We often do not think about what it means to be old when a crisis like this hits. Imagine when life is normally hard on an average day and you are an elderly person, what the addition of devastation such as this would do. In a tragedy this massive, the needs of older people too often go unmet. On January 17th the Associate Press reported that there is no food, water or medicine for the 85 surviving residents of the Port-au-Prince Municipal Nursing Home, barely a mile from the airport where a massive international aid effort is taking shape. The residents initially believed their relatives would come to feed them, because many live in the slums nearby. “But I don’t even know if my children are alive,” Jacqueline Thermiti, 71, told reporters. The group has expressed anger at the seeming lack of outside interest in the residents of the nursing home, which is close to the areas around the collapsed presidential palace and Roman Catholic cathedral, which teem with journalists and international rescue teams. Unfortunately for these and countless other elderly victims, reaching emergency-aid stations or standing in line for hours for medical care is impossible.

In response to the vast needs of the older victims AARP, HelpAge USA, and HelpAge International have worked closely together rushing emergency relief to the Haitian elderly population. HelpAge is the only international relief agency that focuses on the unique needs of older people in an emergency. One hundred percent of donations to the AARP Foundation Haiti Relief Fund will go directly to those most in need and AARP will match donations up to $500,000. To learn more visit http://www.helpageusa.org or http://www.aarp.org/foundation

The Froma Harrop article The old folks are doing fine, has a lot in it to make someone confused about elders’ current situations in retirement. Before I go into the specific problems I had with the article’s content, I wanted to go over some basic facts about the significance of Social Security as income to older Americans, since the author seems to feel that Social Security does not matter and is not important enough to fix. I found a Social Security brief from the National Academy of Social Insurance titled Social Security and Retirement Income Adequacy which helped articulate these facts. About 9 in 10 older Americans receive Social Security and of the total dollars received in retirement, on average 4 out of 10 dollars are from Social Security. The paper broke up elders into 5 income groups. The two lowest income groups (elders with incomes below $16,350) received more then 80% of their total income from Social Security. The middle group ($16,360-$25,590) received nearly 60% of their total income, and the next highest group (up to $44,130) received nearly 50%. This proves that Social Security is by far the largest single source of retirement income for elders regardless of income levels. Older American need Social Security and in the Harrop article and a lot of the political and philosophical debates on reform, they seem to be missing this point. The consequences of any choice or solution, whether it be to reform the system or wait until it runs dry, will impact millions of retirees.

To the first point made in the article about how “40 years of solvency sounds pretty darn good these days,” I ask, compared to what, Medicare? Yes, perhaps Social Security is in a better place than Medicare (which is a discussion for another time) but this does not mean we should just forget about fixing it. As mentioned numerous times by professionals and scholars, we need to start thinking about and initiating solutions for maintaining Social Security sooner rather than later. The changes will not have to be as severe, nor the cuts as deep, if we handle it now when there is more time to deal with adjustments. Also, if we don’t “fix” Social Security and it is 2049 then what? All those individuals who paid into the system suddenly get a huge benefit cut and only receive what is coming in from the current workforce (Expected to be about 70% of what they are suppose to recieve). Or, the converse, we raise taxes significantly to cover the benefits promised. Both solutions are utterly ridiculous because acting NOW can prevent these options from being reality and acting NOW cushions any negative changes resulting from reform.

I found that the tone of the article patronized older adults. Sentences like “burdened with debt because they foolishly treated their homes like ATM machines,” and “while the gray heads chowed down on the fish and chips,” were really unnerving. This author seems to have sampled a few high income snow birds (individuals who travel to a warmer location during winter months) currently living in Florida comfortably, rather than talking with the average older American. There is a big difference between the elders who are married, recent retirees, and under 75 versus those widowed 85 year olds living in cities. One can hope her views on Social Security would change if the author talked with these elders during this financial crisis. Or simply talk to the elders who cannot afford a winter home, cannot afford to go out for fish and chips, and do not own homes that they can “treat like ATMs.” They are completely forgotten in this paper.

I want to conclude with the fact that medical care is on the rise and Medicare has cut a lot of its benefits. Unlike those working-age individuals who on average do not have significant health issues, seniors get more health problems as they age…not very surprising. These health issue cost money, often lots of money, and often without long term care insurance individuals are spending everything they have and getting financial help from family to handle visiting nurse care, assisted living situations, or nursing homes. So, the article seems to belittle the Social Security system and implies we do not have to worry about it, “the old folks are doing fine.” But instead of sampling a few Floridians, if someone actually took a good look at America’s elder population you would see they are not all fine and that we cannot simply let Social Security go.

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