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Advocates for Ethnic Elders Look Beyond Inaugural Euphoria

New America Media, News Analysis, Paul Kleyman Posted: Jan 25, 2009

Editor's Note: Advocates for ethnic elders around the country are eager to see their agendas addressed by the new Obama Administration, with particular attention to healthcare, jobs and affordable housing. NAM contributor Paul Kleyman examines the challenges facing these constituencies in the deepening recession.

Jan. 20 in the nation's capital was "awesome!" for Karyne Jones,. But by Jan. 21 the president and chief executive officer of the National Caucus and Center on Black Aged, in Washington, D.C., was back to enumerating the long list of issues facing ethnic retirees and boomers nearing retirement.

"President Obama has said he will address the Medicare and Social Security issues, and that's needed, too," she told New America Media. "But in order to have the quality life and dignity he mentioned regularly, healthcare, employment opportunities and affordable housing are the basics."

Jones is among a select group of professional advocates in health and human services who strive to improve the lives of ethnic elders. She and others serving the often unacknowledged diversity of older Americans worry that persistent problems will only deepen if left neglected both for lower-income minority elders and those in the middle and working class who have been hit especially hard by the recession.

Minority seniors 65 or older constitute one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. population. Ethnic elders will triple from about 7 million today to more than 20 million in 2030, according to U.S. Census figures.

"It is important to recognize that different cultural groups have different needs, and that more seniors are at risk because of the decline in 401(k) savings and an increased reliance on Social Security benefits," said Clayton Fong, executive director of the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging based in Seattle.

"Given the current economic climate, programs serving the poor and seniors are at risk," he stated. "Right now it's a matter of treading water and keeping the programs we have in place."

Fong noted, for instance, that officials facing California's deep fiscal crisis have discussed possibly delaying Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments to seniors and those with disabilities--the most impoverished citizens of the state. "This can be devastating to them and their families," Fong said.

Emphasizing the critical role of safety-net programs, such as SSI, to protect minority and low-income seniors, Fong called on the federal government to provide states in need with funding to keep the programs afloat.

"We cannot look forward to the future until we survive the current crisis," Fong said.

Further complicating prospects for tomorrow, said Fernando M. Torres-Gil, a former U.S. assistant secretary of aging during the Clinton Administration, is that by 2030 this nexus of aging and diversity will likely give us a large retiree population (predominantly white and English-speaking) supported by a mainly young, immigrant and minority workforce (heavily Hispanic).

Torres-Gil, who directs the Center for Policy Research on Aging at the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote in a pre-election open letter to the new president that to avoid unnecessary conflict, the new administration should pursue an intergenerational compact for the 21st Century. The letter, which appeared in the American Society on Aging newspaper Aging Today stated, Such a social compact would recognize the untapped potential of older retirees and younger minority entrepreneurs alike through support for healthcare security and quality education for all.

David Baldridge, a champion of Native American elders for two decades, lamented, "It's seemingly always about the dollarsand America's political will (or lack of it) to help disadvantaged minorities. All the model programs in the world won't help if we not willing to fund them."

Among key issues for Native elders is the lack of long-term care and the need for Washington to fund it, Baldridge says. "There is essentially none in Indian Country" he said. "Less than 20 Indian nursing homes exist, and home and community-based care is very poorly funded." Baldridge, now on the staff of the Native Diabetes Wellness Program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in Albuquerque, directed the National Indian Council on Aging for 14 years.

One factor, he said, is rural isolation. Another is low rates of participation by Native American elders in federal initiatives to subsidize low-income elders, such as SSI or several programs under the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Furthermore, Baldridge said, funding for Urban Indian healthcare is far below today's reality. "About 75 percent of Indians now live off-reservation," he said. "This population remains amorphous, hard to identify, and often lacks healthcare access unless they return to their home reservation."

More broadly, though, Baldridge said it is time that federal authorities "mandate the collection, use and dissemination of disaggregated data by race, ethnicity, and language preference."

He explained that, surprisingly, federal agencies--in particular the Social Security Administration--currently don't do this."

Without such data, he stressed, "aging minority populations will remain invisible in the healthcare reform debate. Dollars always follow data. One example is that the National Center for Health Statistics is considering stop collecting 'enhanced data' from some areas due to budget considerations."

Back in Washington, Jones unfurled a similarly lengthy litany of needs for lower-income African-American elders and older boomers caught short in the recession, such as lack of access to healthcare, and for younger seniors (ages 50 to 64) who are too young for Medicare "so they fall through the cracks."

"Some of the needs are the basics--transportation, healthcare work opportunities in the community, Jones said. "All these issues bring inquiries we receive daily and as local and state budgets on aging services are cutjust when the aging population needs these services more than ever. The domino effect of these needs could become catastrophic for many older Americans."

But Jones, once an aide to former U.S. Rep. Andrew Young, insisted, "Not all is doom and gloom." Younger people today will benefit as they age from the current focus on education and responsible health decisions to avoid chronic health conditions later, in saving and investing in the future and in giving back and volunteering in their communities."

There seems to be a new spirit among young people of "caring about themselves and the communities they live in," Jones said. And that "will have a long term impact on generations to come."


National Caucus and Center on Black Aged: www.ncba-aged.org.

National Asian Pacific Center on Aging: www.napca.org.

National Indian Council on Aging, www.nicoa.org.

National Hispanic Council on Aging, www.nhcoa.org

National Association for Hispanic Elderly/Asociacion Nacional pro Personas Mayoras, www.anppm.org

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