Rebecca Rivas wrote this article as part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.
Grandparents struggling to support their grandchildren. Disabled seniors failing to pay the bills.
Don Vaisvil gets calls every week from seniors who are looking for a job.
As director of the Senior Community Service Employment Program with MERS Goodwill, Vaisvil hears from seniors who are trying to support their families and themselves with Social Security and other retirement income. However, they still can’t get over the poverty level, he said.
The Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP) is a community service and work-based training program for older workers. Authorized by the Older Americans Act, the program provides subsidized, service-based training for low-income persons 55 or older who are unemployed and have poor employment prospects.
Program participants must be at least 55, unemployed, and have a family income of no more than 125 percent of the federal poverty level.
In 2009, SCSEP had 89,300 enrolled participants nationwide and 48 percent found jobs after training. Seventy percent of participants were women and 48 percent were minorities.
However, in May the Obama administration and Congress recently agreed on a federal budget for 2011 that cut SCSEP funding by $375 million, a 45 percent reduction from the 2010 level.
For Vaisvil, that means helping fewer people find jobs next year.
This year, MERS Goodwill served 150 participants and 70 percent of them find jobs after the program. When the government made the cuts in May, MERS Goodwill found itself with 45 percent less funding to operate the program. Even more, they could not eliminate positions from people who were already enrolled, Vaisvil said.
“We became over enrolled,” Vaisvil said. “Now we are in a position where we have to wait for enrollment to get down to a level we can support before we can enroll new people from the waiting list.”
There are more than 400 people on the waiting list. He hopes to start enrolling again by the spring or summer, but next year’s participants will be limited to 100.
“There is a great need for it,” Vaisvil said, “especially when you consider people who have been out of work and out of the job search for a long period. They need as much help as possible.”
Unemployment for older lower-income workers tripled to 20 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the National Academy on an Aging Society.
And the resources to put these people back to work are dwindling away.
Low-income older workers are far more likely to be unemployed than high-income older workers, said Anthony Sarmiento, executive director of Senior Service America, on Nov. 20 at the Geronotological Society of America national conference in Boston.
The challenges of unemployment are compounded for minorities.
During 2010, more than 8.3 million people of ages 55 to 74 lived in households with annual incomes under $20,000, according to a study by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. This low-income older population was more likely to be female, older, black or Hispanic, a high school dropout and unmarried. And they represent 15 percent of the U.S. population in that age group.
As part of SCSEP, participants work an average of 20 hours a week and are paid the highest of federal, state or local minimum wage. They are placed in a wide variety of community service activities at non-profit and public facilities, including day-care centers, senior centers, schools and hospitals. This training then serves as a bridge to employment opportunities.
Many believe the Great Recession will change the standard of when and how Americans retire. According to the Heldrich Center’s 2009-2010 Work Trends Survey of Unemployed Workers, two in three older workers expect to collect Social Security retirement as soon as they are eligible. Many are retiring earlier than planned because of prolonged unemployment.
Data shows that one-third of retired workers perceived their retirement as forced. Some of these workers need to stay in the workforce to support themselves and their families. However, others want to stay in the workforce because they enjoy it, said Andrew Sum, professor of economics and director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.
Low-income workers who are unemployed are likely to be depressed. Depression raises health risks, such as high blood pressure. SCSEP participants have expressed a better sense of satisfaction with life after they entered the program, he said.
“They say things like, ‘This job gives me something to get up for in the morning,’” Sum said. “One person said, ‘Before getting into this program, I was just killing time and time was killing me.’”
For information about participating in the Senior Community Service Employment Program, call the national line 1-877-US2-JOBS (1-877-872-5627) or call MERS Goodwill at 1-888-651-4177.