This morning in the city of Baltimore, we joined our friends, colleagues, and workforce participants in celebration of Older Americans Month. For Senior Service America, Inc. and our colleagues within the aging community, this is a time to shine a spotlight on the contributions of a growing demographic group across our community. This is a community that we should embrace, celebrate, cherish – and protect. In Baltimore today, we did just that.
There is a mythical aura about our greatest generation: those Americans shaped by the Great Depression, and who represented our nation during World War II. This generation is revered in literature and culture. This generation was also income secure. When they retired, they received generous company pensions, which afforded them the opportunity to live out their remaining years in dignity. This is not the reality for older Americans in the 21st Century. Many of our aging baby boomers are forced to remain in the workforce because they lack the necessary resources to retire.
The Baltimore region was built and sustained by a local citizenry who found middle-income employment in traditional industries that have long disappeared. As these industries disappeared, many local residents obtained employment as transit drivers, bank tellers, and retail cashiers.
Those jobs are now slowly disappearing. According to the Washington DC-based think tank, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, more than a quarter of African American workers and nearly a third of Latino workers are concentrated in just 30 occupations at high risk due to automation. The disappearance of established and relatively low skilled, jobs will require a workforce that must be re-trained to remain competitive: older as well as younger Americans. For many low-income older Baltimoreans without the security of an old-style company pension, extending their working life is no longer an option, but a necessity. An unexpected family crisis or the loss of a loved one often forces our older neighbor to care for a family member or raise a grandchild. Circumstances rather than determination have created the necessity for continued employment.
Ivan Brown faced just such circumstances. After three years as an Army medic, serving his country, Mr. Brown returned to Baltimore and devoted 40 years to helping others in the health care field, eventually becoming a surgical technician. But when his health declined, there were few options available to him. Liver cancer and a subsequent transplant operation meant that Mr. Brown could no longer work full-time. Part-time options were limited due to his age and health situation. Despite his best efforts to find meaningful employment, he was only able to find short-term gig employment that neither utilized his skills, nourished his passion for community service, nor provided a sustainable income. That is until he found the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), which is funded through the OAA.
The Older Americans Act (OAA) is a Great Society-era program providing $2.8 billion in funding to federal programs that provide critical services to our nation’s most vulnerable seniors, keeping them healthy, nourished and independent.
SCSEP is the only federally-funded program targeted to older adults seeking employment and training assistance. It enables thousands of low-income seniors, just like Mr. Brown, to learn and earn while working in local programs serving their community. Mr. Brown is now working at the Sandown- Winchester Community Center. He provides transportation and support to fellow seniors who need health care services, new skills, and engagement with their neighbors. He is utilizing his skills, serving his community, and earning a sustainable income. And, he is doing all this as he faces a second bout with cancer.
By 2024 older workers will represent the largest single segment—one quarter—of our labor force. The need for re-training for continued employment is critical. There is hope. After almost a decade of precipitous funding cuts, the U.S. House of Representative’s 2020 spending bill includes a 15% funding increase for SCSEP, increasing the program’s funding level from $400 million to $463 million. If Senators stand with their colleagues in the House of Representatives, we will very likely witness a funding increase for a program that has served our nation and the Baltimore region very well. If Congress reauthorizes the OAA, it will provide the necessary funding to support a full slate of aging programs for our most vulnerable older neighbors. Not only will thousands of older Americans benefit, but our economy and community in Baltimore as well.