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Older And More Diverse: America's Multicultural Future Is Approaching Fast, But Are We Ready?

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Elders are revered for their experience and wisdom in many cultures around the globe, but here in America where our civic, media and business cultures worship at the fountain of youth, elders are seen in quite a different light. Age is frequently seen as a disadvantage. Despite a wealth of experience, many men and women over the age of 65 face discrimination in the workplace and society at large. On the streets of our cities and towns elders are conspicuous yet invisible, often dismissed as has-beens whose productivity and contributions have long ago receded.

But if this sort of benign neglect is what many elders can expect to face, imagine the difficulties encountered in the quest for economic security by elders belonging to one or more racial, ethnic or gender identity minority groups. These "diverse elders" -- African American, Hispanic, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, LGBT, American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) -- face discrimination not only due to age but also because of color or sexual orientation. While these groups have many differences among them, what unites them is that historically they have faced significant discrimination and they, on average, are more economically vulnerable than whites. Given the exponential growth of diverse elders, their success or failure will in no short measure affect the overall prosperity of society.

This week the Diverse Elders Coalition (DEC), a group of seven leading national aging organizations, is holding a hearing on Capitol Hill to draw attention to critical economic issues affecting the economic security of diverse elders, and to spur action. Using findings from DEC's newly published policy report written by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, "Securing Our Future: Advancing Economic Security for Diverse Elders," DEC asks this question: the number of elders of color and LGBT elders in this country is surging. Are we prepared?

While plenty of attention has been given to a recent demographic milestone that marked a shift in the birth rate from majority white to majority-minority, the DEC report notes a shift of nearly equal significance: over the next 30 years the number of people age 65 and older will double to 80 million. Much of this growth will be driven by minorities. Today, one in five older adults is Latino or non-White. By 2030, this number is projected to total almost one in three. Asian and Pacific Islander populations will grow quickly as well, with the fastest relative population growth among all elders. And by 2030 the number of LGBT elders will double to over four million. Diverse elders will be a majority of adults by 2050.

These demographic changes will require not just a new awareness on the part of community development and workforce practitioners, but will also require policy shifts at local, state and federal levels to help build and maintain the economic security of this growing population. These elders currently face significant disparities in income, health and health care access, housing, employment and more.

According to the Senior Financial Stability Index, 52 percent of African American elders and 56 percent of Latino elders are economically insecure, meaning they do not have adequate resources to maintain a secure standard of living. Lesbian couples face higher poverty rates than their gay male counterparts and much higher rates than their heterosexual counterparts. According to the DEC-Insight Center report, one-third of Hmong, a quarter of Cambodians, and 15 per cent or more of Laotians, Koreans, Vietnamese and Samoan elders live below the Federal Poverty Threshold. Diverse elders are also more heavily dependent on Social Security. According to a 2008 study of the national population, 45 percent of all Americans aged 65 or older would have fallen below the Poverty Threshold if not for Social Security.

Many of the structural obstacles affecting diverse elders can be directly addressed through relatively small policy changes that produce broad benefits. For instance, the DEC report calls for extending spousal benefits, survivor benefits, and one-time death benefits to include same-sex partners, which would have a major impact on increasing the economic stability of same-sex couples. Also, a Consumer Price Index for the Elderly would increase Social Security benefits to match rising costs of the goods elders buy, such as prescription medication and health care. The report also makes clear that the skills and industriousness of elders should be embraced and deployed. For instance, the Office of Refugee Resettlement has a grants program to help refugee populations cultivate land and partner with farmers' markets to sell fruit and produce. Many immigrants come to the U.S. with farming skills that are underutilized here.

Looking at the bigger picture, the report recommends preserving and protecting the current Medicare system, Social Security and the Affordable Care Act. It also recommends delinking citizenship from eligibility for Supplemental Security Income, which would help low-income, legal immigrant elderly, blind and disabled populations.

As the report argues, "The more the talents of all communities are cultivated -- regardless of age, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity -- the stronger we are as a nation." The sooner policymakers come to grips with the problems the nation is facing -- and the potential solutions to them -- the better off we'll all be. If this doesn't concern you now, it should. After all, we'll all be elderly someday. Securing Our Future: Advancing Economic Security for Diverse Elders was written by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development for DEC, and can be found at DiverseElders.org.