Meeting the Needs of Economically Disadvantaged Older Adults: A Holistic Approach to Economic Casework

By Firman, James; Nathan, Sandra et al. | Generations, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Meeting the Needs of Economically Disadvantaged Older Adults: A Holistic Approach to Economic Casework


Firman, James, Nathan, Sandra, Alwin, Ramsey, Generations


As almost everyone struggles to manage their finances during this economic downturn, disadvantaged older adults face particularly daunting and complex challenges.

Many older Americans have seen their hard-earned personal and employersupported retirement savings diminish with no guarantees that they will rebound. During the period from October 2007 to March 2009, the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost more than 50 percent of its value and the value of equity assets in workplace retirement funds fell by approximately $4 trillion (Harris and Walker, 2009).

Homeownership status, once the cornerstone of economic security for older adults, has become a source of stress and debt, with some mortgages exceeding home value. By the end of 2007, Americans age 50 and older represented 28 percent of all delinquencies and foreclosures (AARP, 2008). Struggling to make ends meet, many low- and moderate-income older adults are either rethinking retirement plans and extending work or trying to get back into the workforce. A recent survey confirmed that 44 percent of workers age 50 or older have had to delay their planned retirement date (Geewax, 2009).

In July 2009, the unemployment rate for workers age 65 and older hit 7 percent, the highest it has been for this age group since the Great Depression ended. While still below the national unemployment rate of 9.7 percent, in August the unemployment rate for older adults has more than doubled since the start of the recession in December 2007, from 3 percent to 6.9 percent for people ages 55 to 64 and from 3.3 percent to 6.8 percent for those age 65 and over (Haines, 2009). Despite seniority, even older workers are experiencing mass layoffs during this downturn. According to the most recent figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of older workers out of work as a result of mass employer layoffs is up from 12 percent in 1999 to almost 18 percent in 2009 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009).

Those seeking employment are discovering that it is increasingly difficult to obtain. Not only has the nature of work changed, but the work opportunities are far fewer. The more than 1.8 million adults age 55 and older who are currently job seeking find it takes seven months on average to secure a position. The rising unemployment rate for all workers put older Americans in competition with younger workers to find a means of supporting themselves.

Without employment income, individuals often balance the books on credit, forgo necessary medical care, and let the bills mount. According to the Federal Reserve, 20 percent of families age 50 and older living in poverty in 2007 had debt payments in excess of 40 percent of their total income (Bucks et al., 2009). Household credit card debt among Americans age 65 and older increased by 26 percent, from $8,138 in 2005 to $10,235 in 2008 (Draut and Garcia, 2009). In addition, the number of people ages 55 to 64 filing for bankruptcy grew from about 6 percent of all people filing, in 1991, to over 15 percent of those filing for bankruptcy in 2007 (Stucki, 2009). The additional pressures of unemployment insurance expiring this fall will likely push more older homeowners into bankruptcy or foreclosure before the economic downturn concludes.

As low-income older adults juggle their financial obligations, they become increasingly vulnerable. The National Council on Aging (NCOA) finds that its community service partner organizations from all over the country are experiencing large increases in the demand for their core services such as job training and assistance, help with applying for benefits, and subsidized meals. These aging service organizations also are in the uncomfortable situation of trying to help their clients with a slew of financial problems that they feel ill-equipped to handle- threats of foreclosure or eviction, large amounts of credit card debt, exotic financial scams, and a pervasive and growing sense of economic insecurity.

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