Policy Advocacy for an Aging Society: Philanthropy and Social Change

By Torres-Gil, Fernando M. | Generations, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Policy Advocacy for an Aging Society: Philanthropy and Social Change


Torres-Gil, Fernando M., Generations


The philanthropic sector, with private philanthropic foundations as its primary funding arm, is poised to play a major role in this nation's response to the demographic changes in store for the twenty-first century. If they are to actually affect public opinion and public policy in any important way, foundations must envision a more active and energetic leadership than they currently provide. The next ten to fifteen years will witness important challenges-social, political, economic-mat for aging baby boomers will be a test of character in the face of adversity. Their so-called golden years will require a level of leadership they have yet to demonstrate. Foundations can help prepare this cohort and this nation for that pending crossroads.

The next ten to twenty years may continue to see an abrogation of public responsibility for the social welfare and other needs of vulnerable members of society. The continued shift from the Roosevelt era and its New Deal, through Lyndon Johnson's Great Society to today's "compassionate conservatism" and expressed values of individual responsibility can be seen in the devolution of federal programs like Social Security and Medicare. Many aging baby boomers will be more at risk and more likely to be left to their own devices.

So far, to some extent, foundations have attempted to compensate for the growing gap-between public responsibility and individual risk- but their overall assets (U.S. foundations hold assets of nearly $500 billion) pale in comparison to public funds and public programs. Therefore, the better role for the philanthropic sector might be to work toward reversing the move away from public funding and to reeducate society about the need for a more balanced response to an aging society. Such a balanced response would mean that the public sector assumes responsibility for national needs and the private sector addresses market and entrepreneurial tasks, while individuals assume greater responsibility for planning and saving for retirement.

The question then is, Are foundations and, by extension, philanthropy prepared to use resources to engage in explicit policy advocacy with a commitment to alter the public discourse on how society ought to address the needs of an aging population? Drawing on my experience in government as the Assistant Secretary for Aging in the Clinton administration and in philanthropy as a board member of a number of charitable organizations, I have seen first-hand the evolution in attitudes toward aging as well as how at least one foundation, the California Endowment, is moving the frontiers of policy advocacy. Below, I suggest a conceptual model for community empowerment and policy change.

CHALLENGES OF THE AGING SOCIETY

While it is quite obvious that this country is being fundamentally reshaped by the aging of its population, we as a society have yet to fully accept and begin to plan for this demographic inevitability. A litany of unresolved issues related to aging must be addressed.

The growing fiscal uncertainty of Medicare and Social security and the evisceration of the social safety net in other areas such as welfare reform combine with such private sector changes as the demise of traditional defined-benefit pensions and healthcare coverage for retirees. The private sector is also experiencing a "legacy" crisis of too few workers and too many retirees in old-line corporations like United Airlines, General Motors and Ford, and the steel industry. AU mis points to the coming crisis facing the next large generation of elders: baby boomers. This cohort, who now enjoy the longest life expectancy of any generation thus far, is woefully unprepared to meet its longevity.

One indicator says it all: The savings rate of baby boomers is dose to zero. Granted, many will do well with private investments, accumulated defined-benefit pension plans, and wellfunded 4OIK savings. Others have done well with real estate investments and other forms of entrepreneurship. …

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