What a difference a decade makes – unless you are The White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA).
Then it doesn’t seem to make any difference.
Today, the once-every-decade conference will hold its signature event after months of low-level activity sponsored mainly by the AARP, America’s leading purveyor of health insurance to older Americans (not to mention vacation travel, car repairs, telephone and internet service, etc. etc.).
The WHCOA sent out emails Saturday detailing the agenda for the big event.
Apparently there was no time in the jam-packed schedule to discuss the financial havoc wrought upon older Americans by the worst recession in America in 100 years. Similarly,it does not appear the conference will address the epidemic of age discrimination in hiring that relegates older workers to chronic unemployment, low-paid work and a financially improvident “early retirement.” It’s almost as if this unpleasant chapter of American history, attributable to Wall Street pirates who were never prosecuted, never happened.
The conference will focus on care-giving, “planning for financial security at every age,” nutrition, “the power of inter-generational connections and healthy aging,” universal design and technology and the future of aging.
To add insult to injury, the organizers of the WHCOA are asking Americans to complete this sentence: “Getting older is getting better because …”
Is getting older getting better?
Older Americans don’t need patronizing slogans about the advantages of getting older. They need a federal government that recognizes they have and are being denied the chance to work and save for retirement because of epidemic and unaddressed age discrimination in hiring.
Can it be the youthful organizers of the WHCOA are unaware that the Great Recession cost millions of Americans who are now approaching or entering their retirement years their investments, homes and jobs? A recent AARP survey found that half of older workers who experienced unemployment in the last five years are still not working: 38 percent reported they were unemployed and 12 percent had dropped out of the labor force.
Meanwhile, prior generations financed retirement with a combination of savings, a traditional defined benefit pension, and Social Security. Two legs of that stool are gone for millions of American workers – savings and pensions – and Social Security is under attack from the right.
The Economic Security Institute reported in 2013 that nearly half (48 percent) of America’s 41 million seniors are “economically vulnerable,” including 63.3 percent of blacks and 70.1 percent of Hispanics. To be economically vulnerable is to have an income that is less than two times the supplemental poverty threshold (a poverty line more comprehensive than the traditional federal poverty line).
Incredibly, the WHCOA issued briefs on “retirement security” and “elder justice” that do not even mention the recession or age discrimination in employment.
The dismissive treatment of age discrimination in employment by the WHCOA is emblematic of the second-class treatment of older Americans generally by the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress.
The 1995 WHCOA was funded by the Congress under the Older Americans Act Amendments of 1992. According to the WHCOA, Congress did not reauthorize the Older Americans Act nor provide funding for this year’s conference but the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services decided to go forward anyway.
Given these circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that the WHCOA decided to partner with the AARP, which has a for-profit arm that sells access to the membership base of the AARP’s non-profit arm. On its website, the AARP says it co-sponsored and co-planned the WHCOA’s five regional forums with a lobbying group called Leadership Council of Aging (LCAO), a coalition of 72 of the nation’s leading organizations serving older Americans. A spokesperson for the LCAO said the AARP is leading the LCAO this year. Did the AARP’s desire to market its $3.4 billion brand influence impact the conference’s focus? Older Americans undoubtedly are concerned about healthy aging but they also are concerned about being able to pay their medical co-pay when they’re 80.
There is a stark contrast between this year’s WHCOA and prior conferences. More than a thousand delegates from every state were invited to Washington, DC, for the 2005 conference to discuss the concerns and hopes of older Americans. There are no delegates this year. In addition to the delegates, Congress and the President in 2005 appointed a 17-member bipartisan policy committee to oversee the event.
The 2015 WHCOA released its agenda a mere three days before the big event but prior conferences published their agendas in the Federal Register and invited public comment. The final report of the WHCOA of 1995 states it featured 600 activities, events and programs held around the country, and more than 300 reports containing policy recommendations generated from the events. Its main goal was to “provide resolutions to influence national aging policy and to develop a blueprint for action to have these resolutions implemented.” With today’s main event, the 2015 WHCOA will have sponsored a half-dozen activities and a website.
It is sad to say that President Obama has been a major disappointment with respect to age discrimination in employment. He promised during his election campaign to strengthen the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 but he never did so. In fact, he may actually be the first president to go out of his way to actually discriminate on the basis of age.
In 2010, President Obama signed an executive order creating the Pathways “Recent Graduates” program, which allows the government to bypass older workers and hire “recent graduates.” Meanwhile, the U.S. Office of Program Management has “reinvigorated” the Pathways Presidential Management Fellows Program “for people who obtained an advanced degree (e.g., graduate or professional degree) within the preceding two years.” Everyone knows the vast majority of recent graduates are under the age of 40, even the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). A senior EEOC official recently threatened to go after Silicon Valley companies that post discriminatory job advertisements for “digital natives.” Somehow Obama, the OPM, Congress and the WHCOA didn’t get the memo.
For those of us who are disappointed with the lost opportunities represented by the 2015 WHCOA, there may be consolation. The next WHCOA, if one is held, is only a decade away.