Even as the nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of Medicare, Medicaid, the Older Americans Act, and the 80th anniversary of Social Security, issues of race, class, and access remain recalcitrant barriers to elder security. Particularly among Blacks, living longer has often meant subsisting on meager funds and with limited material resources.
The Social Security Act of 1935, designed to secure respectable, livable incomes for the nation’s seniors, excluded two groups from elder security – agricultural and domestic workers, a vast majority of whom were Black – because of prevailing racial biases during that period. As increased numbers of Blacks grow older, their health and overall quality of life – whether living independently or with the aid of care workers, requires overhauling a system initially designed to exclude them.
“When Social Security was signed into law, far too many seniors were living in poverty. When Medicare was created only a little more than half of all seniors had some form of insurance. Before Medicaid came along, families often had no help paying for nursing home costs,” President Barack Obama said at a news conference on July 13th. “Today, the number of seniors in poverty has fallen dramatically. Together we declared that every citizen of this country deserves a basic measure of security and dignity.”
Obama said that as more Americans live to reach retirement and then live longer as seniors, reassessing how the nation responds to the increased need will ultimately work to protect the solvency of elder care.
Ben de Guzman, national managing coordinator for the Diverse Elders Coalition, addressed several key concerns related to the aging of the American population and the increased number of non-white seniors among them. “Despite advances that our communities have achieved on the road to equality, there remain considerable barriers to their full participation in every facet of public life. It is often difficult enough to move through the world as a person of color, or an LGBT person; the additional barriers that age places on the individual complicates the picture even further,” Guzman said. “Communities of color continue to experience de facto, if not de jure, discrimination and have unequal outcomes as a result.”
One key component of providing quality, non-discriminatory treatment to Black elders is ensuring they receive proper care from health and home care professionals. According to Molita Cunningham, a home care worker with more than 30 years of experience, home care jobs are the fastest growing occupation in the country, but tend to pay poverty wages.
She said she works upwards of 100 hours a week, at a pay rate of just $10 an hour, to support her three children. “I love my job, but I can’t afford to do simple things like put gas in the car, take sick leave or time off to see my son’s track meets,” Cunningham said. “To meet the growing demand of seniors who need care, we need to make home care jobs more sustainable and that starts with giving us $15 and a union.”