|WACO, February 27 - Grouch Marx once remarked that, “Age is not a particularly interesting subject. Anyone can get old. All you have to do is live long enough.”
The aging Hispanic community will face unique challenges at the national, state and regional level that may threaten its quality of life at a critical stage of its chronology. As a Tejano, I will focus primarily on the Texas Mexican American community with special emphasis on those that reside along the border with Mexico in south Texas. This present column presents a macro picture of a crisis in the making.
One of the points of pride of Hispanic families, politicians, community leaders, and researchers has been the youth of this ethnic community. There is no denying the shifting demographic realities of aging as delineated in the analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Youth is a temporary benchmark of less than 20 years and we spend the majority of our lives becoming elderly.
I recall several large Tejano familias, a distant aunt had seventeen children; I am the oldest of nine. When I asked why they had so many children, the response from the padres reflected a matter of survival. I consistently heard the same refrain, "Por tanto pueden tener cuidado de nosotros cuando somos mayores." Our children will be there to take care of us when we are elderly. In contrast, what I have seen is the erosion of this familial support infrastructure as Hispanics are becoming as mobile as the general population primarily in response to shifting economics. Jacqueline L. Angel, a professor of public affairs and sociology at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, observes that, “life is much different for Hispanic families than it was at the beginning of the 20th century, and that change forges a basic question: Who will care for elderly parents?”
The aging trend of Hispanics is not out of sync with that of the general population. The United States is getting older. That trend is what University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill professor Jim Johnson calls the "silver tsunami." For the next two decades, he said, about 8,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 every day, and that can radically transform society. So how is the Hispanic community aging and why should it matter? Hispanics make up about 16 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and by 2050 are expected to make up 30 percent of the population — a virtual doubling. Meanwhile, demographers note that the Hispanic population is growing five to six times faster than the general population, making it this nation’s largest ethnic group. By the middle of the next century, the nation's Hispanic population is expected to reach almost 100 million (24.5 percent of the total population).
Like Johnson, William Vega, a professor at the University of Southern California and executive director of the Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging labels this phenomena in term of a natural catastrophic event, “It's a demographic shift of seismic proportions.” The number of Hispanics 50 years of age and older in the United States is projected to grow from nine million today (out of a total of 50.5 million) to more than 35 million by 2050. This will have profound implications for society and for government at all levels. Vega posits that, "It's a great challenge for social services such as Medicare and Social Security, since we're talking about a population segment with high levels of inadequate education and low income. Many of the older Hispanics will depend on a network of social services, and we don't know if these will be available in adequate levels to meet their needs." I grew up in rural communities and puebelitos in the southwestern United States and know that these social support systems have never existed there.
Two Australian environmental economists, Charlie Hargrove and Michael Smith advise that, “in terms of sustainability, we are obligated to be wise and discreet stewards in the use of our present resources so that the means of future generations to survive and prosper are not imperiled or compromised.” Cruz C. Torres, Professor Emeritus at Texas A & M University, poses this question, “Why should policy brokers be concerned about the year 2050? Many of us will not be here to feel the aftereffects of the present neglect of policies that minimize social services to ethnic populations in Texas. The issue is one of a failure of politicians, mostly of the conservative resolve, to recognize the needs of these “minority populations” that are in reality the demographic majority.” The former state demographer Steve Murdock's presentation, "Texas in 2050: It's All Over for the Anglos," at the 2013 Texas Tribune Festival, provides sobering data that confirms these demographic shifts and their corresponding demand on policy to make wise use of scarce resources.
As a Tejano, I may be mistaken but I have never associated wisdom with the political process, at least as practiced in Austin. The dearth of wisdom becomes apparent when the majority ethnic populations of this state continue to be ignored during the budgetary process. Like the Native-American, African-American and other ethnic communities, Tejanos have always functioned and survived in the lower strata of the society; in essence they have been disenfranchised. There are several elements to consider here as we consider aging a quasi-disenfranchisement experience.
The corpus of cumulative earnings and savings that anchor the “Golden Years” is not part and parcel of the aging Hispanic’s retirement portfolio. A 2010 Pew Hispanic Center analysis asserts that the older Hispanic population disproportionately lives in poverty. A number of factors likely contribute to the high rates of poverty among older Hispanics, including lower wages, less education, and lower rates of English speaking compared with non-Hispanic or the general U.S. population in the same age range. It is estimated that about one in three Hispanics lives in linguistically isolated house- holds where no one over the age of 14 is English proficient. In addition, more Hispanics age 65 and older are female than male, 57 percent compared with 43 percent respectively. Hispanic women have lower earnings than men, in general, and are more likely to live in poverty. Similar gender disparities exist across other racial and ethnic groups.
Although fewer Hispanic than non-Hispanic older adults receive Social Security benefits, Social Security income is more important for Hispanic older adults because they are more likely to live in poverty. For more than three in four Hispanic beneficiaries, Social Security provides at least half of their total income. According to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, for 43 percent of Hispanic beneficiaries, Social Security is their sole source of income. An analysis of Hispanic Social Security beneficiaries, using data from the 2005 American Community Survey, revealed that the vast majority (about 87 percent) were U.S. citizens, a significant majority (about 67 percent) spoke English, and more than half (57 percent) were born in the United States.
At present 96 percent of all workers are covered under the Social Security system, only 92 percent are Hispanic. Under current law, Hispanic receive Social Security at lower rates because they are more likely to have not paid into the Social Security system for enough years to be eligible to receive benefits, are immigrant workers who do not posses the appropriate legal status to receive coverage, or work in jobs (e.g., domestic and agricultural workers) in which employers tend to under report Social Security earnings. If they do not qualify for Social Security it is likely that Hispanic older adults, without this source of income, struggle to make ends meet by working longer or having multiple jobs; many that are paid minimum wages.
When one isolates and analyzes these conditions, with a focus on the borderlands along south Texas and Mexico, then the essential elements for a perfect storm surface. These elements include consistent economic disparities when compared with other regions of Texas, higher at risk health propensities, social isolation [such as in the over 1,600 colonias in this region], lower educational attainment at all levels from PK-16, limited access to health services, higher uninsured rates, a consistent unemployment/underemployment rate, and a population that is still predominately Spanish speaking that both sustains a unique culture yet may impede economic development.
These elements and their effects on the graying Hispanic communidad will be delineated further in succeeding columns with data to guide various policy recommendations.
Baltazar Acevedo y Arispe, Jr., Ph.D. is a Yaqui Chicano activist. He left the University of Texas-Pan American as a tenured professor of research and leadership in 2012. He now volunteers in several community development endeavors to expand the quality of life of communities in Central Texas and New Mexico.