|BOULDER, Colo., April 5 - In a previous Guardian column, I referred to an observation by Dr. Jacqueline L. Angel, a professor of public affairs and sociology at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, who commented 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?”
In this column, I offer several data based perspectives and policy recommendations to support Dr. Angel’s insights. Of concern are the present and emerging challenges to the retirement phase of this expanding population.
I tried retirement and it did not take hold. I will be resuming my 45-year career of university teaching and research during the fall of this year. As I do so, a recurring concern to me is the Mexican American elderly, such as me, and its capacity to a have a sustainable retirement with all necessary support services and benefits.
A recent report by Hispanics in Philanthropy stated that, “between 2008 and 2030 the Latino [Hispanic] population age 65 years and older will increase by 224 percent compared to a 65 percent increase for the white population age 65 and older. These growth trends are likely to have significant implications for programs and policies designed to support seniors. Yet, there has been little research about the societal implications of an aging Latino [Hispanic] population for the U.S.” I believe that this is an issue that has to be on the front burner of legislators and policy brokers in Texas and in particular in south Texas which is 92 percent Mexican American in its demographic composition.
George Friedman, in his book, The Next Hundred Years, observed that Mexico’s population is young, younger than that of the United States, and its economy is expanding to become the fifth largest in the world within the next fifty years. The implications for America and in particular, Texas, are that we have declining birth rates and an increasing cadre of ill prepared young people to assume gainful employment while our population continues to age. The fall back in labor, from the Mexican immigrant, will no longer be available. I posit that immigration will be a passé issue within one generation. The population that remains will be aged, mostly white, and will require expanded support services at a time that health policies are being undermined by those in the political conservative camp.
An overriding concern is the yin and yang of health policy and the effects of demographics on the sustainability of the Hispanic community. At one end is policy makers in the U.S., as well as the rest of the Americas, who are becoming increasingly aware of the burgeoning health care needs of older people and the costs associated with those needs. The conservative white community, that seems to be more concerned about what will become of its demographic status, occupies the opposite end. A recent Bloomberg editorial made note of a survey in which white Americans were worried about what is going to happen to them as the ethnic communities continue to expand their demographic base while theirs continue to diminish. This mentality infuses the conservative political agenda that continually attempts to undermine health policy, impede voting, and diminish funding for education and attempts to pass punitive immigration policy.
This type of thinking is counter-productive to our shared future, as the white community will come to rely on the ethnic communities to support it in its “Golden Years.” An approach that they should consider, I propose, is an assertive legislative agenda that is directed at expanding the capacity of ethnic Americans and females to be better educated so they may assume employment in competitive occupations that pay taxes to support our social and physical infrastructure. The conservative wing of the Republican and Tea Party has come to mistakenly believe that we are not interested in the same America. That is a grievous error in political judgment that is destructive as it cast ethnic minorities as other than American. They are probably hoping that we will move and take up residence in a parallel universe; that will not happen.
The Hispanic American elderly population may become a drag on our nation’s economy because of the discrimination and isolation that it endured and experienced during most of its work years. This situation impacted its ability to generate a retirement corpus of financial resources due to low wages in occupations that did not provide a 401k option or other retirement benefits. To repeat this scenario by imposing similar policies on the growing Hispanic population of young people will play itself, as a recurring bad dream from which there is no awakening.
The older Hispanic adult population is a unique and rapidly growing group. Large disparities exist between Hispanic and non-Hispanic older adults on a number of social indicators. A recent study by the AARP Foundation shows that the 74 percent of the aging Hispanic population is concerned about access to affordable health care and insurance. Fifty-eight percent of this population is concerned about a financially stable retirement life. It would not be farfetched to find that the majority white and other ethnic populations also share these perspectives.
The Hispanic community needs to be better informed about how these issues will portend to both the future of the young and of their aging parents and grandparents. Hispanic health policy researchers in D.C. at the National Council of La Raza and at the Latinos & Economic Security project at the University of California at Los Angeles put forth similar observations about this situation.
Among those observations are that the new federal health care law in the United States has clearly changed the financing landscape, but how it will directly affect older Americans and minorities, including the Mexican-origin population, is unknown. While it represents the only realistic means of covering any substantial fraction of those who lack health and/or long-term care insurance, there are numerous uncertainties about the specifics of the new programs for younger and older Americans alike.
Other factors will influence the lives of Mexican-origin families and ethnic communities as they face the burdens of decline in health status and caring for children and the elderly simultaneously. There are several data based issues, many from the National Hispanic Council on Aging: NHCA that emerge to inform and guide the present policy and research dialogue on the aging Hispanic community. Among those are:
• The majority of the Hispanic aging population resides and is growing in four states. In 2008, 70 percent of Hispanic persons aged 65 and over resided in four states: California (27 percent); Texas (19 percent); Florida (16 percent); and New York (nine percent).
• A significant percentage, 68 percent, of Hispanic elderly speaks more Spanish than English. This situation will impede the dissemination and accessibility to social services information.
• They have less access to Social Security benefits. Hispanic elders receive a large portion of their retirement funds from Social Security and their families and survivors rely heavily on these benefits. In addition, the growing Hispanic population subsidizes this federal program through the taxes they pay but do not receive proportional benefits.
• A large portion of the Hispanic population is undocumented but work in the US and pay social security taxes. Yet, they are unable to receive these benefits, which then accrue to the non-Hispanic elderly population.
• Nearly one-in-five Hispanic older adults lives in poverty, compared to 6.8 percent of non-Hispanic White older adults. Without Social Security, however, over 50 percent of Hispanic older adults would live in poverty.
• From 2005-2009, the median net worth of Hispanic households fell from $18,359 to just $6,325.
• Affordable housing is another barrier. In 2009, Hispanics paid 48 percent more of their income on monthly housing costs than the rest of the United States.
• Nationally 5.5 percent of Hispanic older adults lack health insurance compared to one percent of the non-Hispanic population. According to the Texas Medical Association 25 percent of Texans are uninsured. Tejano elderly have a 33 percent uninsured rate. A 2013 U.S. Census Bureau report provides data that show that the five counties with more than 25,000 residents that had the highest uninsured rates were all in South Texas ranging from 34.6 percent in Starr County to 38.9 percent in Hidalgo County. The average of uninsured residents for the four counties of the Rio Grande Valley is 35 percent.
• The fact that Social Security benefits do not increase in proportion to rising health costs creates a challenge to all Americans to maintain some semblance of economic security.
What should be our expectations of elected officials of all political affiliations? The following action items merit consideration according to both the National Hispanic Council on Aging as well as Dr. Fernando M. Torres-Gil of UCLA’s Center for Policy Research on Aging: 1.) Preserve Social Security and strengthen it for future generations, 2.) Increase funding for subsidized housing for older adults, 3.) Reject policies that shift costs onto seniors and instead implement reforms that lower the cost of all health care, 4.) Expand support and training services to caregivers as well as to families that have to take care of elderly parents in their residences, 5.) Health care service agencies and training institutions prepare health care providers to work with diverse and linguistically different populations.
My recommendations are more policy and politic in scope. There is a need to keep the issue of Mexican American elderly at the forefront of all elected government officials, especially at regional agencies. A continuous bilingual media campaign should be set in motion to inform and direct Mexican American elderly to available support services and resources that may be going unused. I expect service provider agencies and universities to garner funding to support ongoing and timely research on the status of the health and well being of Mexican American elderly. Finally, there has to be consistent and timely tracking of the actions of elected officials on health issues and corresponding responses so that may be held accountable. It is also imperative that we are able to support their endeavors to be better informed and proactive about what needs to be done to affect social policy or in some instances refute it.
The Mexican American’s cultural compass has always been affixed to its advocacy for the family. Dr.Angel makes an observation that should guide some of our actions. She states that, “The desire to preserve Latino [Mexican American] family structures and traditions is part of a cultural identity that has strong emotional meaning, and this factor has to be considered in any discussion of future approaches to care for the elderly. As Latinos [Mexican Americans] find it necessary to juggle work and children, can these traditions of family caring for older parents survive? Is the traditional desire to care for our aging parents in our home matched by the ability to do so?”
A recurring resound by policy researchers, about the Hispanic elderly, is that given their growing percentage of the U.S. population, the health and socioeconomic well-being of Hispanics should be a concern for the entire nation.
Baltazar Acevedo y Arispe, Jr., Ph.D., is a free agent consultant, community volunteer, researcher and writer. His research is directed at exploring quality of life issues that impact the Mexican American community, principally in Texas and the southwest. He writes regularly for the Guardian.