Photo: James Kelly lives in the camp outside the old Berkeley City Hall, called by the residents an occupation. (All photos by David Bacon}
Is there a human right to age in dignity? Some countries think so. Unfortunately, the United States isn’t one of them.
The Organization of American States (OAS) recently adopted the first international convention on the human rights of older people--not endorsed by the U.S. The Organization of African Unity (OAU) is debating its own convention and is expected to adopt it next year.
Ironically, the world’s poorer countries, presumably those with the fewest resources to deal with aging, are in the vanguard of establishing this set of rights.
Precarious Conditions for Millions
Meanwhile, the richest countries, including the U.S. and European Union members, are arguing against applying a human rights framework to aging. In part, their contrarian stance reflects the
Photo: Dallas lives in the camp outside the old Berkeley City Hall, called by the residents an occupation. It is a protest against the Berkeley City Council passing an anti-homeless ordinance.
market ideology in which people lose their social importance and position when they are not working and producing value. In the U.S., the resulting set of priorities has a devastating impact on older people.
In fact, millions of seniors in the United States live in vulnerable and precarious conditions. In another 15 years, 18 percent of the U.S. population will be 65 or older. Although their numbers may be increasing, however, their security is not.
Photo: Consuelo Mendez worked 40 years at Brokaw Nursery near Oxnard, then retired, but returned to work because Social Security benefits didn't cover her bills.
According to Rebecca Vallas, director of policy in the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress, 10 percent of seniors (4.6 million people) fall below this country’s official
U.S. Opposes Binding Rules
On Old-Age Security
Adopting new definitions and international conventions on human rights (especially economic ones), even if they are not immediately implemented, helps to set a goal—a vision of how we want the world to work. Passing human rights treaties is also an important step in international law.
The convention of the Organization of American States (OAS) enumerates 27 specific rights, with many subcategories, such as the right to independence, political participation, a healthy environment and freedom from violence.
Among the economic key rights, the OAS convention asserts, is that older people “have the right to social security to protect them so that they can live in dignity.” It adds that governments should provide income “to ensure a dignified life for older persons.”
Seniors also have the right to “dignified and decent work” with benefits, labor and union rights and pay equal to all other workers. Older people have the right to healthcare, housing and education. They should also be able to “participate in the cultural and artistic life of the community, and to enjoy the benefits of scientific and technological progress.”
The U.S. government does not recognize many of these rights, however—to housing, income, education, and healthcare, for instance. In this country these are all market commodities. Social Security is a product of an earlier era in U.S. political life, in which President Franklin Roosevelt postulated that all people had the right to “freedom from want.” Today a “cost/benefit analysis” is the more likely framework—weighing the need to ensure a dignified life for seniors against the cost of providing it.
Social welfare programs in the U.S. result from popular struggle against the inherent demand of a market economy for as high a rate of profit as possible. Old people, children, the disabled and others who don’t immediately produce profit are a social cost, and vulnerable in a system like this. When popular movements weaken, the safety net starts pulling apart. U.S. opposition to a human rights treaty for the elders is based not on a lack of morality, uncaring politics, or bad intentions, but on the way the system functions.
In declining to endorse the convention on aging, the U.S. government declared to the OAS, “The United States has consistently objected to the negotiation of new legally binding instruments on the rights of older persons. ... We do not believe a convention is necessary to ensure that the human rights of older persons are protected. ... The resources of the OAS and of its member states should be used to identify practical steps that governments in the Americas might adopt to combat discrimination against older persons.”
In short, instead of having to abide by a binding agreement, each country should be free to do as it chooses.
Global Economy’s Impact
As radical as the OAS conventions might sound to many U.S. ears, the economic rights don’t even test the limits of the ways a globalized economy now affects elders.
Enormous movements of people, for instance, fleeing war and poverty, have led to the separation of families. United Nations conventions, and almost all countries, recognize the right to migrate because of war and persecution.
Should this be expanded to recognize a right of older people to reunite with their families, if they’re separated by war or previous migration? Should the United States recognize the right of a migrant in California’s Central Valley, for instance, after a lifetime working in the fields, to travel home to Mexico, and then return to their family putting down roots in Fresno, for example?
“Of course it should,” said Susan Somers, president of the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse. “All we need is a little political will,” she said, although including the provision in conventions would be difficult because of every nation’s immigration laws.
She continued, “We’re not trying to force countries to change their culture or ways of life. But when [elders] come into conflict with harm, culture and tradition are no excuse.”
A proposed U.N. convention has been stalled over these disagreements. Somers and others said opposition is coming from the U.S., Australia, Israel and the European Union.
“They are really trying to push us back,” Somers fumes. “They think it’s going to cost them something, and that older people aren’t deserving. Yet the budget item for treaties is so small compared to peace keeping and the Security Council—almost nothing.”
Those programs have helped people, but their success at lowering poverty among many seniors masks the struggles of millions of others. The official federal poverty line (FPL) is too low, is out of whack from the real cost of living and uses a faulty method. Originally, the FPL was defined as three times the basic food budget. That does not correspond to current spending patterns for seniors.
The current FPL for a single person is $11,770 ($15,930 for a couple), and slightly higher in Alaska and Hawaii.
Housing alone absorbs a huge portion of this. Even seniors at 125 percent of the poverty line spend more than three-quarters of their income on rent, Vallas found—$11,034 for singles, and $14,934 for couples. It’s hard to imagine finding an apartment in many urban areas with rent that low.
According to Vallas, seniors across the board spend 14 percent of their income on out-of-pocket health costs. Adding that to housing, poor seniors are left with about 10 percent of their income for
food, bus fares and everything else. It’s no wonder so many people in line at county food banks are old.
Furthermore, income at twice the FPL is hardly enough to make ends meet. The number of seniors under that level is much greater—one-in-three of those 65-plus--and two-in-five of those 75 or older.
A Better Poverty Measure
A better criterion for poverty is the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM). The U.S. Census Bureau created this yardstick in response to criticism that the FPL grossly underestimates poverty (see Jeannette Wicks-Lim, “Undercounting the Poor,” Dollars & Sense, May/June 2013).
The SPM is based on real-life expenditures for basic necessities like food, housing, clothing and utilities. It varies from place to place and, unlike the FPL, it isn’t meant to qualify or disqualify people for government programs.
Vallas found that about 15 percent of seniors fall below this line, and triple that percentage is “economically vulnerable”—below twice the SPM. [A similar alternative measure, the Elder Index, adopted as an official planning tool by the State of California, has shown similar results.]
Among U.S. seniors nearly 12 percent of older women (3.1 million) live below the FPL vs. seven percent of men. And 17 percent of female elders live below the SPM (12 percent of men), according to a 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation report.
“The typical woman suffers an earnings loss of $431,000 over the course of a 40-year career due to the gender wage gap,” Vallas said.
She added, “The gap is even larger for women of color.” Older black and Hispanic elders are poorer in general—almost one-in-five are under the FPL, and about one-in-four live under the SPM.
Seniors’ income is overwhelmingly dependent on Social Security. The number of older people who receive pensions from employers is declining rapidly, as corporations divest themselves of traditional “defined benefit” pensions. For an earlier generation, those plans pegged payments to preretirement earnings. Today, the average Social Security benefit is just over $16,000 per year—not far above the FPL.
“For nearly two-thirds of seniors, it is their main source of income, and for one-third it is their only income,” Vallas notes. Without it, half of all seniors would fall below the SPM.
Many Left Out of System
Official poverty statistics do not account for people who have been left out of the Social Security system entirely. Many workers do not contribute payroll-tax. That includes people in the informal economy, such as day laborers.
Two million seniors get Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, which are based on having very low incomes, rather than contributions made while they were working. The maximum SSI benefit is $8,796 per year, well below the official poverty line. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), “For nearly three-fifths of recipients, SSI is their only source of income.”
Getting left out of the safety net has devastating consequences. As of 2010, roughly 45,000 adults 65-plus were homeless, according to Vallas, who projects this figure will jump one-third by 2020--and more than double by 2050.
The homeless population is getting older as well. The median age of single homeless adults was 35 in 1990, and 50 in 2010.
Immigration status is an even greater barrier to income security. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 4.5 million immigrants 65 and over make up one-in-eight immigrants in the U.S. For those who haven’t become citizens, the safety net has huge holes.
Most who are deemed as Lawful Permanent Residents can’t receive such benefits as Medicaid, SSI or food stamps for their first five years in the U.S., although they can collect Social Security, if they’ve earned enough to qualify.
The estimated 11 million people with no authorized immigration status can’t even apply for Social Security. In order to work, many give an employer a false Social Security number or one belonging to someone else. Payments are deducted from their paychecks, but these workers never become eligible for the benefits the contributions are supposed to provide.
The Social Security Administration estimated in 2010 that 3.1 million undocumented people were paying about $13 billion per year in contributions into the program’s trust fund. Unauthorized recipients, mostly people who received Social Security numbers before the system was tightened, received only $1 billion per year in payments.
Stephen Goss, the chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, told VICE News in 2014 that that surplus of payments versus benefits had totaled more than $100 billion over the previous decade.
Right to Old Age Dignity Globally
According to Lia Daichman, president of the Argentina chapter of the International Longevity Alliance, and the ILA’s representative at the United Nations, “Governments should guarantee that all people have a non-contributory pension, to be able to live without the support of younger people.”
Her country, Argentina, began paying nearly every old person a pension in 2003, with medical and social benefits, even those who made no contributions. “This is good for women,” she emphasized, “because we often work in the home and weren’t able to contribute, or because we worked in the informal economy.”
Even Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries, has instituted a non-contributory pension of 700 rupees a month.
Daichman doesn’t view elders as needy people seeking charity. “People have a right to income and a dignified life,” she asserts. “They worked all their lives for it.” This perspective underlies her work trying to convince the international community to codify this right.
The convention adopted by the OAS is a step towards the goal, Daichman believes, because it would cover over 70 million people ages 60 or older in Latin America and the Caribbean. By 2030 that will leap to 121 million people, according to the 2015 United Nations study, World Population Ageing.
The OAS convention enumerates 27 specific rights, with many subcategories, from the right to independence, freedom from violence and economic security.
Photo:Hermilo Lopez, a Mixtec immigrant from San Juan Mixtepec, Oaxaca, works in a crew picking bell peppers near Fresno. He's 69 years old.
A growing and vocal constituency is not simply waiting for wealthy nations to come around, however. Among Asian countries, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh and even Myanmar have made statements about the human rights of older people.
“Human rights are at the core of everything,” Daichman says. “The rights of people getting old should be considered human rights because they’re human beings.”
Journalist and photographer David Bacon reported this story for Dollars & Sense (magazine of the Economic Affairs Bureau), with support from a Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, sponsored by The SCAN Foundation.