Economic Insecurity

Large numbers of diverse elders face financial difficulty. In part, the causes of this economic insecurity have roots in past discriminatory practices, when redlining, segregation, and labor market discrimination was the norm. For example, starting in the 1930s and carrying through World War II, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) subsidized home mortgages to increase homeownership, but of the $120 billion in new housing financed by the FHA and the Veterans Administration in its first 30 years, 98 percent went to white first-time home purchasers. While great strides have been made in recent years to protect against housing and employment discrimination, discrimination still persists, and elders often suffer the cumulative consequences of a lifetime of discriminatory practices.

American Indians and Alaska Natives

While the experiences of different groups of diverse elders have some commonalities, American Indian and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) possess a unique political status and history that have resulted in a very distinct set of challenges. Between 1887 and 1934, the U.S. Government seized 90 million acres, nearly two-thirds of all reservation lands, from Indian tribes without compensation and gave it to (mostly) white settlers. With the relationship between the United States and Indian tribes set as one of a sovereign government to another sovereign government, the United States and Indian tribes ultimately negotiated, signed and ratified more than 390 treaties. These binding treaties put an end to fighting and resulted in lands ―reserved for tribes, but they also led to the involuntary relocation of American Indian people, whose livelihood depended on East Coast ecology. Furthermore, the United States government held the underlying fee title to many tribal lands. While the original intention was for the United States to be a guardian, or “trustee,” loss of ownership and control of land has been a detriment to economic development in Indian country.

Today, more than 500 tribal governments are recognized by the United States government, with the Cherokee Nation having the largest membership. Each tribal government has its own form of self-governance. Seventy-eight percent of AI/AN people live off-reservation and 22 percent live on reservations, according to the latest public figures. Many have left reservations to seek economic opportunities elsewhere. Once an AI/AN leaves the tribe, however, they lose their political status and their tribes are no longer obligated to provide them with benefits. In theory (but not always practice), off-reservation AI/ANs are eligible for services administered by county and state governments.

This unique historical, political, and economic context of AI/ANs has a direct bearing on the kinds of opportunities—and services—available to them throughout their lives. One key statistic highlights how these kinds of challenges have disproportionately affected the economic condition of AI/AN people: 28 percent of AI/AN populations were living in poverty as of 2010, almost twice that of the nation as a whole (15 percent).

African American, Hispanic, Asian American and Pacific Islander & LGBT Elders

While their circumstances and histories are different, African American, Hispanic, Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) elders also experience disproportionately higher poverty rates, as measured by the official Federal Poverty Thresholds (Thresholds). Nearly 10 percent of AAPI elders have incomes below the Federal Poverty Thresholds, and one-third of Hmong, one quarter of Cambodian, and 15 percent or more of Laotian, Korean, Vietnamese, and Samoan elders have incomes below the Thresholds, compared to 9 percent of all American elders and 7 percent of non-Hispanic white elders.

Similarly, while African American older adults make up only 9 percent of the elderly population, they represent 21 percent of the elderly population living below the Federal Poverty Thresholds. And one out of every six (18 percent) of older Hispanics live in poverty. According to a more nuanced measure of economic well-being, the Senior Financial Stability Index, 52 percent of African American elders and 56 percent of Latino elders are “economically insecure,” meaning they do not have adequate resources to maintain a secure standard of living for the remainder of their lives.

While there are no public data sources on elder LGBT poverty (a significant problem in and of itself), a study by the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston found that 24 percent of lesbians and 15 percent of gay and bisexual men have incomes below the Federal Poverty Thresholds, compared to 19 percent and 13 percent of heterosexual women and men, respectively; this disparity is also shown to persist as LGBT people age. LGBT elders of color, moreover, face the compounding effects of discrimination based on race, gender identity, and sexual orientation, all of which impact economic success.

Women, especially, are vulnerable during their retirement years. Unpaid caregiving, long considered―women’s work, can jeopardize a woman’s potential for economic security. Women constitute 75 percent of all older Americans who fall below the official poverty line. Older Latinas face the highest elder poverty rates (43.1 percent), followed by older African American women (34.7 percent). Lesbian couples also face higher poverty rates than their gay male counterparts, and much higher rates than their heterosexual counterparts.

This excerpt is taken from Securing Our Future: Advancing Economic Security for Diverse Elders, by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. Read the full report >>