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Everybody knows the statistics: older Americans are working longer and many feel insecure about their retirement savings. With those trends in place, a little-known senior job training program is seeing a greater and greater need -- but in an era of budget cuts and deficit reductions, state and local officials worry it doesn’t have the funding to meet it.
The program is called the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP). It’s been around since the Older Americans Act took effect in 1965, but has always lived in the shadow of other senior-focused programs passed that year, particularly Medicare. It’s overseen by the U.S. Department of Labor (although President Barack Obama has proposed moving it to the Department of Health and Human Services), but administered by state, local and non-profit entities.
Here’s how it works: low-income seniors (125 percent of the federal poverty level and below) seeking employment can apply. If they meet certain requirements, including being unemployed, they are placed in jobs at non-profit community organizations, typically working 20 hours a week for minimum wage. The federal government funds their paycheck, and there is a 48-month cap for participation. The goal is to teach them new skills, such as food service or office administration, and eventually move them into “unsubsidized employment” at either their SCSEP site or somewhere that can make use of their recent experience.
With an impending boom in seniors seeking work -- the expected retirement age has jumped from 60 in 1996 to 67 in 2012, only 38 percent of Americans anticipate having enough money to retire comfortably and the number of Americans over 65 is projected to increase 75 percent by 2029 -- state and local administrators believe that SCSEP is going to see an increasing need in the coming years.
“It’s not going to go away. It’s only going to grow,” says John Koontz, director of senior employment for the City of Los Angeles. “We’re constantly getting calls. We’ve got to turn away a lot of folks.”
But budgetary realities don’t always reflect that reality. SCSEP lost nearly 25 percent of its funding last year, forcing state and local programs to reduce the number of spots they could offer to seniors. Sequestration also looms at the end of this year. Funding for Koontz’s office dropped from $1.7 million to $1.5 million. Jennifer Morrell, state program manager at the Illinois Department of Aging, says her program’s support fell from $4.6 million in FY 2011 to $3.4 million in FY 2012.
At the same time, Morrell says some of the local offices in Illinois have more than 700 people on a waiting list to get a spot in the state program -- nearly double the amount of people who participated in the entire state’s SCSEP in 2011. The state had to close enrollment last year because no money was available for additional positions. Koontz says his office is also aware that the potential population who could take advantage of the program is far greater than the number of spots the Los Angeles program can actually offer.
“We can’t reach as many people as actually need the assistance. The budget has hit us hard, like every other program,” Morrell says. “There is definitely more need out there than we’re able to meet.”
Despite a tough fiscal climate, SCSEP is still making an impact. More than 100,000 seniors were employed through the program in FY 2010, the last year national estimates are available, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Nearly half of them found unsubsidized employment. Koontz’s office helped employ 276 seniors, according to preliminary figures for FY 2011, providing more than 180,000 hours of community service at area non-profits. The state of Illinois found positions for 391 individuals in the last fiscal year, who worked nearly 135,000 hours, and more than 50 of whom moved onto unsubsidized jobs.
Advocates seize on those positive figures and hope that, with a little lobbying in statehouses and on Capitol Hill, they will help save the program from further budget cuts. More than most, they’re aware that a growing senior population and an uncertain economy will make SCSEP and other senior job training efforts even more crucial.
“People are more frightened of what’s going on in the economy, and we have a fraction of the funding we need to meet the need,” says Steve Cook, who oversees AARP activities in the western United States. “Any of our offices would tell you that visibility is an issue for us. But we do like to think that we’re the best-kept secret on the block.”