What is the White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA) … Really.
Is it a serious examination of the problems facing older Americans that occurs once every decade, or is it a public relations opportunity?
At its fourth regional forum on Monday, the WHCOA held a panel discussion on retirement security that featured a panel of bureaucrats who failed to even mention age discrimination. That’s like talking about California’s drought without mentioning climate change. A spokesperson for the Obama administration promised the President would protect Social Security and said the administration is working to make the process of retirement savings easier and more transparent. No one is asking why so many older Americans are poor and struggling
Numerous attempts in recent months to contact Nora Super, executive director of the WHCOA, to urge her to address employment discrimination based on age have failed to elicit any response whatsoever. Why does the WHCOA seems to be focusing upon soft issues like “healthy aging.”
On its web site, the AARP says it is “co-sponsoring” and “co-planning” the WHCOA’s regional forums, along with a lobbying group called Leadership Council of Aging (LCAO), which describes itself as a coalition of 72 of the nation’s leading organizations serving older Americans. The contact person for “all questions” regarding the LCAO is Nicholas Barracca at LCAO@aarp.org. I emailed that address on Monday and received an unsigned reply stating that the AARP is the “current chair organization” of the LCAO, which rotates chairs each year among five different organizations. I inquired again about the LCAO’s source of funding and Barracca replied that the LCAO is funded through membership dues.
At some point, it is fair to ask whether there is a conflict of interest with respect to the AARP’s dominating role in the WHOA forums. The AARP is one of the largest private health insurers in America, earning nearly twice the amount from the sale of so-called “Medigap” plans than it receives in membership dues. There are five taxable, for-profit companies linked to the AARP brand: AARP Insurance, AARP Services, Inc., AARP Global Network LLC, AARP Properties LLC, and AARP Financial, Inc. It’s not illegal for the AARP to use its reputation as a neutral advocate for older Americans to sell its products to older Americans but surely the AARP should not be “co-planning” the White House’s once-every-decade examination of the plight of older Americans. That’s just common sense.
Kathleen Falk, the regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, began the Cleveland forum by calling the AARP and the LCAO “two extraordinary organizations that helped make this event possible … Thank you both for your contributions and commitments to this forum and to older Americans.”
In my book, Betrayed: The Legalization of Age Discrimination in the Workplace, I show that older workers are more vulnerable to discrimination that other protected groups because the Age Discrimination in Employment Act was weak to begin with and has been eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court. Even President Obama has contributed to the plight of older workers, by enacting an executive order in 2010 that allows federal agencies to bypass older workers and hire “recent college graduates.”
Since the Great Recession, employers have shed older workers through bogus restructuring and downsizings motivated by age discrimination. Older workers are thrown into the quicksand of chronic unemployment due to epidemic age discrimination in hiring. When unemployment benefits expire, many spend down their savings and take low paid part-time or temp jobs until they can age into an early retirement at age 62, suffering at least a 25 percent cut in Social Security benefits for the rest of their lives.
The AARP’s own statistics show that half of older workers who became unemployed five years ago didn’t find another job. In this recent survey, 38% reported they were unemployed and 12% said they had dropped out of the labor force. Of the remainder, 41% were working part-time.
The Cleveland conference began with a short video appearance by First Lady Michelle Obama, who plugged the fifth anniversary of her physical activity initiative,“Let’s Move.” She challenged participants to share their “best dance moves” with their families.
I challenge the WHCOA and the AARP to address the epidemic of age discrimination that is condemning millions of older Americans to a retirement of poverty and near poverty. This is an important issue that has been ignored for years. It can and should be addressed NOW!