Older Workers of Color Slip Into Economic Insecurity

In an increasingly harsh economy, social security after retirement could be all that many seniors have to look forward to.

By Michelle Chen Sep 09, 2010

The approaching political standoff over social security reform should be alarming to young and old alike. But older workers today are facing a more immediate crisis. Data from the Urban Institute shows that unemployment among seniors has soared during the recession, which might be devastating for an entire generation of older workers of color.

While overall joblessness in the 55+ age group rose from November 2007 to June 2010, Black and Latino unemployment was especially high, reflecting patterns in the general workforce.

Yet when the monthly data is sorted by gender, we see that at several points in 2009 and 2010, unemployment was higher for Latinas than for Black and white women. This may be a strange twist, given the fact that male unemployment has been considerably higher for Blacks compared to Latinos, and especially to whites. The exact cause isn’t clear. Educational levels could be a factor; there might be an influx in job competition as older women enter the labor market following the loss of a spouse’s income.

Interestingly, 2009 unemployment statistics showed older Latinas by some measures faring better than their male counterparts: According to an earlier Urban Institute analysis, "the unemployment rate for Hispanic women age 55 to 64 reached about 9 percent in 2009, 2 percentage points less than the corresponding rate for men."

In any case, years of rising unemployment for elder workers across the board underscores the need for a social safety net in their autumn years. The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare reports that even modest social security benefits make a huge difference for older people of color. "Over three-fourths of Hispanic beneficiaries rely on Social Security for at least half their income, compared to two-thirds of all beneficiaries." the Committee reports.

According to the Social Security Works campaign:

• In 2003, Social Security reduced the poverty rate among Latinos aged 65 and over from 50 percent to 19.5 percent, a reduction of 31 percentage points.
• In 2003, Social Security reduced the poverty rate among African Americans aged 65 and over from 56 percent to 23.7 percent, a reduction of 32 percentage points

Remember, that was the impact of Social Security before the recession hit older workers with unemployment, eroded their savings, and exacerbated inequality. In a far less secure economy, that little bit of security after retirement could be all that many seniors have to look forward to.