by David Bacon
Is there a human right to age in dignity? Some countries think so. Unfortunately, ours isn’t one of them.
The Organization of American States recently adopted the first international convention on the human rights of older people (although the United States did not endorse it). The Organization of African Unity is debating its own convention, and is expected to adopt it next year.
It is ironic that 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. Meanwhile, the richest countries with the most resources, including the United States and the European Union, are arguing against applying a human rights framework to aging.
In part, their contrarian stance reflects the dominance of market ideology. In a corporate economy, people lose their social importance and position when they are not working and producing value. In the United States, the resulting set of priorities has a devastating impact on older people.
While some countries are creating a new definition of human rights to include aging, and passing conventions that incorporate it, millions of seniors in the United States live in very vulnerable and precarious conditions, which are violations of their human rights as viewed in this context.
In another 15 years, 18 percent of the people in the United States will be over 65 years old. Though their numbers may be increasing, however, their security is not. In fact, the future of the nation’s elders is growing ever more precarious.
According to a recent study, Senior Poverty in America, by 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 poverty line.
In 1966 it was 29 percent. That sounds like progress. Vallas attributes the decline mostly to Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs established during this period. But this appearance of progress, she says, doesn’t account for the desperate situation of millions of seniors today.
The programs helped people, but their success at lowering poverty among some seniors masks the desperate situation of millions of others. The official poverty line is too low, has grown increasingly out of whack over the years from the real cost of living, and uses a faulty method (three times the basic food budget) that does not correspond to current spending patterns for low-income people.
The official poverty line defines poverty for a single person as an income less than $11,770, and for a couple, $15,930 (for Alaska and Hawaii it’s slightly higher). Rent 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 a couple. 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 medical costs. Adding that to rent, poor seniors are left with about 10 percent of their income for food, bus fares, and everything else. It’s no wonder that so many people in line at county food banks are old.
Even an income of twice the official poverty line is hardly enough to make ends meet, and the number of seniors under this line is much greater — 32 percent of those over 65 and 40 percent of those over 75.
A better criterion for poverty is the Supplemental Poverty Measure. The U.S. Census Bureau created this yardstick in response to criticism that the official poverty line 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 isn’t meant to qualify or disqualify people for government programs. Vallas found that about 15 percent of seniors fall below this line, and 45 percent are “economically vulnerable” — below twice the SPM.
Poverty is no more evenly distributed among seniors than it is among people in general in the United States. Nearly 12 percent of older women (3.1 million) live below the official poverty line (vs. 7 percent of men), and 17 percent live below the SPM (vs. 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 says. “The gap is even larger for women of color.” Black and Hispanic seniors are poorer in general — 19 percent and 18 percent respectively are under the official poverty line, and 22 percent and 28 percent are under the SPM.
The income of seniors is overwhelmingly dependent on Social Security. The number of seniors who receive pensions from employers is declining rapidly, as corporations divest themselves of the “defined benefit” plans that pegged payments to pre-retirement earnings for an earlier generation.
Today, the average Social Security benefit is just over $16,000 per year — not far above the official poverty line. “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.
The official poverty statistics do not even account for people who have been left out of the Social Security system entirely. Many workers do not make contributions, including workers in the informal economy, like day laborers.
Two million seniors get Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, which are based on low income rather than contributions made while they were working. But the maximum is $8,796 per year, well below the official poverty line. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, “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 over age 65 were homeless, according to Vallas, who projects that that will increase by 33 percent 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 benefits. According to the Migration Policy Institute, about five million immigrants 65 and over make up 12 percent of the total U.S. immigrant population. For those who haven’t become citizens, the safety net has huge holes.
Most lawful permanent residents (LPRs) can’t receive SSI or food stamps (SNAP) for their first five years in the United States, although they can collect Social Security if they’ve managed to accumulate any qualifying earnings.
People with no legal immigration status (an estimated eleven million people) can’t even apply for a Social Security card. In order to work, they have to give an employer a Social Security number they’ve invented or that belongs 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 benefit fund. Undocumented 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.
Excluded undocumented immigrants, however, get old like everyone else. Without Social Security, they have to find some other way to survive, primarily by continuing to work or relying on family.
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 own country, Argentina, began paying nearly every old person a pension in 2003, with medical and social benefits, even to those who made no contributions. “This is good for women,” she emphasizes, “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 asking for 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 Organization of American States is a step towards the goal, she believes, in part because it will cover such a large area. In Latin America and the Caribbean, nearly 71 million people were older than 60 in 2015; by 2030 that figure will increase by over 70 percent, to 121 million people, according to a 2015 United Nations study of the aging of the world population.
Adopting new definitions and conventions on human rights (especially economic ones), even if they are not immediately implemented, helps to set a goal and a vision of how we want the world to work. Passing human rights treaties is also an important step in establishing rights in international law.
The OAS convention enumerates 27 specific rights, with many sub-categories, from the right to independence, political participation, and freedom from violence to the right to a healthy environment. Some of the key rights it asserts are economic.
Older people, it says, “have the right to social security to protect them so that they can live in dignity,” and 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, education and 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, and fails to honor the rights to housing, income, education, and healthcare, for instance. In this country, these are all commodities, bought and sold on the market.
Yet Social Security itself 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 United States are the product of popular struggle against the inherent dynamic of a market economy to demand 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. Popular struggle is necessary to demand their needs be met.
When popular movements weaken, the safety net then starts getting pulled apart. U.S. opposition to a human rights treaty for the aged 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 OAS convention on aging, the U.S. inserted a note declaring: “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 other words, instead of having to abide by a binding agreement, each country should be free to do as it chooses.
As radical as they might sound to U.S. ears, these economic rights don’t even test the limits of the ways a globalized economy now affects the aged. Enormous movements of people fleeing war and poverty have led to the separation of families. UN conventions, and almost all countries, recognize the right to migrate because of war and persecution.
Should this be expanded to recognize a right of old people to reunite with their families, if they’re separated by war or previous migration? Should the U.S. 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?
“Of course it should,” says Susan Somers, president of the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse. “All we need is a little political will. But get it into a convention? That’s a hard road, because of every nation’s immigration laws. We’re not trying to force countries to change their culture or ways of life. But when they come into conflict with harm, culture and tradition are no excuse.”
A proposed U.N. convention has been stalled over these disagreements, and Daichman and Somers say opposition is coming from the United States, 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.”
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.”
David Bacon is a journalist and photographer covering labor, immigration, and the impact of the global economy on workers. For this article, he received a Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.