Respecting Our Elders: The Case for Preserving and Expanding the Senior Community Service Employment Program

Posted on

While coverage of the Great Recession۪s impact on older Americans has tended to focus on how 401(k)s and pensions have taken a beating, it is actually the older low-income individuals still working who have it particularly bad. They are suffering from their highest unemployment rates since the end of World War IIa staggering 21 percent in 2010 and remaining at 20 percent in 2011.

The good news for these workers is that there is a little known, but effective program that can helpthe Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP). The bad news is that funding for this program, which assists unemployed low-income older adults, is in danger. If we۪re going to provide opportunity for some of the most at-risk Americans and create needed jobs we must protect this program from further cuts and expand opportunities.

The situation for some older workers is dire. The average annual unemployment rate of workers 55-74 years old rose steadily in the last few years, from just 3.1 percent in 2007 to seven percent in 2011. Although this is the highest unemployment rate for this cohort since the end of World War II, it masks the real hardship occurring at the bottom of the income ladder.

In 2011, unemployment rates for persons aged 55-74 ranged from a high of 20 percent among the lowest income workers with an annual income under $20,000 to nearly ten percent for those in low-middle income households, to only 2 percent for those residing in the most affluent households making above $150,000. These numbers mean the lowest income older adults were ten times as likely as their most affluent peers to experience unemployment.

Education makes a difference, too. For example, one in four 55-74 year olds in the adjusted labor force who lacked a regular high school diploma or GED were either unemployed, underemployed, or “hidden unemployed”wanting a job but not actually looking for work in the past month. This is compared to 17 percent of high school graduates, and under nine percent for older workers possessing a master۪s degree or higher.

These older Americans don۪t want employment simply to pass the timethey need it to support themselves. A recent survey of senior workers found that 68 percent were still working because their retirement income was not enough to live on. Nearly half were worried they would lose their home or apartment, and 46 percent reported being forced to choose between paying rent, buying groceries, or purchasing medication.

These daily dilemmas have real consequences on the quality of life. National health surveys show that persons aged 55-74 who are out of work and low-income are significantly more likely to suffer mental depression and dissatisfaction with life. All else equal, older workers with incomes below $20,000 are six times more likely to be dissatisfied with life than those earning $75,000 or more.

Launched in 1965 as a demonstration program, SCSEP provides subsidized employment and job training opportunities for unemployed low-income older workers through community service assignments at more than 30,000 nonprofit and public agencies such as libraries, senior centers, and social service agencies. These part-time community service assignments ultimately help program participants gain needed job skills to transition to unsubsidized employment.

SCSEP participants are among the most vulnerable older workers. In 2010, 89 percent of program participants had incomes at or below the federal poverty level, two-thirds were women, 61 percent had a high school diploma or less, and just over half were minorities.

Over time, the program has provided enormous bang for the buck. In recent years, for example, nearly 50 percent of those exiting the program have found unsubsidized employment, and the dollar value of the community service provided by participants in 2010, more than $1.4 billion was substantially higher than the annual cost of the program$825 million last year.

Yet the programs future is in doubt.  In 2010, SCSEP served nearly 106,000 persons, but was subject to a drastic 45 percent cut in federal funding this year. The result is that the program will likely support around 70,500 participants for fiscal year 2011, resulting in only one in every 153 adults eligible for SCSEP being able to participate in the program. Of these participants, only a tiny fraction will be new enrollees.

There is no question that Congress faces some difficult fiscal choices. But with the unanimous priority placed by the American public on adding jobs in this tough economy, SCSEP is an obvious example of a program that should be expanded, not cut.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Bob Harootyan is the research manager at Senior Service America, Inc. and Joe McLaughlin was formerly a senior research associate at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

Table 1:

Unemployment RateAmong Persons Aged 55-74, by Household Income:

U.S., 2011(Annual Averages, in %)





Household Income Group



Unemployment Rate


< $20,000

« Back to News