LOS ANGELES — For $700 a month, 65-year-old Esmeralda Calderon cares for children part-time through a federal community service job that's in jeopardy because of cuts to the proposed federal budget for 2011. It's the only source of income for a woman who has no one to rely on and lives alone in public housing in a gritty Hollywood neighborhood.
Under the Department of Labor's Senior Community Service Employment Program, more than 75,000 elderly Americans living in poverty in all 50 states earn their keep by the slimmest of margins. To qualify, participants must be over 55 and earning less than 125 percent of the federal poverty level — $13,600 a year.
In the budget bill signed Friday by President Barack Obama, the program was slashed by 45 percent, from $825 million to $450 million a year. Advocates say it could mean as many as 58,000 fewer jobs if states or national groups are forced to discontinue the program because of the reductions.
For 20 hours a week, Calderon bounces toddlers on her hip, feeds them cereal and cleans up after the at-risk children at downtown Los Angeles' Para Los Ninos, a childcare and educational facility.
"It's harder for people my age who are on our own," said Calderon, in Spanish, clutching the green Starbucks apron she wears to clean. "Unfortunately, other employment opportunities are very hard to find for people my age."
In a bad economy where jobs are hard to come by for young, qualified workers, seniors face serious problems finding gainful employment. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, older workers who have lost a job are more likely than any other age group to face very long-term unemployment and remain jobless for 99 weeks or more.
But the budget situation is dire, with the federal government borrowing 43 cents for every dollar it spends, which will lead to economic catastrophe unless federal spending is drastically cut, according Brian Riedl, research fellow in federal budget policy at the Heritage Foundation, a research institute that aims to promote conservative principles. His organization has recommended terminating the program entirely.
"The private organizations that benefit from these employees need to be willing to pay more of these wages," said Riedl.
According to Riedl, many job-training services the Labor Department program provides are duplicated by the Administration of Aging and seniors can apply for the same job-placement programs that all Americans are eligible for.
That doesn't persuade Carmela Lacayo, who heads the National Association for the Hispanic Elderly, which oversees more than 300 community service jobs for seniors in the Los Angeles area.
"I have never seen a government be so callous about the working poor and the impoverished," said the former nun in a phone interview this week. "This is going to hurt the poorest of the poor, people who have already contributed into this system, people who have worked all their lives and were never on the welfare rolls, people who are trying to maintain some dignity."
According to the National Council on Aging, one of every three seniors is economically insecure, living on an annual income of less than $22,000.
"This is really the only national program that helps vulnerable older adults get job training and placement," said the Council's director of public policy Marci Phillips.
It's unknown how the cuts will be exacted because there hasn't been direction yet, but Phillips said it's likely that programs in some places will be forced to close.
"Without that extra income to rely upon or the training that might give them fulltime employment at hopefully a better wage they're making decisions between keeping the lights on or taking their meds," said Phillips.
Ana Martinez, 62, worries that if this job disappears, she'll be forced to go on welfare, get food stamps or sleep on the streets. She earns $600 a month at Para Los Ninos, which is supplemented by about $300 a month in social security. Her rent is $450.
With a shake of her head Martinez says, "When we look for work, they look at us and give us a form to fill out, but they want someone who is 25 or 30 to do the job."
The cut could also cause a staffing crunch for senior centers, Meals on Wheels, libraries, the Red Cross and other venues that rely on seniors to keep the programs running.
There were no hearings for the program, and no opportunity to defend against a cut that hits the most vulnerable Americans, Phillips said.
National Taxpayers Union Executive Vice President Pete Sepp says controlling federal spending is difficult but it's the only way to ensure major programs, including Social Security, are sustainable in the future.
"Government auditors recently found that nine government agencies spend $18 billion on 47 job training programs, many of which duplicate each other or have limited effectiveness," said Sepp. "Consolidating these programs and making them run more efficiently could free up money to provide better services to seniors."
Eighty-nine percent of the program's participants are at or below the poverty line, which means they make about $10,000 a year, said Phillips. Some are homeless. Most are women, who were homemakers or caretakers who never paid into social security and have no resources to draw on now.
"This program is really the program of last resort for older adults," Phillips said.
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