Innovative Education & Vocational Programs Created to Address Social Justice Issues

Karen Pandy-Cherry, Chief Executive Officer — Refresh Live, NLC Broward County

I. Brief Introduction/Synopsis of Issue

In 2015, The World Bank recorded the age dependency ratio of the United States at 50.91%. This ratio represents the number of dependents under the age of fifteen and over the age of 65 for every 100 people. It is an indicator of the burden of support this group inflicts on the working class. This burden includes economic, emotional, and social support. A higher ratio is indicative of a more restrictive burden, which, essentially, reduces the percentage of the U.S. population that shares the workload. Without adequate programs in place to compensate for the loss of an entire work group, the vast range of social injustices communities face today will drastically increase.

The dependent populous is among the most vulnerable groups in a society and is the beneficiary of most social policies and programs curated in the United States. Social justice is more than the discussion of the preservation of the rights of citizens; it speaks to the full and equitable protection of individual rights including, but not limited to, legal, civil, and human rights. It strives to transform a lofty philosophical goal into a practical achievement that positively impacts individuals regardless of their beliefs, life choices, or physical characteristics. Social justice issues are rampant and seem to get worse every day, leading to a common belief that equity will never be achieved. Although the issues vary among age groups, they are not unique to any one community, but their impact spreads throughout the country and hits every age range, culture, and socio-economic status. Introducing innovative programs that utilize the human resources of the dependent population can effectively reduce the burden on the working class while providing the work product to address social problems.

The Educational System and Community Programs in the United States must be modified to include more targeted training on addressing social justice problems. Some of the greatest untapped and underrepresented resources in the country can be found in the energy that could be harnessed from young people and the wisdom of senior citizens. By creating programs centered on the two groups, policy makers can effectively address the needs of every community and contribute to the country’s economic sustainability.

II. Background/Data on the Challenge

The population is projected to age over the coming decades, with a higher proportion of the nation’s total population in the older ages (65 and over). Overall, the percentage of the total population under the age of 18 is projected to decrease from 23 percent to 20 percent between 2014 and 2060. Similarly, the working-age population is projected to decrease from 62 percent to 57 percent of the total population over the same interval. In contrast, the percentage of the population that is aged 65 and over is expected to grow from 15 percent to 24 percent, an increase of 9 percentage points. The youth population, defined as those under 18, is projected to experience the least amount of change, increasing slightly from 74 million in 2014 to 82 million in 2060. Conversely, the older population is projected to more than double in size from 46 million to 98 million over the same time period. For the older population, the biggest increase is expected in the decade from 2020 to 2030, when the population aged 65 and over is projected to increase by 18 million (from 56 million to 74 million). The timing of this increase is related to the aging of the baby boom generation. The baby boomers began turning 65 in 2011 and by 2030 they all will be aged 65 and older.[i]

While both the working population and the dependent generation under the age of 18 will decrease by 2060, the true crisis will be the 9-point increase of the senior citizen group. The question policy makers should be concerned with is, what social justice issues will arise when the country’s economy, in conjunction with a rising dependent populous, is pushed past the tipping point? While some are concerned over the demand for assets, the more common apprehension is that the baby boomers will exhaust Social Security and Medicare. Boomers will be the first group of retirees to fully receive the Medicare prescription drug benefit. Since Social Security payouts rise faster than price inflation, they will draw more substantial retirement benefits than their parents did, in real terms. Many suggest this large payout over the next 40 years at the next generation’s expense may be much worse. “The Urban Institute estimated last year that a couple retiring in 2011, having both earned average wages, will accrue about $200,000 more in Medicare and Social Security benefits over their lifetimes than they paid in taxes to support those programs”.[ii] The logical argument can be made that with this economic burden, and without Medicare and Social Security payouts, future generations will certainly face a multitude of problems, including, poverty, and lack of access to healthcare, housing, education, and jobs.

In the words of Jim Tankersley, correspondent for The National Journal, “Baby boomers took the economic equivalent of a king salmon from their parents and, before they passed it on, gobbled up everything but the bones.”[iii] Another question policy makers should ask is: what this will mean for the younger dependent generation? In the article Causes & Economic of the Baby Boom, Elizabeth Arentz asks:

Are future generations being discounted because of the baby boom generation? Even the boomers seem to recognize that the future may not be as bright for future generations. In a 2011 Gallup Poll, forty-four percent of Americans believe it is likely that today’s youth will have a better life than their parents, even fewer than said so amid the 2008–2009 recession, and the lowest on record for a trend dating to 1983. Optimism for the future was lowest among baby boomers (ages 50–64). Ultimately, while the baby boom generation may acknowledge that future generations may not be better off, this doesn’t imply that the economic consequences were intentional. At this point in time, placing blame on the baby boom generation is not the correct or rational response. There are plenty of evils (i.e. owning large SUVs, neglecting to recycle) to which the current generation is contributing that are also likely to negatively impact future generations. Likewise, the generation preceding the baby boomers made their fair share of mistakes. The most the current generation can do because of the baby boom’s economic consequences is to learn that if nothing is done to protect future generations, consequences will be felt. The time is now to raise optimism for generations to come.[iv]

Raising the optimism for generations to come means rethinking the way the country prepares for its impending issues. There is already a heavy burden on the working class so the logical move is to look to the dependent generation to be a part of the solution.

In all reality, Baby Boomers and Millennials will be working side by side with each other for some time to come. This means that working class members of both generations face the same economic hardships and challenges. That Fight for 15 isn’t just for the recent college grad. That attack on health care isn’t just aimed at those who might be older and thus fighting more ailments than their younger counterparts. Millennials and Baby Boomers have a lot of common struggles, and there is a need to face it together.[v]

Facing the problem together means creating policies and programs that will support dialogue that leads to the curation of applicable solutions. It means utilizing the group’s untapped resources to tackle the onslaught of issues that the country faces.

III. What Has Been Done to Combat This Challenge or Advance This Cause?

Although many policies have been created to address the issues of the dependent population, they are insufficient in responding to the bubble that is about to pop. While the creation of programs that address the needs of young people is just as important as the creation of those to take care of the country’s senior citizens, new policies must be put in place that address the group collectively.

The Older Americans Act of 1965 was the first federal level initiative aimed at providing comprehensive services for older adults. It created the National Aging Network comprising the Administration on Aging on the federal level, State Units on Aging, and Area Agencies on Aging at the local level. The network provides funding based primarily on the percentage of an area’s population 60 and older for nutrition and supportive home and community-based services, disease prevention/health promotion services, elder rights programs, the National Family Caregiver Support Program, and the Native American Caregiver Support Program.

Youth programs have been created all around the country. For example, the Alternative Breaks Program, created by Georgetown University, provides students with opportunities for social justice immersion in communities across the United States and abroad. The program coordinates more than twenty-five trips that examine a wide range of social justice issues, including, poverty, prison reform and recidivism. Everyone who participates in the program must adhere to the five ABP pillars: justice immersion, service, reflection, cultural immersion, and substance-free fun. ABP fosters lasting commitments to social justice and strives to build long-term relationships with community partners.

The federal government has created a program and strategic plan named Pathways for Youth, which is meant to foster collaboration on issues affecting young people. The plan is a combined effort by eighteen agencies and departments whose primary focus is consulting with the public and implementing innovative programs for youth. The draft strategy identified three goals to focus on: (1) Promote coordinated strategies to improve youth outcomes; (2) Promote evidence-based and innovative strate­gies; (3) Promote youth engagement and part­nerships. It also introduced four initiatives: (1) develop a shared language on youth topics; (2) assess and disseminate models of colla­boration; (3) centralize and disseminate infor­ma­tion; and (4) promote data collection and evaluation.[vi]

While programs and policies discussed above are necessary for the preservation of the country, it is imperative that specific attention be given to bridging the communication and productivity gap among the dependent population. In the Netherlands, for example, university students can live rent-free with senior citizens as part of a project created to combat the negative effects of aging. According to the nursing home staff, students do a variety of activities with their older roommates and celebrate milestones, participate in recreational activities, and even provide companionship during illnesses. This is an innovative example of a program created to meet financial needs and social justice needs of two vulnerable groups.

A policy created to have youth under age 15 move in with senior citizens over 65 years of age would not work, however a similarly innovative program formed with the dependent population’s assets and abilities as the focus could have positive implications for the problems on the horizon. The baby boomer generation is still responsible for a large portion of the country’s brain trust and has gained experience from their own valuable mistakes. The curation of intergenerational programs and policies is the most likely source for addressing some of the pressing issues plaguing the United States.

IV. Policy Recommendations

Many of the programs that have been created to address these issues have adopted a top down response to the problems, which has created an ineffectual atmosphere, at best. One of the best recommendations to foster economic stability while combatting social justice issues is for Congress to enact The Intergenerational Act of 2017, which would focus on creating space for open communication and collaboration among the country’s dependent population. The Act would focus on (1) funding for senior citizen social justice projects, (2) implementing intergenerational, federally funded, programs for school districts to create programs where senior citizens and young people are able to interact, share & collaborate, and (3) create a federally funded work program for senior citizens and young people to come together to discuss, address, and implement programs that incorporate social justice reform.

As discussed above, the working class is bearing the astounding burden of caring for the dependent class, but relief is possible with innovate solutions, such as, giving senior citizens a stipend for spending time with young people to share their past, talk about their mistakes, and envision the future. Although this may seem a simple solution, it is a necessary first step towards fostering a more caring, conscious group of young people who will be better prepared to take their place among the working class.

Many schools lack the proper resources to adequately prepare students to take a productive place in society. The defunding of music, art, vocational and other extracurriculars has left a gap in the country’s education system, thus leading to increased social justice woes. A program created to link senior citizens with knowledge and expertise in targeted areas to youth who desperately need soft skills will positively affect the burden on the working class. Seniors will have a way to bring in additional income while having increased interactions, leading to a more active lifestyle, while young people will have counterparts who can guide them towards becoming successfully productive.

Senior citizens should be employed in programs within the classroom to help pose questions about social justice issues, introduce students to the philosophy of social justice and correlate it to the experiences that they have daily. Many young people live inside the reality of social injustice and would benefit from learning the technical language. Together, the group can create projects that empower people to ask questions and propose solutions for solving the problem.

The Intergenerational Act must also reduce the barriers for the creation of intergenerational organizations that can supported by older organizations working to address the same problems. A workforce of experienced seniors and energized young people will only benefit communities. As discussed previously, mistakes have been made by previous generations, but with the implementation of the Act the chances of surviving the impending overload is much greater.

V. Conclusion

We, as a country, face significant problems regarding economic sustainability and social injustices, the innovative creation of programs that utilize the dependent population’s untapped potential shows light at the end of the tunnel. Congress, as well as state legislators, must look at using every resource in order to achieve success and the wisdom of seniors combined with the energy and enthusiasm of young people is one of the best places to start.

[i] Ortman, Sandra L. Colby and Jennifer M., Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014 to 2060 Population Estimates and Projections (U.S. Census Bureau: March 2015), 4.

[ii] Jim Tankersley, Who Destroyed the Economy? The Case Against the Baby Boomers (The Atlantic: October 5, 2012).

[iii] Elizabeth Arentz, Causes & Economic Consequences of the Baby Boom (Policy Interns: June 25, 2015)

[iv] Arentz, Causes & Economic Consequences

[v] Chauncey K. Robinson, Millennials vs. Baby Boomers: Which is the true problem generation? (May 1, 2016)

[vi] “Child and Youth Policy Coordinating Bodies in the U.S.,” accessed June 6, 2017.

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