The 50 years following the end of World War II was a period of widespread economic prosperity and optimism for most Americans. Near full employment, increasing incomes and growing rates of homeownership were part of a rapidly improving quality of life. During these golden years, however, serious poverty continued to plague rural areas and in the ghettos and barrios of America’s cities, where it remained largely out of sight until the urban race riots of the 1960s. Today, inequality increases the gap between the haves and the have nots. It has become a gulf that has even begun to undermine middle-class security.
We recognize that the Great Society programs initiated by President Lyndon B. Johnson both protected and improved the welfare of millions of Americans . Yet the basic goals of the Great Society and the War on Poverty remain elusive. The fact that those who remain outside of the economic mainstream are disproportionately black and Hispanic has serious implications for the future of the nation. Given their higher fertility, in the future the working-age population will consist disproportionately of Latinos, whose tax contributions will have to support a growing non-Hispanic and white elderly population in addition to paying for defense, infrastructure, education and the rest of the nation’s needs.
Latinos, especially Mexican-Americans, are redefining the United States. Latinos are the fastest-growing demographic group in the nation, representing one out of every six Americans. Today’s minority group will be tomorrow’s majority in many states, including Texas. If large numbers of Latinos and blacks are confined to the low-paying service sector, which in addition to low wages offers poor access to health insurance and retirement plans, the race- and ethnicity-based inequities that stained the postwar years will increase. The fact that the productive potential of a large segment of the future labor force could be undermined by poor health and low educational levels has profound implications for the nation as a whole.
The changing social and demographic reality of the United States and other nations, including those of Latin America, requires greater public attention to the challenges that the rapidly aging ethnically diverse populations face. Although Latin American nations are still relatively young, the region is aging at a rate that is much faster than that that the developed world experienced in the 20th century. Between 2000 and 2025 the number of people 65 and older in Latin America will increase by 85 percent compared with 79 percent in Asia, 47 percent in the Near East, and 17 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Given its proximity and the cultural, social, and economic ties between the two nations, the situation in Mexico is of particular importance. As the population ages the need for preventive and acute care for chronic degenerative diseases increases. Despite improvements in general health levels in both the U.S. and Mexico, access to preventive and acute care remains problematic for many older individuals. As of yet, however, the total direct and indirect impact of these differential levels of health care coverage on health care access and ultimately to health outcomes is poorly understood.
Aging populations in Latin America have implications for all aspects of social policy, including security. The extent to which the care of elderly populations undermines development and the educational and employment opportunities of younger generations, political stability is threatened, and the threat of extremist political positions is heightened.
In recognition of these challenges and strengths, it is vitally important to bring together leading senior scholars and emerging scholars to develop a critical mass of theoretical and practical work aimed at greatly expanding our knowledge base concerning the consequences of population aging in the Americas. At a conference that concludes today at the University of Texas, researchers gathered to identify and develop the most effective and equitable approaches to meet the unique financial and health care needs of Hispanic families in later life, within the context of what is likely to be long-term fiscal retrenchment. The meeting provided a unique opportunity to increase scholarly research on aging Latinos in the U.S. and Mexico. In the coming decades, it is essential to understand how aging affects the well-being of both societies in an increasingly globalized economy.
Clearly, we are entering a new era in human history in which aging populations present unique problems to both developed and developing nations and to local economies. Fortunately, the City of Austin is studying the issue through the Mayor’s Taskforce on Aging. These efforts will inform the community about the possibilities for how we will plan for the new realities of an aging Austin.
Jacqueline and Ronald Angeare co-authors of “Hispanic Families at Risk: The New Economy, Work and the Welfare State” Jacqueline Angel is also a member of the Mayor’s Taskforce on Aging in Austin