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Program cuts put working poor seniors at risk

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 into law Friday by President 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 child care and educational facility.

"It's harder for people my age who are on our own," said Calderon, in Spanish. "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 people from any other age group to face very long-term unemployment and remain jobless for 99 weeks or more.

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."

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 Marci Phillips, the Council's director of public policy.

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.

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