Media

Will the Stimulus Package Leave Vulnerable Seniors Like Henrietta Hughes in the Cold?

If Henrietta Hughes is the face of economic crisis our efforts to help her should be more complete.

Do you think that Henrietta Hughes, the homeless, unemployed, rightfully emotional senior citizen who caught everyone's ear and eye at Obama's town hall earlier this month, has Internet access?

What would her thoughts be if she googled herself and saw that she has simultaneously become an eponymous website, the face of the economic crisis, and fodder for conservative conspiracy theories questioning her authenticity and access to the president?

What would Ms. Hughes think if she visited Recovery.gov, the website launched this week to coincide with Obama's signing the economic stimulus package into law?

Anyone visiting Recovery.gov will learn that its goal is to be the "centerpiece" of transparency and accountability in the implementation of the stimulus package.

In a special section on "Where is Your Money Going?" the website reports that $81 billion will be devoted to "Protecting the Vulnerable."

The Ms. Hugheses of America should pay particular attention to this topic.

The problem is that, if Ms. Hughes, or anyone like her, clicks through to learn more about how the vulnerable will be protected, there is little there.

Last week the media repeatedly reported that Henrietta Hughes' act of asking for help during the town hall forged an instant connection with millions of Americans now suffering from financial instability.

The one connection most of them missed is that Ms. Hughes is not just an average American. She is especially at risk for financial instability because she is a senior citizen.

Senior citizens are a large and important part of the vulnerable group we need to be protecting. Even 5 years ago -- when most of us were doing a lot better -- the majority of senior households were set to go broke well before their lives and need to pay for essential expenses ended. Forty-five percent could barely afford their housing costs. Two out of five were paying at least 15% of their income to meet medical expenses.

The housing market collapse, the loss of jobs that many seniors held to get by, and the $1 trillion hit taken by 401(k)s have all made seniors even more susceptible to financial instability than the rest of America.

Yet if you do a search on Recovery.gov or read the electronic version of the bill posted there, the only provision you'll find offering assistance to seniors is a one-time $250 check that will be sent to anyone receiving Social Security.

It is easy to say that this current stimulus plan is not the time or the place to deal with senior financial insecurity. But seniors are a special case from the rest of America. They have no time to waste in recovering from the current crisis.

They were already much weaker than the rest of us heading into it, and the years they have left to make up the losses of the last 18 months are far fewer.

If Henrietta Hughes is the face of economic crisis -- and indeed one of the photos featured in the photo gallery on the Whitehouse Blog and linked from Recovery.gov -- our efforts to help her should be more complete.

The Recovery.gov effort is just getting underway. But if the website is not soon populated with more meaningful content to address the plight of seniors, it will become nothing more than the ultimate technological putdown -- vaporware.
 

Jennifer Wheary, a Demos Senior Fellow, is an expert on Middle Class economic issues.
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