We should nurture, not ax, U.S. programs for older volunteers

CHICAGO (Reuters) - What to say about a federal program that helps enable 245,000 U.S. seniors to tutor kids, renovate homes and teach English to immigrants?

Retired steel workers Mike Pron (L to R) Jim McAndrew, Charlie Kelly, Joe Gonda and Ken Rayden play poker in a union hall in Bethlehem Pennsylvania, U.S., November 9, 2016. REUTERS/Peter Eisler

How about this: “We can’t spend money on programs just because they sound good.” That is White House budget director Mick Mulvaney last month, explaining why the Trump administration’s budget blueprint proposes cutting dozens of federal programs.

Mulvaney was not specifically referring to Senior Corps, which allows all those seniors to find ways to volunteer. He was trying to justify a much longer list of cuts that are, well, deplorable - everything from legal services for the poor to public television and environmental protection.

The plan would eliminate a long list of federal agencies - among them the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which administers Senior Corps and Americorps, the community service program aimed at young people. The White House also wants to kill programs that help low-income seniors with job training and placement and assistance paying utility bills. Some funding for the Meals on Wheels program also could be threatened.

It is not clear that the White House can get any of this through Congress - all of these programs have devoted followings in communities across the country, and older people vote in disproportionate numbers. But the call to pull the plug on CNCS underscores the administration’s misplaced values, and should be resisted strongly.

Senior Corps does not just “sound good” - it actually is good. The roots of its programs date back to the 1960s; today, Senior Corps operates three programs: RSVP, the largest senior volunteer organization in the nation; Foster Grandparent, which tutors and mentors special-needs young people; and the Senior Companions Program, which helps frail seniors and other adults maintain independence and stay in their own homes.


Senior Corps is the prototype for an idea that is fast gaining ground - engaging the rapidly growing ranks of older Americans for a range of intergenerational projects for the greater good. “The way our demographics are changing, we need more ways to engage older people in communities and neighborhoods, because they are one of our greatest growing assets,” said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a nonprofit focused on intergenerational collaboration programs and public policy.

“We can’t just think of it as something nice and sweet,” Butts said.

Generations United did some simple math calculations to demonstrate the value and power of volunteers. There are 108 million Americans today over age 50, and they watch 47 hours of television every week. If 2 percent of them gave just 2 percent of their TV time as volunteers, that would generate almost $2.5 billion worth of human resources devoted to addressing problems each year (valuing an hour of time at $23).

“Mulvaney is way off base,” Butts added, referring to the White House budget director. “We have to engage these folks, especially at a time like this, when we know there are divides in our country that need to be healed. Engaging people of different generations is one way to do that.”


Private-sector philanthropy gets this. Consider, which made its name encouraging interest in encore careers and inventing the Purpose Prize, a sort of MacArthur genius prize for older entrepreneurs. Encore’s new project is Generation to Generation - a campaign aiming to recruit and mobilize more than a million older adults to help young people thrive through mentoring programs. (

Encore is wrapping up a study on the positive effects that purposeful engagement through volunteering can have on older adults; purposeful people report significantly higher life satisfaction, personal growth and sense of empathy.

It also found that volunteering did not cut in to more personal goals, such as spending time with friends and family or pursuing hobbies - rather, older adult volunteers were more likely to engage in those activities.

“People get so much joy out of doing something that engages their capacities and makes them feel competent,” said the lead researcher, Anne Colby, an adjunct professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.

Colby is a developmental psychologist specializing in the study of purpose, values and character at all ages. An especially surprising finding, she said, is that the prevalence of “purpose beyond the self” not only cut across all demographic lines, but was also just as high among respondents with health and financial problems as among those who were healthy and financially secure.

“And engagement has this spillover effect - people feel more motivated to address health problems like losing weight or getting more exercise.”

Eliminating the CNCS would save the government about $1 billion a year - coincidentally the same amount the White House wants to fund the first 62 miles (100 km) of that all-important border wall with Mexico that it now seems American citizens will pay for.

A much better idea: encourage the grandparents to keep reading to the kids.

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

Editing by Matthew Lewis