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When the Older Americans Act (OAA) became law as a grant-in-aid program in 1965, few sectors of American society were even aware of the complex societal challenges generated by population aging and the innumerable day-to-day issues confronted by older persons (Morris and Binstock, 1966). In the quarter of a century since, the OAA--administered by the Administration on Aging (AoA), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)--has been an excellent vehicle for identifying and emphasizing the challenges and issues of an aging society. Its accomplishments, at the least, include (1) continuous and dynamic identification of needs of older persons; (2) creation and exemplification of strategies, programs, and services for meeting those needs; (3) provision of tangible and intangible help to innumerable older Americans; (4) development of a nationwide infrastructure for helping older persons, comprising 57 State Units on Aging, 670 Area Agencies on Aging, and about 25,000 associated service-providing agencies; and (5) recruitment and socialization of thousands of career professionals to the field of aging.
The expansive social policy context in which the OAA was created, however, came to an end about a dozen years ago. Since then, social policy retrenchment has been in vogue, and the general political environment--previously supportive of almost any policy proposals to benefit aging persons--has become increasingly hostile to older people.
During the evolution of these changes in the broader political environment, the level of federal funding for the OAA has not grown significantly. It has become apparent that the network--in its present mode of operation--cannot begin to achieve the comprehensive social goals set forth in the legislation. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, congressional leaders have persistently asked whether the funds and the energy expended through the OAA might be used with greater leverage or in a substantially different fashion. As the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging has observed regarding the OAA, "It is clear that Congress will need to go beyond the incremental changes in reforming the act, to enhance and further the goals it set for itself and the Nation back in 1965" (U.S. Senate, 1985, p. 270). As the OAA faces congressional reauthorization in 1991, beginning its second quarter of a century, its overarching mission is unclear.
THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT
The creation of the OAA and its development into a nationwide network of services to older persons took place in a general context of American domestic politics that was rather different from today's. From the early 1960s through the mid-1970s the policy environment for social programs was expansive, starting with President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and continuing through President Richard Nixon's New Federalism. Public resources for addressing social problems were perceived to be plentiful, and there were fewer debates than today over the wisdom and propriety of public initiatives to solve social problems. Virtually any social issue that could be well articulated as a matter deserving of national attention became legitimated as an appropriate issue for federal intervention.
The political atmosphere was especially favorable to programs for older persons. Prior to the late 1970s the predominant stereotypes of older persons in American society were compassionate. Elderly persons were seen as poor, frail, socially dependent, objects of discrimination and, above all, deserving. For some 40 years--dating from the Social Security Act of 1935--American society accepted the notion that all older persons are essentially the same and worthy of some form of governmental help. Our national and state governments acted on this perception by adopting and financing major old age benefit programs and tax and price subsidies for which eligibility is determined by age rather than need. Through Social Security, Medicare, the Older Americans Act, tax privileges for being aged 65 or older, "senior citizen discounts," and a variety of other measures, elderly persons were exempted from many of the "means tests"--income and asset screenings--that are applied to other Americans to determine whether they qualify for public assistance. $TDuring the 1960s and the 1970s just about any issue or problem that advocates for the elderly could identify as affecting some subgroup of the older population became a governmental responsibility toward all older persons: income maintenance; insurance for private pensions and healthcare; nutritional, legal, supportive, and recreational services; housing; home repair; energy assistance; transportation; help in getting jobs; protection against being fired or compulsorily retired from jobs; special mental health programs; a separate National Institute on Aging; and so on. By the mid-1970s a congressional committee, using loose criteria, identified 134 federal programs benefiting older citizens, overseen by 49 committees and subcomittees of the Congress (U.S. House of Representatives, 1977).
THE OAA: A POLICY OF
THE 1960S & 1970S
Three of the fundamental features of the OAA, as it has evolved to date, reflect the political context of that earlier era. One defining element has been a broad focus on all persons aged 60 and older as the constituency of the OAA and its programs. Another basic characteristic has been an incredible gap between the ambitious social goals proclaimed in the legislation and the meager funds and limited authority that Congress has made available to achieve them. A third feature has been a considerable amount of diffusion, both in the types of programs and services offered by the OAA and in the fragmentation of implementing authority among federal, state, and …