SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – A third of the Illinois population is over 50 years. 42% of those older adults are 65 and over, according to research from Loyola University Chicago. AARP Illinois and several racial justice groups say it’s time to address disparities for minorities in the age group.
The advocates launched a multi-year effort Monday to “disrupt disparities” in healthcare, economic security, and access to high-speed internet for seniors of color. COVID-19 disproportionately impacted seniors in minority communities across Illinois, while putting these longstanding disparities in full view.
“These crises aren’t new,” said Sen. Robert Peters (D-Chicago). “They’re highlighting the years of disinvestment and austerity that has ravished Black communities. These crises are highlighting who gets safety, security, and support.”
Advocates say many people accumulate wealth through housing. Although, nearly half of minority homeowners over 80 in Illinois still hold mortgages on their homes. That’s twice the rate compared to white residents.
“When you’re talking about those who’ve retired or on a fixed income, what does that mean for people? And how difficult is that,” asked Diane Williams, Graduate Fellow with the Center for Urban Research and Learning at Loyola.
Researchers found most adults of color in Illinois are homeowners. But, a significant number of seniors rent, with a majority of their income going towards those payments. That’s why leaders want a comprehensive housing policy to stabilize homeownership and rentals while decreasing debt.
“We have to make sure that when we’re making those decisions, that they are based in fact on what a home should be valued at, how it should be valued, and not on some historical discriminatory decision-making that ultimately will have an impact on their ability to accumulate wealth,” said Karen Freeman-Wilson, CEO of the Chicago Urban League.
The organizations would also like to see long-term policies to prohibit evictions and foreclosures as COVID-19 moratoriums end.
Older Black, Latinx, and Asian Americans in Illinois are contracting and dying from COVID-19 at a much higher rate than their share of the state’s population. They also suffer significantly higher rates of chronic diseases than their white counterparts. Yet, seniors of color lack access to critical healthcare. Advocates hope lawmakers can invest in local health equity programs, increase health insurance coverage options, and expand telehealth services.
“It’s very important that our state legislators understand that as we go through a recovery effort that they see investing in addressing these inequities as something longterm,” explained Raul Raymundo, CEO of The Resurrection Project.
Rep. Theresa Mah (D-Chicago) represents several neighborhoods with older adults from immigrant backgrounds. Mah saw the disparities impact the well-being of many constituents throughout the pandemic. She stressed older adults of color have suffered far too long.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us all the devastating impact of these inequities, and that urgent action must be taken to ensure that our adults of color can live healthy and fulfilling lives,” Mah said.
Andy Kang, the Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Chicago explained his mother worked as an OBGYN for over 30 years in Chicago’s northwest suburbs. Kang grew up watching his mother call patients in the Asian community telling them not to skip annual checkups. He emphasized many patients only came in every other year due to a lack of health insurance. Sadly, cancer rates, specifically for Asian women, are notably high.
“I’m hopeful that this report would help spark a renewed interest and a new conversation about making sure we don’t let these gaps continue – that these disparities are something that we’re very intentional about addressing,” Kang said.
Internet played a key role for Illinoisans throughout the pandemic. While many people used the web to work remotely, hospitals and primary care doctors turned to telehealth due to COVID-19 concerns. According to the report, more than a third of Black and Latinx seniors in Illinois lack internet access at home. This dilemma worsened as services like Medicare and Social Security moved to online platforms.
Advocates hope the Illinois Broadband Advisory Council can assess the availability, reliability, and affordability of internet for low-income communities of color. They also argue the Council should “reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the State of Illinois.” Meanwhile, the groups hope lawmakers can expand high-speed broadband for all communities. They would also like to see city and county governments include funding for digital literacy programs.
“In many of our communities, the digital literacy gap is very high,” Raymundo explained. “A lot of our families don’t have access to the internet, nor the access to hardware. So, even new innovation in the medical field online has been a challenge for our community as a result of not having access to the internet in significant numbers.”
Lawmakers haven’t received language for the plans in order to file legislation yet. However, they plan on pushing for these proposals to pass through both chambers before session ends in late May.