The AARP is calling on Congress to lend support to older Americans in any job relief package it passes, including extension of unemployment and health insurance benefits.

COBRA subsidies and unemployment insurance are both scheduled to expire at the end of the month, and AARP says older Americans are especially in need of extensions because they are remaining unemployed for longer spells than other workers. The jobless rate among older workers has actually dropped recently—roughly two million Americans aged 55 and older were unemployed in January, which represents 125,000 fewer than in January 2009. This translates into a decline in the unemployment rate to 6.8% from 7.2%.

But Cristina Martin Firvida, director of economic security in government relations for the AARP, notes that the unemployment rate for Americans 55 and older is the highest it’s been since the 1940s. In fact, more than half of those 55 and older who were unemployed as of January have been out of work for over 27 weeks.

“For these people in particular the extensions are really a life line,” she says. “They are the ones remaining unemployed long-term in this recession.”

The AARP wants Congress to extend the $250 in economic relief that was part of the recovery act in February, as Martin Firvida notes that people on Social Security are seeing their cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) frozen for the first time since the formula was established in 1975. Many older Americans, like the population in general, have also seen their nest eggs shrink, their home values dip and in general are seeing health care costs rise significantly.

The AARP is also seeking job creation initiatives, including a tax credit to help firms with payroll reimbursement. Although the AARP has an inherent concern that any payroll holiday doesn’t cut into the Social Security trust fund, all of the proposals from Congress thus far would keep the trust fund whole. Martin Firvida is also intrigued by President Obama’s proposal to focus on loosening credit for small business because she says many older Americans— with years of experience and a large network of contacts—are ready to launch small firms.

Martin Firvida remains confident that Congress can move forward with a bipartisan initiative to provide job relief, despite a troubling political climate that seems to have left a stalemate on all legislative fronts. With so many Americans out of work, members of Congress might be feeling a sense of urgency to help constituents back home. The inclusion of tax-based initiatives could make the current proposals more appealing to Republicans, over any spending measures.

Although Martin Firvida is encouraged to see the unemployment rate come down somewhat in January, she says that the AARP remains deeply concerned by the length of unemployment that older Americans are experiencing. The average duration of unemployment for job seekers aged 55 and older rose to 35.9 weeks in January from 34.7 weeks in December.

“For a lot of our members who have experienced a job loss recently, they may have just lost their last job” she says. “This may force them into earlier retirement. It’s fine when you plan for early retirement, but it’s not fine when it comes upon you unexpectedly.”

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