At a Unitarian church in Miami, a crowd of Gray Panthers, a senior-citizens organization, is gearing up to lobby at Florida's next legislative session. Some are knitting, but they're all as ready as ever to "kick butt and take names," as one says. Yet the issues they're tackling this morning--universal preschool and youth-delinquency prevention--are hardly AARP mainstays. A woman lays down her knitting needles when a guest speaker from the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation laments that last year more than 500 kids under age 12 were arrested in Miami-Dade County. "Kids and elderly--we're both vulnerable," says Harvey Sootin, 78, a Panther legislative expert. "There's an empathy for children's issues here."
Some might ask, Since when? Florida's 3 million seniors have a special reputation, fair or not, for excluding kids from their voting agendas as well as their condominium complexes. It's one reason the state, whose per capita income is in the nation's top half, ranks in the bottom 10 in per-pupil public-education spending. Nationally, America's elderly reap seven times as many federal dollars per capita as do children, who suffer twice the poverty rate. But with Florida's youth population growing at a faster rate than that of the elderly, many seniors are forging what some call a "partnership of the vulnerable," which child advocates say could be a model for other Sun Belt states. "People don't realize the extent to which kids' advocacy in this state is being driven by seniors," says Roy Miller, director of the private Florida Children's Campaign in Tallahassee. "They're tired of being labeled as the group that says no to kids."
Miller and other activists agree that seniors were crucial to getting a state-funded universal prekindergarten ballot measure passed in 2002 as well as a Children's Trust fund for Miami-Dade County, both of which raised the kind of pro-kid taxes that Florida retirees traditionally scorn. When the legislature last year crafted what many called an inadequate pre-K plan, thousands of elderly "condo commandos," like the Greater Aventura Citizens Association (GACA) in South Florida, deluged Tallahassee with phone calls and e-mails to help win changes like lower teacher-student ratios. At this spring's legislative session, says GACA director Ginger Grossman, they have lobbied for more improvements, backed by the clout of Florida's senior-voter turnout, as high as 75%. "Politicians here still think they don't need to listen to children," says Grossman, 86. "But they do need to listen to us."
What's in it for the elderly? Older Americans are beginning to recognize the overlap between children's needs and their own. Florida is seeing a sharp increase in the number of grandparents raising grandchildren. And many reason that pushing issues like children's health care makes cash-strapped lawmakers more conscious of guarding benefits such as Medicare for their other fragile constituency, the aged. "It's not just that we're afraid Florida doesn't care enough about children," says Pat Stripling, 60, head of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren in Miami, who is lobbying for juvenile-justice reform this spring. "We're worried it doesn't care enough about the elderly anymore either."