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In Drought-hit Kenya, Selling Water Keeps City’s Young People in Business and Off Drugs

Now onto his third job since finishing high school a decade ago, Festus Chege is hoping his latest venture as a water vendor in Githurai, a growing suburb to the south of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, will pay off.

Like many young people from poor families, the 30-year-old passed his high-school exams but lacked the funds to pursue his studies, confining him to work in the city’s fast-expanding informal sector.

Kenya’s current drought, which is affecting some 3 million people across the East African country, has led to a drop in water volumes in reservoirs serving Nairobi residents.

The city authorities have been forced to ration water services, giving priority to critical facilities like hospitals, as well as manufacturers. Taps in poor households are now empty of piped water most of the time, and they have little choice but to buy their water from vendors like Chege.

“The water business is good,” said Chege, who has been selling water for the past four months. “People call me to supply them with water as early as 4 a.m.”

Chege, who uses a rickshaw to transport the water, sells 20-liter drums of water for 50 shillings ($0.49) each. In a day, he can supply as many as 40 drums, earning him 2,000 shillings — more than double a government clerk’s wage.

It’s five times more than what he was making last year hawking secondhand clothes.

“There were days when I would find myself idle because of a lack of customers,” said Chege. That’s when he would join his friends to smoke bhang, a form of cannabis — a common pastime among young slum-dwellers who take the drug in secret dens.

Now, Chege says he no longer has time to mess around with drugs because he is busy from dawn to dusk selling water.

In January this year, he joined a youth group called Ni Sisi Sasa (“It is our time”), which helps jobless young people in the neighborhood improve their lives. One activity it offers is water vending.

The group has a water depot in Githurai, which purchases its supply from the Kiambu County Council water unit.

Group members like Chege buy water from the depot at low rates and resell it to local residents at a profit.

“By the end of the year, I want to make enough money so that I can enroll in a teacher training college,” said Chege. He plans to continue supporting the group even if he realizes his ambition of becoming a teacher.

Growing population

According to the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC), the capital’s residents need 740,000 cubic meters of water daily to meet demand.

Currently only 462,000 cubic meters of water are being supplied due to declining water levels in the Ndakaini reservoir, said Philip Gichuki, NCWSC’s managing director.

The reservoir, which supplies 85 percent of the city’s water, has a capacity of 70 million cubic meters, but due to poor rains this season, it is only around 40 percent full.

For instance, the Aberdares water tower in central Kenya — the source of rivers feeding the reservoir — has received just 250 mm of rain since December, way below the 1,000 mm it would normally receive in the rainy season, said Gichuki.

“The shortage has forced us to ration water,” said Nairobi County’s executive for water, Peter Kimori. “Estates have been forced to look for alternative sources due to the rationing.”

The county government plans to sink 140 boreholes in Nairobi’s fringe estates to ward off future water shortages.

But experts like Gichuki say more will be needed to meet demand in the capital due to its growing population, as rural migrants flock to areas like Githurai where many find work as manual laborers.

According to the World Bank, there are over 4 million people — around a tenth of Kenya’s population — living in Nairobi and its suburbs. In 1963, when Kenya attained independence, the city was home to only a third of a million people.

Creaking infrastructure

Gichuki said the solution was to upgrade the city’s water infrastructure.

“[It] has not been developed since post-independence days,” said Gichuki. “This is leading to the increasing water pressure and shortage in Nairobi.”

Fred Kihara, water fund manager at The Nature Conservancy, an international NGO, said the worsening water problem in Nairobi is linked to climate change, as rainfall volumes in central Kenya have declined.

On top of this, the government is not doing enough to conserve water towers like the Aberdares, he added, by preventing forests being cut down for farming, for instance.

“Clearing of trees reduces the soil’s ability to retain water which seeps into rivers feeding reservoirs like Ndakaini dam,” said Kihara, explaining that without trees, the water evaporates faster.

Meanwhile, Kenya’s Central Organization of Trade Unions says 4 million jobs are needed for the country to cut poverty to zero by 2020.

Youth unemployment has shrunk to 15 percent from 25 percent in 2006, as the economy’s informal sector has expanded.

“I am able to do this [water] business because the government has removed harsh regulation on the informal sector,” said Chege. “There is less harassment from tax officials.” But he called for better access to government support such as the youth enterprise development fund, which is hard to tap for young people without political connections.

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US Treasury Upgrades Website to Better Track Federal Spending Data

The U.S. Treasury on Tuesday launched an upgrade of a website to allow for the first time the tracking of all federal government spending categories, which totaled $3.85 trillion last year.

The new Beta.USAspending.gov website culminates a three-year initiative to improve the existing USAspending.gov to provide a broader view of government spending than the grant and procurement data previously available on the site.

The project brings together some 400 different data sets from more than 100 federal agencies, extracting spending information from thousands of divergent computer systems across the government.

It also is designed to be machine readable, with open source code allowing private companies to analyze and develop commercial applications for the data, said a senior Treasury official working on the project.

The beta site is launching with year-to-date data for fiscal 2017, with historical data to be added later. The data will be updated quarterly, the official said.

The spending site upgrade was mandated by the Data Accountancy and Transparency Act of 2014, a bipartisan law aimed at shedding new light on federal spending by making data readily available.

“The new site provides taxpayers with the ability to track nearly $4 trillion in government spending from Washington, D.C., directly into their communities and cities,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.

“Greater access to data will drive better decision-making and strengthen accountability and transparency — qualities central to the Administration’s focus on a more innovative and effective government,” Mnuchin said.

The new version of the site makes clear with a prominent block chart what budget wonks already know — that more than half of all federal spending is consumed by three categories: Social Security (23.9 percent), Medicare (14.9 percent) and National Defense (14.9 percent).

The beta site is expected to run alongside the original for several months in order to collect feedback from users to help plug “holes” in the data and make the site more user-friendly, the Treasury official said.

The site also will be expanded to show sources of contributions to federal tax revenues by state.

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Cambodian Business Hopes to Change Attitudes With World Economic Forum

Cambodia’s rapidly normalizing economy will receive an additional boost when it hosts the regional World Economic Forum (WEF) for the first time this week with business leaders looking for opportunities to diversify the country’s fledgling industries.

American lawyer and chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia, Brett Sciaroni, said Cambodia’s economy remained the fastest growing in Southeast Asia with annual GDP growth exceeding seven percent year-on-year.

Garments, tourism, construction and agriculture are key planks in the local economy, but he said he would prefer to see the number of industries substantially broadened.

“Well, we’re very hopeful that we’ll be getting more light manufacturing in the future because we do need to diversify the economy. Right now we have a strong agricultural sector and we have a strong garment sector but we want to graduate that light manufacturing from garments to other things,” he said. 

Sprucing-up Cambodia’s image

Across the capital, buildings are getting a lick of paint, parks are being cleaned-up and gardens manicured ahead of the arrival of 700 delegates from 40 countries for the May 10-12 forum with its focus on technology, growth and youth.

Sciaroni said the WEF, which Cambodia will host on behalf of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), would help improve Cambodia’s image and an international reputation that is often maligned by corruption and issues like human rights.

“Old views of Cambodia are frequently hard to change. So, I think there’s still an impression out there of Cambodia as a war-torn country with genocide and Khmer Rouge and land mines and so on,” he said. “But once people come here, scales fall from their eyes. They see all of the new buildings going up, they see so many developments going on.”

The economy has been a strong point for the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) and Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is facing commune elections next month and a national election in July of next year.

His heavy-handed autocratic style – often criticized – has characterized the government since three decades of war ended in 1998 when Cambodia was still struggling to shake off its image as a failed state. Since then, Hun Sen has been credited with ensuring national security that has underpinned an unprecedented period of economic growth.

Sciaroni’s sentiments were echoed by David Totten, the Phnom Penh-based director of Emerging Markets Consulting, who said the WEF was a great idea.

“Cambodia isn’t a perfect country, but not being perfect is not the same as being bad. In many industries, in many sectors, you will find vibrant, entrepreneurial communities setting up and running successful businesses and growing them year-on-year,” he said. 

Not everyone is happy with the Forum

Nevertheless, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and human rights activists are far from convinced that Phnom Penh is an ideal venue to host the WEF.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said “Cambodia is one of the last places that a major meeting like the WEF should be held” adding that the human rights situation here is “in free fall”.

He also noted Cambodian authorities were prone to rounding-up poor people, the homeless and sex workers, who in the past have been thrown into detention as part of a so-called ‘beautification campaign’ ahead of major events in the capital.

Hun Sen has also faced international criticism for a crackdown on the CNRP over the past 18 months. Party supporters have been jailed for criminal defamation and other charges while senior leaders have also been threatened with prison terms and legal maneuvers which could bar them from holding public office.

Robertson said the WEF should speak out on such issues while Mu Suchua, a senior CNRP figure, said human rights should be a part of the world economy and country’s like Cambodia should be required to significantly improve before being given the privilege of hosting the WEF.

Spokespeople for the WEF and the government were unavailable for comment.

Cambodia’s youth

Cambodia’s demographics are changing as rapidly as its economy with post-war baby boomers maturing. WEF organizers noted the median age here is 23.8 years and young people are demanding higher pay and skilled work alongside life’s luxuries.

At elections in 2013, the youth vote sided with the CNRP resulting in Hun Sen being returned to office, but with a substantially reduced majority.

Despite the political issues, Muoy Piseth, a spokesman for the Federation of Cambodian Intellectuals and Students, said Cambodia was ready to hold the WEF event and it should improve the country’s reputation and lead to further economic partnerships and investment.

“Cambodia needs investment and cooperation. The lack of human resources and modernization, when compared to other ASEAN member countries, is still a challenge that needs to improve,” he said.

Molyny Pann contributed to this story.

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IMF Warns Asia to Act Early on Rapidly-aging Population

The International Monetary Fund called on Asian economies to learn from Japan’s experience and act early to cope with rapidly aging populations, warning that parts of the region risk “getting old before becoming rich.”

Asia has enjoyed substantial demographic dividends in the past decades, but the growing number of elderly is set to create a demographic “tax” on growth, the IMF said in its economic outlook report for the Asia-Pacific region on Tuesday.

“Adapting to aging could be especially challenging for Asia, as populations living at relatively low per capita income levels in many parts of the region are rapidly becoming old,” the report said. “Some countries in Asia are getting old before becoming rich.”

The population growth rate is projected to fall to zero for Asia by 2050 and the share of working-age people – now at its peak – will decline over the coming decades, the report said.

The share of the population aged 65 and older will increase rapidly and reach close to two-and-a-half times the current level by 2050, it said.

That means demographics could subtract 0.1 percentage point from annual global growth over the next three decades, it said.

The challenges are particularly huge for Japan, which faces both an ageing and shrinking population. Its labor force shrank by more than 7 percent in the past two decades, the IMF said.

The high percentage of its citizens living on pensions may be behind Japan’s excess savings and low investment, which are weighing on growth and blamed in part for keeping inflation below the Bank of Japan’s 2 percent target, the report said.

“Japan’s experience highlights how demographic headwinds can adversely impact growth, inflation dynamics and the effectiveness of monetary policy,” it said.

The IMF called on Asian nations to learn from Japan’s experience and deal with demographic headwinds early, such as by introducing credible fiscal consolidation plans, boosting female and elderly labor force participation, and revamping social safety nets.

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Top Mexican Trade Official to Hold Sugar Talks Next Week in US

Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo will travel to Washington next week for talks about sugar exports, he told reporters on Monday, in an attempt to break an impasse that threatens to trigger tit-for-tat duties on sweeteners.

U.S.-Mexican trade relations are already under strain as U.S. President Donald Trump seeks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement pact with Mexico and Canada and build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border and have Mexico pay for it.

The U.S. sugar industry pressed the Commerce Department late last year to withdraw from a 2014 trade agreement that sets prices and quota for U.S. imports of Mexican sugar unless the deal could be renegotiated.

Mexico and the United States last week extended a deadline to June 5 to reach an agreement on how much Mexican refined and crude sugar can enter the United States.

Speaking at an event in Mexico City, Agriculture Minister Jose Calzada said Mexico was willing to react in-kind to any U.S. duties imposed on its sugar.

“If we were to have to pay … tariffs on Mexican sugar imports, the federal government would energetically consider similar measures on some U.S. product,” Calzada said.

Mexico is the top foreign supplier of sugar to the United States, a coveted market of 12 million tons where the U.S. government gives export quotas to about 40 sugar-producing countries each year through trade programs.

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Buffett Talks Wells Fargo, IBM and His Successor at Annual Meeting

Warren Buffett, the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc., Saturday faulted Wells Fargo & Co for failing to stop employees from signing up customers for bogus accounts even after learning it was happening.

Wells Fargo, whose largest shareholder is Berkshire, with a 10 percent stake worth roughly $27 billion, gave employees too much autonomy to engage in “cross-selling” multiple products to meet sales goals, Buffett said.

This “incentivized the wrong type of behavior,” and former Chief Executive John Stumpf, who lost his job over the scandal, was too slow to fix the problem, Buffett said.

Wells Fargo was among many topics discussed at Berkshire’s annual meeting in Omaha, where Buffett, 86, and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger, 93, fielded dozens of questions from shareholders, journalists and analysts.

“If there’s a major problem, the CEO will get wind of it. At that moment, that’s the key to everything. The CEO has to act,” Buffett said. “The main problem was they didn’t act when they learned about it.”

Still, Buffett’s support of current management and board was key to ensuring the re-election of the entire board last month.

Wells Fargo spokesman Mark Folk said “we agree” with Buffett’s comments, and have taken “decisive actions” to fix the problems and “make things right for customers.”

Asked whether Berkshire’s decentralized structure could lead to a similar scandal, Buffett said “as we sit here, somebody is doing something wrong at Berkshire,” whose units employ 367,000 people. But he said Berkshire has an internal hotline to flag possible misbehavior, which gets 4,000 calls a year.

Succession and dividends

The meeting also included discussions about Berkshire’s succession plans, its controversial partnership with Brazilian firm 3G Capital, and whether it will start paying dividends or make an acquisition.

Buffett has said Berkshire could have a new chief executive within 24 hours if he died or could not continue, and that nothing had changed just because he praised fewer managers than usual in his February shareholder letter.

He said it may have been harder to single people out because “we have never had more good managers.”

But he also said it would be a “terrible mistake” if capital allocation were not the “main talent” of his successor.

Buffett did lavish much praise on top insurance executive Ajit Jain, who some investors believe could be that successor, saying “nobody could possibly replace Ajit. You can’t come close.”

On 3G, with which Berkshire controls Kraft Heinz Co and tried to merge it with Unilever NV, Buffett acknowledged a dislike for the cost-cutting for which the Brazilian firm is known.

But, he said, “it is absolutely essential to America that we become more productive,” and 3G was “very good at making a business productive with fewer people.”

Buffett also raised the possibility Berkshire could pay its first dividend since 1967, if “reasonably soon, even while I’m around,” the company had too much cash it could not reasonably deploy.

“It could be repurchases, it could be dividends,” he said.

Berkshire ended March with more than $96 billion of cash and cashlike instruments, and Munger said it could do a “$150 billion” acquisition now if it wanted.

Airlines and IBM

Buffett defended Berkshire’s foray into airlines, where it is a top investor in American Airlines Group Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc., Southwest Airlines Co. and United Continental Holdings Inc.

He had long disdained the industry, which had gone through many bankruptcies, but said he is confident it will not resort to “suicidally competitive” pricing strategies that could spell doom.

Munger added: “You’ve got to remember railroads were a terrible business for decades and decades and decades, and then they got good.” Berkshire bought the BNSF railroad in 2010.

Buffett also admitted he was wrong to think International Business Machines Corp. “would do better” when he started amassing 81 million shares six years ago.

Berkshire recently sold about one-third of those shares even as it built a huge stake in Apple Inc., which Buffett said is more as a “consumer” company that a technology company.

He also addressed criticism that Berkshire discloses too little about businesses such as aircraft parts maker Precision Castparts Corp, which it bought last year for $32.1 billion.

“We want you to understand what you own,” he said, and “there are just a million things that are of minor importance” at Berkshire, whose market value is about $411 billion.

Buffett also noted that Berkshire reported far fewer investment gains in the first quarter, which dragged on results, but said the company now has a slight preference for taking tax losses, which could lose value if Washington lawmakers reduce the 35 percent corporate tax rate.

The annual meeting, expected to draw more than last year’s estimated 37,000 shareholders, is the main event of a weekend of events that Buffett calls “Woodstock for Capitalists.”

Buffett and Munger took questions after the traditional shareholder movie, and after Buffett had roamed a nearby exhibit hall featuring products from Berkshire companies.

He was joined at the traditional newspaper tossing contest by friends including Microsoft Corp co-founder and Berkshire director Bill Gates, and Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

Hundreds of shareholders lined up early outside downtown Omaha’s CenturyLink Center for the meeting. Several said they got there nearly five hours before doors opened around 6:45 a.m.

“Every year it seems I have to come earlier,” said Chris Tesari, a retired businessman from Pacific Palisades, California who said he arrived at 3:20 a.m. for his 21st meeting. “It’s a pilgrimage.”

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Buffett: GOP Health Care Bill a Tax Cut for the Rich

Berkshire Hathaway Inc Chairman Warren Buffett fumed Saturday that health care costs are eating away at the U.S. economy like “tapeworm” and said the Republican approach to overhaul Obamacare is a tax cut for the rich.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday narrowly approved a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, a victory for Republican President Donald Trump who has called the 2010 law a “disaster.”

Speaking at Berkshire’s annual shareholders’ meeting in Omaha, Buffett said his federal income taxes last year would have gone down 17 percent had the new law been in effect.

“So it is a huge tax cut for guys like me,” he said. “And when there’s a tax cut, either the deficit goes up or they get the taxes from somebody else.”

The Republican bill would repeal most of the taxes that paid for the law formally known as the Affordable Care Act. The party’s leadership has promised that the new American Health Care Act, which faces a likely overhaul and uncertain passage in the Senate, would address growing health care costs.

Buffett said rising health care costs are crippling the competitiveness of U.S. companies abroad.

Unlike in many other countries where much of health care spending is publicly financed, employers provide health insurance coverage for nearly half of Americans and often face skyrocketing rates.

Buffett said health care costs have risen much faster in the United States than in the rest of the world and “will go up a lot more.”

“Medical costs are the tapeworm of American economic competitiveness,” he said. “That is a problem this society is having trouble with and is going to have more trouble with.”

Buffett is a Democrat who vocally supported Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency against Trump. The fourth richest man in the world with a net worth totaling $74.3 billion, according to Forbes magazine, Buffett has vowed to donate nearly his entire fortune to charity.

Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger added that he thinks neither political party “can think rationally” about health care because they “hate each other so much.”

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Entrepreneurs Outside US Can Attract Silicon Valley Backing

The venture fund 500 Startups has been making a splash in Southeast Asia, most recently with Khmerload, a Cambodian entertainment news website modeled after the American media giant Buzzfeed. Binh Tran, a venture partner with the firm, sat down with Sophat Soeung of VOA’s Khmer service to talk about how entrepreneurs in developing countries could attract such investors. Here’s some of his advice for them:

Remember, Silicon Valley investors are a click away

I think first is to understand the whole startup ecosystem. All this information is at your fingertips. The world’s shrunk, and for resourceful entrepreneurs, they have this incredible amount of knowledge that they can tap into, to get themselves familiarized with how to build a company, how to launch it, how to monetize, and also understand investment. All that is available.

Not everyone can be a tech entrepreneur. It’s incredibly hard, but for the ones that are resourceful … the tools are there. And we want to be the ones to provide that dry powder to help you grow. So once you have achieved some progress and some [traction], then come talk to us.

Don’t overthink — there is no ‘right’ sector

I’m pretty sector-agnostic. … If you’re building something that is obscure to me … the fact that you can make a business out of it, you’re making some money out of it, that’s great. And if it’s technology-enabled, it’s done through software, or done through some algorithm that you created, that’s where I think I can help. That’s where I think the opportunities are.

Look for a growing user base

All ecosystems around the world are somewhat new. Even China is a decade or two [old] for venture capital. … If these companies are making money and they’re growing, that’s great. You see companies who have been more focused on revenue early on. So I think Southeast Asia has a lot of opportunity, because you do have that 4 million-new-internet-users-a-month type of growth, but the business models are not quite as risky [as those seen in Silicon Valley].

Pay more attention to operational rather than business risk

I think there’s going to be a small percentage of my portfolio that’s always reserved for the crazy, one-in-a-million-chance ideas. But for the most part, these startups should be solving basic problems. Across many sectors in Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, businesses have barely adopted Web 1.0 technologies. There’s opportunities for entrepreneurs to solve basic problems such as helping business attract, serve and support customers more efficiently.

So instead of investing in a new, risky, innovative business model as you would in Silicon Valley, the innovation these companies we’re investing into is the way they’re hiring and training employees and how they’ve mastered how to operate within highly regulated environments. These companies also deeply understand their customers’ problems and have demonstrated their ability to market to and sell to locals.

So the innovation we’re seeing is less about business model or technology innovation, but I do hope that changes.

Build your reputation, and be patient

You’ve got to do what you say you’re going to do. This is one of those things where your reputation is so important. … [Also,] realize that it’s going to take a while. It’s not easy. Don’t be caught up in the buzz or the hype — just focus on the fact that this is going to be a long, hard journey. And hopefully that sets up the right expectations.

This report originated on the VOA Khmer service.

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Nicaragua Downplays Potential Impact of US Bill on Lending

President Daniel Ortega downplayed the possible impact of a U.S. bill that would condition international lending to Nicaragua on a range of democracy and rights issues, saying it’s more of a political than an economic threat to his country.


“The world is not going to disappear, the economy is not going to disintegrate” if the so-called Nica Act passes, Ortega said late Thursday after meeting with representatives of the International Monetary Fund during a visit to the Central American nation.


The bill before the House and Senate calls for the U.S. to oppose most loans to Nicaragua’s government through organizations such as the IMF, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, with the exception of funds for humanitarian purposes or to promote democracy.


That would be the official U.S. position unless the secretary of state certifies that Nicaragua is taking steps to hold fair and competitive elections, safeguard political rights, strengthen the rule of law and fight corruption, among other conditions.

Similar legislation last year failed to advance in Congress.

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US Older-worker Rate Highest Since 1962

More Americans age 65 and over are still punching the clock. In fact, the last time the percentage was this high was when John F. Kennedy was in the White House.

Last month, 19 percent of Americans age 65 and over were still working, according to government data released Friday. That’s the highest rate since 1962, and the trend has been upward since the figure bottomed out at 10 percent in 1985.

As America grows older and as life expectancy gets longer, some workers keep heading to the office because they like it and still feel engaged. But many others are continuing to work for a simpler, darker reason: They can’t afford not to.

More than a quarter of workers age 55 or older say they have less than $10,000 in savings and investments, according to the latest retirement confidence survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Perhaps because of small nest eggs, nearly a third of workers in that age group say they expect to work until at least 70, if they retire at all.

Older workers still heading for jobs may also be the lucky ones. Many older Americans would like to work but say they can’t find a job, whether because they lack the skills or because employers are looking for someone younger. The unemployment rate for workers age 65 and over was 3.7 percent last month. That’s a tick higher than its median over the last 30 years, though it’s down from earlier this year.

The numbers may rise higher, critics say.

Congress this past week voted to overturn a federal rule designed to help states give more workers access to retirement savings plans.

Several states have been pushing to create their own plans to get more workers into plans like a 401(k) that automatically deduct savings from each paycheck. Low-income workers tend to have much less access to savings plans through their jobs.

Republicans and players in the investment industry, though, argue that the state-run plans could end up being much more expensive than imagined and would water down safeguards in place to protect investors.