Social Security as a Civil Right

For those who believe that race has nothing to do with Social Security, think again. It’s time for policymakers to choose community over chaos, the authors say.

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 07: Demonstrators, including many senior citizens, protest against cuts to federal safety net programs, including Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid on November 7, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. About 40 of the demonstrators were arrested, cited, and released after they blocked a downtown intersection and refused police orders to move. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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Maya Rockeymoore And Meizhu Lu
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Maya Rockeymoore and Meizhu Lu
Nov. 14, 2013, 7:50 a.m.

Fifty years ago, Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr. ar­gued that the isol­a­tion ex­per­i­enced by people of col­or liv­ing “on a lonely is­land of poverty” is un­just in a na­tion blessed with a “vast ocean of ma­ter­i­al prosper­ity.” Fifty years later, the ra­cial wealth gap is just as stark and im­mor­al, with fam­il­ies of col­or pos­sess­ing only a few pen­nies for every dol­lar of wealth owned by white fam­il­ies.

Maya Rock­ey­moore is pres­id­ent of Glob­al Policy Solu­tions, a Wash­ing­ton policy con­sult­ing firm, and coed­it­or of Strength­en­ing Com­munity: So­cial  In­sur­ance in a Di­verse Amer­ica. (Cour­tesy photo)The per­sist­ence of in­come and wealth in­equal­ity comes from years of dis­pro­por­tion­ately lower levels of earn­ings, em­ploy­ment, edu­ca­tion­al at­tain­ment, and own­er­ship of fam­ily as­sets such as homes, stocks/bonds, sav­ings ac­counts, and busi­nesses. As a res­ult, people of col­or have had sig­ni­fic­antly few­er op­por­tun­it­ies to build as­sets over time and of­ten lack the sav­ings to en­sure fin­an­cial se­cur­ity throughout their life­times.

Meizhu Lui is dir­ect­or emer­it­us for the In­sight Cen­ter for Com­munity and Eco­nom­ic De­vel­op­ment’s Clos­ing the Ra­cial Wealth Gap ini­ti­at­ive. (Cour­tesy photo)Today, some Amer­ic­ans still blame poverty on the people whom it vic­tim­izes. They are un­aware or in­sens­it­ive to the fact that un­til 1963 people of col­or were leg­ally or prac­tic­ally ex­cluded from a host of gov­ern­ment-sponsored and tax-fun­ded wealth-build­ing op­por­tun­it­ies, from giv­ing away land through the Homestead Act to us­ing pub­lic land for whites-only col­leges to sub­sid­iz­ing loans so whites could buy homes and grow busi­nesses. These as­sets were giv­en away to not only help white fam­il­ies suc­cess­fully build fin­an­cial se­cur­ity over life­times but to gen­er­ate in­her­it­ances over gen­er­a­tions while in­vest­ing in the prosper­ity of the na­tion.

Today, we have seen what little wealth that people of col­or have been able to ac­cu­mu­late pilfered by laws that en­able dis­crim­in­at­ory prac­tices such as subprime and pred­at­ory lend­ing, un­der­fun­ded schools, opaque cred­it scor­ing, and loan deni­als for minor­ity busi­nesses and farms.

And the rolling back of gains from the civil-rights era is not over. Un­for­tu­nately, the next wealth-de­ple­tion strategy on the ho­ri­zon is a co­ordin­ated as­sault on re­tire­ment se­cur­ity.

Des­pite lofty rhet­or­ic tout­ing the need for de­fi­cit re­duc­tion and claims of “sav­ing So­cial Se­cur­ity for our chil­dren,” the “en­ti­tle­ment re­forms” put for­ward mainly by Re­pub­lic­ans are a cov­ert form of ra­cial eco­nom­ic ex­clu­sion that will have the ef­fect of short­chan­ging our chil­dren, who will be ma­jor­ity black and brown by 2019.

For those who be­lieve that race has noth­ing to do with So­cial Se­cur­ity, think again. Al­though the pro­gram’s be­ne­fit for­mula is race-neut­ral on its face, in real­ity, So­cial Se­cur­ity af­fects groups of people in dif­fer­ent ways be­cause of the in­ter­play between pro­gram rules and demo­graph­ic factors. For ex­ample, be­ne­fits are cal­cu­lated based on years of work and amount of earn­ings, mar­it­al status, num­ber of de­pend­ents, and state of health. But each ra­cial and eth­nic group has a dif­fer­ent av­er­age work his­tory, earn­ings pat­tern, health status, and life-ex­pect­ancy pro­file due to the long shad­ow of ra­cial in­equal­ity.

Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, for ex­ample, are more likely than whites to have suffered un­em­ploy­ment, to be in lower-pay­ing jobs, to be in phys­ic­ally de­mand­ing jobs, to have poor health, and to have short­er life ex­pect­an­cies.

As a res­ult of these so­cioeco­nom­ic dis­par­it­ies, pro­pos­als for re­form­ing So­cial Se­cur­ity can cre­ate win­ners and losers based on race, eth­ni­city, class, and gender. For ex­ample, rais­ing the re­tire­ment age — a pop­u­lar re­form op­tion among Re­pub­lic­ans and some Demo­crats — dis­ad­vant­ages those with short­er life spans: a group that is black­er, brown­er, poorer, more male, and more blue-col­lar than those who live longer.

Sim­il­arly, the “chained CPI,” which seeks to cut be­ne­fits by re­du­cing the an­nu­al cost-of-liv­ing ad­just­ment re­ceived by So­cial Se­cur­ity re­cip­i­ents, would have a neg­at­ive ef­fect on low wealth house­holds, which are dis­pro­por­tion­ately black, brown, and fe­male.

There is a fairer way to re­form So­cial Se­cur­ity so that it is well fin­anced for at least an­oth­er 75 years and provides stronger be­ne­fits for those who are eco­nom­ic­ally vul­ner­able. A bet­ter ap­proach, ad­vanced by the Com­mis­sion to Mod­ern­ize So­cial Se­cur­ity, re­com­mends boost­ing be­ne­fits for the very old, wid­owed spouses, and the very poor; provid­ing cred­its for work­ers tak­ing time off to care for fam­ily mem­bers; and restor­ing be­ne­fits for col­lege stu­dents with a work­ing par­ent who has died, be­come dis­abled, or has re­tired.

The com­mis­sion’s plan pays for these im­prove­ments and ex­tends the pro­gram’s solvency by re­mov­ing the cap on payroll taxes so that high wage earners con­trib­ute more, of­fer­ing cov­er­age to all newly hired state and loc­al work­ers, and slowly in­creas­ing the payroll tax by a frac­tion of a per­cent per year over a 20-year peri­od.

There are some who ar­gue that people of col­or get a raw deal from So­cial Se­cur­ity. It is true that people of col­or were ex­cluded from re­ceiv­ing So­cial Se­cur­ity be­ne­fits in its early years due to a pro­vi­sion in the law that left out ag­ri­cul­tur­al and do­mest­ic work­ers. However, today the pro­gram has be­come an es­sen­tial com­pon­ent of eco­nom­ic se­cur­ity for people of col­or with few oth­er sources of wealth to sup­port them or their de­pend­ents in the event of re­tire­ment, dis­ab­il­ity, or early death.

In 2008, So­cial Se­cur­ity lif­ted 33 per­cent of Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans, 30 per­cent of Lati­nos, and 19 per­cent of Asi­an-Amer­ic­ans out of poverty. In 2009, 47.2 per­cent of blacks and 52.8 per­cent of Lati­nos re­lied on So­cial Se­cur­ity for 90 per­cent or more of their in­come; for 39.5 per­cent of blacks and 44.2 per­cent of Lati­nos, it was their only source of in­come.

Al­though So­cial Se­cur­ity was not prom­in­ently men­tioned by speak­ers dur­ing the 50th an­niversary of the March on Wash­ing­ton for Jobs and Free­dom, it is a fact that this pro­gram plays an im­port­ant role in rais­ing the stand­ard of liv­ing for all, but es­pe­cially for people of col­or. As such, we can­not talk about achiev­ing ra­cial justice or launch­ing a new civil-rights move­ment without stand­ing in de­fense of So­cial Se­cur­ity.

Amer­ic­ans of all ra­cial, eth­nic, polit­ic­al, geo­graph­ic, and gender back­grounds want So­cial Se­cur­ity pre­served and strengthened for the fu­ture. It’s time for poli­cy­makers in Wash­ing­ton to choose com­munity over chaos by en­sur­ing that So­cial Se­cur­ity checks are paid in full.

The au­thors are co­chairs of the Com­mis­sion to Mod­ern­ize So­cial Se­cur­ity. 

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