Social absurdity

Republicans are now playing the race card to try to sell Social Security privatization.

Published August 28, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

The conservative chorus is making schizophrenic noises. In one breath, they praise Jesse Helms on the occasion of his long-overdue retirement from the Senate. Then, with scarcely a pause, they fret about African-Americans' supposedly being swindled by Social Security. Right-wingers claim to detect "racism" in the retirement system, but perceive no such sin in the career of North Carolina's senior senator.

Bizarre as this juxtaposition may seem, it does possess a certain twisted logic. Just like old Jesse, his ideological soul mates can play the race card with cynical finesse. Though they complain bitterly (and sometimes justifiably) when Democrats and liberals employ racial symbolism, they simply can't resist the same tactic when hundreds of billions of retirement dollars are at stake.

The new conservative canard, drawn from the latest report of the Bush commission on Social Security, is that African-American males pay the retirement tax throughout their working lives, but don't live long enough on average to draw the benefits to which they are entitled. Like so many of the arguments for privatization, this one vaporizes under impartial scrutiny.

But the sudden outpouring of racial propaganda does suggest one reason why political operatives in the White House chose a couple of prominent black business executives as members of their stacked commission -- including co-chairman Richard Parsons, the chief operating officer of AOL Time Warner. Presumably, Karl Rove believes black voters will be more receptive to the privatization message if it is delivered by a brother.

Rather than helping black Americans, however, privatizing Social Security is likely to injure them because of the burden it would impose unfairly on all lower-income workers. To understand why, it's important to remember that the current system provides survivors benefits and disability benefits as well as retirement income.

Every month, nearly one-third of all the funds paid out by the Social Security Administration go to survivors and the disabled -- and those payments are skewed significantly to favor minorities and women. While African-Americans are about 12 percent of the total population, they constitute 18 percent of Social Security disability beneficiaries.

Given the outsize cost of funding almost any privatization scheme -- estimated at roughly $1 trillion -- those nonretirement benefits are sure to be slashed by as much as 40 percent. Although Bush promised last year that no such cuts would occur under his plan, his regressive tax cut has made them inevitable, as even his commission has now conceded.

Moreover, because the average wages of black Americans continue to languish below those paid to whites, they will face disproportionate risks if Social Security is privatized. At the moment, the system is somewhat progressive, since low-wage workers receive a larger return on their "investment" than those who earn more.

For low-wage male workers born between 1956 and 1964, the return on their payments into Social Security is nearly 5 percent, or more than twice what they could realistically expect from a privatized annuity. The return is almost 7 percent for low-wage women workers in the same age cohort -- another group that is disproportionately African-American.

The academic study cited by the Bush commission to denigrate Social Security carefully noted that the racial disparity affects only those black men earning incomes equal to those of white men who are the same age. Those widely quoted mortality statistics are skewed by the high death rate of young black males who haven't lived long enough to pay much into the Social Security system.

Meanwhile, the Bush commission (and its right-wing publicists) dishonestly ignore that same study's broader conclusion: African-Americans receive somewhat higher-than-average benefits overall from Social Security because the system favors low-wage workers.

As even privatization proponents will occasionally admit, Social Security is the most successful government program ever created in this country. For black families especially, but for millions of Americans of all races, it has meant the difference between dignity and impoverishment for the elderly and disabled. That is the system Bush and his appointees are recklessly seeking to dismantle with phony predictions of financial crisis and fake promises of fat stock funds.

To hear politicians and pundits who habitually oppose every measure designed to lift up the poor and powerless now pretend that they want to "spread the wealth" would be comical if their purposes weren't so destructive. Before black Americans buy into this Republican scheme to make them rich, they should keep hold of their wallets, examine the fine print and never forget that they're still dealing with the party of Jesse Helms.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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