Does Social Security shortchange blacks?

Bush says it does -- but the facts show that he's dealing this race card off the bottom of the deck.

Published February 5, 2005 1:55AM (EST)

Republicans are generally loath to acknowledge the racial inequalities that plague American society. When liberals argue that issues like the education system or the criminal justice system or election reform must reckon with racial disparities, Republicans often accuse them of race-baiting. But in its push to privatize Social Security, the GOP has been surprisingly willing to play the race card.

"African-American males die sooner than other males do, which means the system is inherently unfair to a certain group of people," President Bush said at a White House-sponsored conference on Social Security in January. "That needs to be fixed."

Because blacks, on average, don't live as long as whites, Bush contends that they collect fewer Social Security retirement benefits than whites. Last week, he made a personal pitch to black leaders in a closed-door meeting, arguing, according to spokesman Scott McClellan, that the private investment accounts he favors for Social Security will let blacks "build a nest egg of their own and be able to pass that nest egg on to their survivors."

The idea that blacks are being cheated by Social Security could prove to be a powerful rhetorical weapon for Republicans. Already, the media is falling for the story line. CNN, for example, broadcast a heart-tugging story Thursday that focused on the plight of the dependents of African-Americans who die young. The network interviewed Barbara Haile, a black woman whose husband died of cancer in 1997. He was 50 at the time of his death; through payroll taxes, he'd been contributing to Social Security for about 30 years. But because he hadn't reached retirement age, neither he (nor his dependents) were eligible to receive any money from Social Security.

Under the Bush plan, conservatives say, Haile would have been eligible to receive the money that her husband had been collecting in his "personal account," invested in the stock market. Because blacks (especially black men) have lower average life expectancies than whites (especially white women), the current system is unfair to them, Republicans contend, and private accounts would be a boon for them. Although CNN did interview supporters of the current system, the emotional upshot of its report was clear: Social Security screws poor black people and President Bush wants to help them out.

Here's the trouble with the emotional, race-based appeal: It has no basis in fact. Or, as Dean Baker, co-director of the left-leaning think tank Center for Economic and Policy Research, puts it, "It's wrong in just about every single respect."

To begin with, there is no evidence that blacks, as a group, are cheated by Social Security. Yes, whites do live longer than blacks, which means that the average white woman will collect more benefit checks than the average black man. But, Baker points out, blacks also generally make less money than whites, which means that they get a higher rate of return on their contributions to the system. And because African-Americans suffer higher rates of disability than whites, they draw more from Social Security's disability benefits than whites. Meanwhile, spouses and minor children of African-Americans heavily depend on the system's survivor benefits. When economists have studied all that blacks put into the system compared with all they get out of it, Baker says, blacks, as a group, aren't being treated unfairly -- and they may even be doing better than whites.

Anti-Social Security agitators such as Stephen Moore, who heads the Free Enterprise Fund, have taken to calling Social Security a "massive income redistribution program" that sucks money out of African-Americans' pockets and spits it out to whites. But in truth, says Hillary Shelton of the NAACP, African-Americans would be absolutely destitute without Social Security. "African-American children are almost four times as likely to be lifted out of poverty by Social Security benefits than our white counterparts," Shelton says.

In a Social Security briefing paper, Shelton declares that "almost 80 percent of African Americans over age 65 depend on Social Security for more than half of their income, and more than half rely on it for 90 percent or more of their income." Basically, he writes, "without the guaranteed Social Security benefits they receive today, the poverty rate among older African Americans would more than double, pushing most African American seniors into squalor and poverty during their most vulnerable years."

But the main problem with the Republicans' argument that private accounts would be better for blacks than the current system is not that it's economically wrong. It's that it's gravely pessimistic. As the president took pains to point out in his State of the Union address, Social Security reform won't affect today's generation of retirees; it will benefit today's young people, who will retire 30 or 40 years from now. By that reasoning, conservatives are conceding that blacks will die young not only now but 40 years from now. Apparently, they aren't concerned about working to ensure that young African-Americans live as long and healthy lives as today's young white people.

The conservative argument, Baker points out, is based on the idea that inequality is persistent. But why should we accept that it is? According to national mortality statistics (PDF), African-Americans suffer a higher death rate than whites for a number of plausibly preventable causes -- AIDS and homicide, for instance. Innumerable such inequalities are responsible for blacks' shorter lives. "Maybe those inequalities won't disappear over the next 40 or so years," Baker says. "But can't we assume that they will get smaller and smaller?"

But then, he adds, "If Republicans continue to stay in the White House, maybe not. I'm not really joking about that -- if you've got people who are not really committed to ending inequality, you might well have to go 20 to 30 years without anything changing."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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