Why African Americans Should Care About Social Security

Black retirees and children are more dependent than other groups on Social Security, yet their voices are often unheard in the debate over reform.


Unemployment seems to be budging very little, especially for blacks, where it hovers around 15.7 percent. Millions of so-called baby boomers are nearing retirement. More people, not fewer, are relying on Social Security benefits, especially African Americans. And as President Obama and Congress begin the process of hammering out a budget for 2012, with standoffs about what to compromise on and looking ahead to the next five to 10 years, guess what's on the chopping block one way or the other? Social Security. Neither Obama nor his Republican opposition will say this out loud as they focus on their favorite projects or the election of 2012. But black people need to focus on longer-term issues that are at stake in this budget battle. Think Social Security.

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies warns African Americans to wake up and speak up, because their "dependence on the system is great." As the Joint Center notes in a report released this month, blacks rely heavily on those monthly Social Security checks. Indeed, in two of every five black households of retirees age 65 or older, Social Security is their only source of income.

Another alarming statistic: One of every five black children relies on Social Security because of retirement, death or disability of the primary household breadwinner. Children constitute a larger proportion of black Social Security beneficiaries (11.8 percent) than white beneficiaries (4.3 percent), the report said.

Fewer Payers, More Recipients

Established under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the system was designed to rely largely on taxes paid by workers and their employers to provide benefits to workers and their families who lose income because of retirement, death or disability. But now, declining birth rates mean fewer people are paying into the system; increasing retirement of baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) means more people claiming benefits; and longer life expectancies mean that those beneficiaries will rely upon Social Security for longer periods of time.

If nothing changes, even if current budget negotiations chip at the edges, there will be money for Social Security for at least 25 years, but the trimming can affect who qualifies for payouts and when. If, for example, the age for claiming benefits is raised to 70 or 75, a whole lot of blacks will lose out because they die sooner.

Obviously, something's got to give to put the nation's federal and state financial houses in order. Battle lines have been drawn in Washington about fiscal policy, with little hint of bipartisan compromise. Even before it was officially released, Republicans were already condemning the president's proposed $3.7 trillion 2012 budget as nothing more than a plan for spending, taxing and borrowing, while doing little to address the national debt. The president and his defenders point out that, among other things, he is proposing deep cuts in domestic programs that the Republican House budget plan would wipe out.

Obama's Painful Budget

"It would mean cutting things that I care deeply about, but if we're going to walk the walk when it comes to fiscal discipline, these kinds of cuts will be necessary," the president said on Feb. 14, in unveiling a budget that was no valentine to either the right or the left. At the news conference a day later, he said, "I definitely feel folks' pain."

The truth is that no one really wants to feel the pain, whether the issue is the big three entitlement programs -- Medicaid, Medicare and, especially, Social Security -- or delivery of municipal services. Just look at what's happening in the civil war under way in Wisconsin over public employee unions.