Republicans have linked the issue of raising the debt ceiling to the deficit and are using the debt issue as a hammer to repeal three important social entitlement programs to which several conservative Republicans have been ideologically opposed from their inception. Since these programs became law in 1965, many of those Republicans have disliked the government-run social insurance system (Medicare) and the government-run program for people and families with low incomes and resources (Medicaid). Since the administration of George H.W. Bush, Republicans have also wanted to "privatize" Social Security.
It's very important to understand the disproportionate impact that proposed cuts to these entitlement programs will have on African Americans. Even though Social Security is supposed to be one piece in a retirement plan or strategy, it is the sole source of retirement income for too many African Americans because of a lack of income from pensions and other assets.
According to the National Committee to Save Social Security and Medicare (link), "71% of African-American beneficiaries rely on Social Security for at least half their income, compared to less than two-thirds (64%) of all beneficiaries. 47% of African-American beneficiaries rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income and 40% of African-American beneficiaries rely on Social Security for all of their income." Social Security can pay benefits for the next 25 years at current funding levels; it has nothing to do with the debt or deficit.
A disproportionate number of poor African Americans rely on these benefits. According to the Kaiser Foundation (link), of the estimated 41.8 million Medicare beneficiaries in 2002, 33.1 million were white and 3.9 million were African American. But of those African Americans, 64 percent had incomes below 150 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL), as compared with 32 percent of white beneficiaries.
These disparities in Social Security and other entitlements are compounded by the even larger chasm of wealth disparity. Wealth is defined as tangible assets (home, stocks, cash, etc.) minus debts. According to the most recent Pew Research Center report (link), based on 2009 data, "The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households." These are the largest disparities since Pew began publishing the data more than 25 years ago.
Last week, House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) declared, "The gulf between the two parties now is about policy. It's not about process, it's not about personalities." Boehner was wrong then and is wrong now — it's not about policy. It's about ideology and has everything to do with personality (and race).
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) clearly made it about personality when he stated (link) in 2010 that "the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." It's not that Republicans can't compromise; they won't compromise with President Barack Obama.
Programs that provide retirement security, both financial and medical, should be sacrosanct in America. Republicans are using a real debt crisis with a simple solution to attack programs to which they have been always ideologically opposed.
Boehner has been negotiating with President Obama and is hamstrung by the members of the Tea Party Caucus and their uncompromising ideological stance for a constitutionally limited government. The vote that was scheduled for Tuesday has been pushed back because Boehner can't convince 218 Republicans to support his own plan. He can't even control his own caucus, and he says the president needs to lead?
A Call to Action
Now is the time for organizations such as the NAACP and the National Urban League to come to the forefront. NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous and members of the Congressional Black Caucus need to lead the charge. They should be publicly articulating a unified agenda to improve the economic conditions of African Americans.
National Urban League President Marc H. Morial needs to be out front rallying public support for the Urban Jobs Act and other measures in the league's 12-Point Plan for Job Creation. It's one thing to meet with the president and hold summits to discuss these issues, and another to be publicly rallying the troops and creating a groundswell of public sentiment that will bring about change.
Republicans are attacking the financial and medical safety nets for a lot of hardworking Americans, and African Americans will be disproportionately affected if they are successful. If the GOP wins this debate, America loses, and the harm to African Americans will be catastrophic.
When elephants battle, the weeds suffer.
Dr. Wilmer Leon is the producer-host of the call-in talk radio program Inside the Issues With Wilmer Leon on Sirius/XM 128. He teaches at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter and contact him by email.