Adorned in a freshly ironed dress and carrying a satchel for her books, 6-year-old Ruby Bridges walked past an angry mob and into the doors of William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. While the girl's father was initially reluctant to let his daughter become the school's first African-American student, her mother felt strongly that the move was needed, not only to give her daughter a better education but also to "take this step forward for all African-American children."
That was the spring of 1960.
Ruby Bridges is now 57 years old. As African Americans in her age group — those who grew up during the civil rights movement — begin to consider retirement, they are once again confronting another struggle for equality. America's looming retirement-security crisis disproportionately affects African Americans, an alarming number of whom are retiring in poverty after a lifetime of work.
More than half of African-American retirees are economically insecure because of low income combined with high housing and health care costs, according to a 2011 study from the Institute on Assets and Social Policy. A staggering 83 percent of African-American seniors have insufficient assets to last throughout their expected life spans. All this on top of double-digit unemployment, underemployment and the predatory-lending-driven foreclosure crisis that resulted in decades of lost wealth gains for African-American families.
The retirement-security crisis is a problem for current retirees who grapple with the decision of whether to pay their rent or buy medicine. It is also a problem for their adult children who help pay their living expenses. This threat, driven by the economic downturn, inadequacies in Social Security and personal savings and the erosion of traditional pensions in the private sector, looms for current workers, too.
A growing number of minority workers are less likely to be prepared for retirement. African Americans tend to have lower earnings and household income and higher unemployment than white workers. Research shows that minority families also tend to have fewer long-term assets and carry more debt than their white counterparts.
While resolving these issues is critical to delivering economic equality to minority families, finding solutions to ensure retirement security is a racial- as well as an economic-justice imperative for all Americans.
Retirement experts agree that providing more-sensible retirement options to today's workforce and reinforcing supports for current retirees will make Americans less vulnerable to poverty in their golden years.
Unfortunately, lawmakers beholden to Wall Street CEOs have proposed "reforms" to state and local pensions around the country that reduce retirement security for public workers. Armed with heavy rhetoric, these lawmakers have waged war on traditional pensions by demonizing public-sector workers. The typical "greedy public employee" whose pension they slashed is actually an African-American father who diligently rides on the back of a city garbage truck to provide a modest, decent living for his family.
These lawmakers and their allies have also waged war on Social Security by making false claims that it is failing, but Social Security continues to be solvent. Social Security may face shortfalls 25 years from now, but projected shortfalls can be eliminated if the program is reformed to ensure that the wealthy pay their fair share into the system.
These sources of modest retirement income have successfully kept many retirees out of poverty. Social Security lifts 13 million elderly out of poverty, while 4.6 million seniors would be classified as poor or near poor without their modest pension income.
It's hard to believe that it was only 52 years ago that Ruby Bridges entered the hallways of William Frantz Elementary School, and it's hard to imagine how many of her peers will retire in poverty.
Dr. L. Toni Lewis is chair of the Service Employees International Union health care division and a board-certified family doctor. She leads the SEIU's efforts to improve the quality of patient care and ensure equal rights and fairness in the workplace for health care professionals.