I’m going to take the high road this time, which for me is a road less traveled. I’m not going to come out and say, “President Bush couldn’t give less of a damn about black people. So why does he care so much about convincing us that his efforts to transform Social Security are in our best interests?” Nope. Not gonna say it. In the spirit of Daddy Bush, aka George Herbert Walker “Poppy” Bush of Kennebunkport fame, I am going to work hard to make this a kinder and gentler column.
Our current President Bush actually loves black people. Honest. Look at Condi Rice. Remember Colin Powell? And didn’t Bush say that his two favorite Supreme Court justices were Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas? See? See? He loves us, y’all. And so we must understand that it is the spirit of this kindly love that best explains why he wants us to jump on the bandwagon of Social Security reform with him and spread the word across the land that this is just his way of expressing just how deep his love for us goes.
Strangely enough, not many of us seem to be buying this argument. Matter of fact, polls show that not a whole lot of white folk are jumping on the bandwagon either, and I’m sure this is all very frustrating for someone such as Bush who simply cannot understand why his deep and abiding love is not being sufficiently appreciated by the masses. One of those things that kinda makes you go hmmmm …
Well, maybe the best way to understand why not a whole lot of black folk are signing up yet is to go back and examine just how Bush is selling this thing to us. Earlier this year, in an attempt to explain why he thinks the Social Security system as it currently exists is unfair to African-Americans, Bush said, “African-American males die sooner than other males do, which means the system is inherently unfair to a certain group of people [meaning us], and that needs to be fixed.”
See? See? Bush wants to fix the whole Social Security system because it’s unfair to black people! Bush loves us!
The best way to fix it, according to Bush and his supporters, is to change the system so the money that’s currently deducted from our paychecks to go toward Social Security — or at least a significant portion of it — could instead be invested in the stock market where supposedly we would be able to get a bigger bang for our buck. This privatization of the Social Security system, according to Bush, would give everyone greater control over their money instead of forking it over to Big Bad Government. This would be an especially good deal for African-Americans, especially African-American males, because most of us die off so soon we don’t get to reap the same benefit from the system as those long-living white folk. In other words, wouldn’t you rather get your hands on that money now while it can do you some good instead of steadily paying into a system to provide security for someone else whom you don’t even know and probably don’t even like? Stop giving your hard-earned money to The Man, black folk! Save yourselves!
And on the surface it’s hard to argue that there isn’t some sense to what the president is saying. Paying into a Social Security system that will likely never provide you with any security is similar to paying for a new house that you will never see, let alone live in. But judging by the rather harsh criticism Bush’s plan is receiving from such prominent black leaders as NAACP chair and civil rights activist Julian Bond, there must be a little more to it than that.
Nobody can dispute the raw statistics that black people, on the whole, don’t live as long as white people. The average white person lives to 78, whereas the average black person only makes it to 72. But the problem with relying solely on these numbers as a reason to sell blacks on why they should put their money in the stock market instead of into Social Security is that these numbers hardly tell the whole story.
First of all, as has been noted in a number of other articles and commentaries dissecting Bush’s SS program, one of the primary reasons our average life span is less than that of whites is because the rate of infant mortality among blacks is so much higher than among whites, and because so many young blacks who make it past infancy don’t reach adulthood because of youth violence. Toss in other reasons for early mortality such as less access to decent health care, and it starts to become obvious why the average life span for black folk is lower.
But for those who do survive adulthood and who reach senior status, and there are plenty, they’re just as able to put those Social Security checks to use as anyone else can. And for nearly as long. For instance, as economist Paul Krugman pointed out in his New York Times column: “African-American men who make it to age 65 can expect to live, and collect benefits, for an additional 14.6 years — not that far short of the 16.6-year figure for white men.”
Furthermore, Social Security also pays disability and survivor’s benefits, which disproportionately helps African-Americans. Although we comprise only 11 percent of the workforce, we make up 18 percent of those receiving disability. Black children make up nearly 23 percent of those receiving survivor’s benefits, and I can speak from personal experience about how much those benefits meant to me and my mother when my father died and I was just 17 years old. Without those benefits I would have had a hell of a time paying for college and getting myself educated so that I could write kinder and gentler columns such as this one.
Finally, consider that Social Security is currently the only source of income for one-third of all African-Americans over the age of 65 and that more than 25 percent of blacks receiving Social Security receive SS disability checks. Also, considering the fact that black wage-earners earn less than whites, blacks benefit disproportionately from the program again; Social Security replaces about 56 percent of pre-retirement wages for a low-income worker, 42 percent for an average-income worker and 28 percent for a high-income worker. This is one of the very few instances in America where blacks make out better than whites because we’re economically worse off.
So although it’s true that many more whites than blacks receive retirement benefits from Social Security, that hardly means blacks are getting cheated by the system. And although more of us die young, that doesn’t seem like a good reason to abolish a very important source of income for those of us who managed to make it to the other side of the minefield — or to cut off resources for those just getting started. Seems like it might make more sense to try to address the root causes of why black people have such a shorter life expectancy than do whites rather than trying to hurry up and hand the brothers a fistful of cash before they cash out. I mean, don’t you think Bush should see that we need something more than a loose stake in the stock market? How about a firm stake in longer and more productive lives?
But what’s most important here is for black people to always remember that Bush loves us. He just has this funny way of showing it. …Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org