Why Reparations and Social Security Matter for African Americans in the Election


As Ta-Nehisi Coates and Steve Phillips become the latest in a lineage of black scholar/activists who have worked to push the boundaries of policy discourse about the feasibility of reparations for African Americans, it is important that we not lose sight of existing policies that affect the bottom line of black households.

Social Security is one such policy that has tremendous economic consequences for vulnerable families and provides a good litmus test for where the 2016 presidential candidates stand on the issue of black economic security.

It’s no secret that more than 150 years after the end of slavery, black people — along with Native Americans, Latinos and certain subgroups of Asian Americans — remain at the bottom of the economic ladder in America. African Americans and Latinos own only 6 and 7 cents respectively for every dollar of wealth owned by whites and earn only 67 cents for every dollar of income earned by whites (national data is not available for Native Americans and Asian American subgroups). These deep disparities in wealth and income are a legacy of discriminatory government policies and business practices that have benefitted white households over households of color. It even marred Social Security’s beginning, which by barring coverage for agricultural and domestic workers effectively excluded approximately 65 percent of all black workers when the bill was signed into law in 1935.

This legacy of social and economic racial discrimination makes African Americans especially reliant on the program today. Social Security provides social insurance coverage to eligible individuals in the event of retirement, disability or the death of a worker with surviving dependents. It also has a progressive benefit structure that replaces a greater percentage of lower earners’ pre-Social Security wages compared to higher earners.

So, while we know African Americans are economically vulnerable, we also know that many could not make it through retirement, a disability or the death of a loved one, without Social Security. For example, 46 percent of African-American seniors ages 65 and over rely on Social Security for at least 90 percent of their income, compared to 35 percent of whites.

Although the formula for determining benefit levels is seemingly neutral with respect to race and ethnicity, the program does in fact affect racial and ethnic groups in different ways because of variances in demographic factors such as life expectancy, health status, years of work, level of earnings, number of dependents, and marital status. As a result, the distributional impact of the program and proposed changes to it can be estimated by variables such as race, ethnicity, gender, class, and marital status.

We know that African Americans are disadvantaged by the structure of Social Security’s retirement program because of shorter life spans. We also know that African Americans and other people of color disproportionately benefit from the disability and survivor portions of the programs, because of higher morbidity and mortality rates. The data shows that when all three parts of Social Security are taken as a whole, African Americans receive a slightly higher rate of return from the program compared to what they contribute in wages.

However, when taken alone, the retirement portion of the program is regressive for African Americans, since those who have shorter life expectancies effectively subsidize the retirement of those with longer life expectancies. Proposals to raise the retirement age, therefore, are not beneficial for African Americans since they would result in reduced benefit amounts, and depending on the specifics of the proposal, could make the benefit of Social Security to African Americans less valuable overall.

Enter the 2016 elections. While Senator Bernie Sanders’ dismissive response to the questioner who asked him about reparations at the Black and Brown debate in Iowa was both regretful and instructive about the intellectual boundaries of mainstream contemporary populism, he has taken a stand against all benefit cuts — including increasing the retirement age. He has also put forward a plan to expand benefits that has been estimated by the Social Security Administration’s Chief Actuary to increase benefits and extend the solvency of Social Security through the year 2074. By placing the burden of expansion on the wealthy, who would pay more by raising the earnings cap on Social Security payroll contributions, his plan would save middle, moderate and low-income Americans from economically harmful benefit cuts. This would be good for African Americans.

Although she has not yet put forward a detailed plan for expanding Social Security, Secretary Hillary Clinton has expressed support for expanding benefits for vulnerable groups, which would be good for African Americans. However, she has not ruled out instituting benefit cuts as a means for extending Social Security’s solvency and has said she is open to considering raising the retirement age “for people whose jobs allow them to work later in life.” This approach presumably targets higher income, white-collar workers but it represents little guarantee of protection for African Americans who experience life-threatening health disparities across the income spectrum.

On the Republican side of the race, businessman and presidential contender Donald Trump has shunned traditional conservative approaches to Social Security reform by ruling out raising the retirement age. His decision taps into a wealth of polling data that shows widespread, bipartisan support for Social Security. Both senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, on the other hand, have said they would increase the retirement age. Ted Cruz would seek to destabilize the program altogether by diverting Social Security funds into private accounts exposed to Wall Street, which brings a host of additional vulnerabilites for African Americans.

In sum, Social Security is not a replacement for a policy that compensates African Americans for lost wages, discrimination, dehumanization, and pain and suffering they experienced as result of slavery, Jim Crow and a host of additional discriminatory policies and practices that have undermined their socioeconomic standing. Given that precedent has been established for reparative policies for other wronged groups in the U.S., there should be no reason to exclude African Americans from policy considerations that have been afforded to others.

Nevertheless, Social Security remains an important pillar of progress that is essential for many black households to survive and thrive. For that reason alone, it too is worth fighting for.

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