While meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus last week, President Bush revealed a new tactic to build much-needed support for his Social Security reforms, now contending that shorter life expectancies cause black males to be shorted under the current system, putting in more money than they are able to take out. Regardless of how blacks fare under the current and proposed systems, it is unsettling that Bush has chosen to exploit the difference in mortality rates between whites and blacks as a way of promoting his own agenda. In acknowledging the existence of such lopsided mortality rates, Bush, rather than contemplating the source of the problem, has instead used the disheartening figures to further his policy agenda.
The difference in life expectancy between whites and blacks is highly disturbing, but the figure, which incorporates early-stage mortality, reflects deaths among young people as well as the elderly, and has little to do with an individual’s ability to receive Social Security benefits. The outlying factors that drag down black life expectancies include an infant mortality rate two-and-a-half times greater than that of whites and high rates of HIV/AIDS infection and homicide among young black males. Although there is still a difference between black and white male life expectancies among males who reach age 65 (mainly due to reduced health care access), the gap is much smaller.
In terms of the benefits themselves, numerous studies have found that blacks fare as well or better than whites in their expected rates of return from Social Security. Because the program is progressive — paying lower-income workers a higher percentage of what they initially put in — blacks, who earn less than whites on average, tend to be favored by the current system. Furthermore, studies have shown that black poverty rates drop as blacks enter retirement, showing that Social Security has been somewhat effective in narrowing the racial income gap among the elderly. With the establishment of private accounts, a worker’s benefits would be passed on to his family after death — a perk Bush argues would be particularly beneficial for black families. However, he fails to mention the likelihood of attendant cuts to the family and disability programs in which the black population participates at a disproportionately high rate.
The statistics on life expectancy reveal a disturbing racial inequality that has been effectively ignored by the federal government. In a nation where almost two times as many blacks as whites live without health insurance, health care reform and other measures should be top priorities. If Bush is really concerned with how blacks will fare in retirement, he would be far better off addressing the disparities in income, education and health between races.