Long ago, the Great Depression proved to a fervently capitalist America that the country would collapse if the government didn’t keep the most vulnerable households from falling through the floor. Though FDR never implemented a comprehensive welfare state, he anchored the modern safety net by establishing the social security system. But in the subsequent decades, we never got much further than that, and now some conservatives want to go backwards.
As elders in our communities enter their sunset years amidst poverty and political disenfranchisement, protecting social security is an emerging challenge for movements for racial and gender justice.
Privileged older Americans can draw on savings, pensions or IRAs during their post-retirement years. But the working-poor often retire reluctantly into destitution, especially mothers who’ve struggled a lifetime to achieve a modicum of economic independence. Aside from the support of communities and their children (who may well be even poorer), social security may be all they have to rely on. According to the Urban Institute’s research on low-income elders, "Older Americans with limited Social Security benefits… are disproportionately women, racial minorities, and unmarried. Many spent time out of the labor force caring for young children." Overall, retirement data shows that "Blacks and especially Hispanics have limited pension wealth because relatively few work for employers that offer retirement benefits and because they tend to earn less than whites. Many women have limited pension wealth because they have shorter work histories than men and generally earn less."
Despite Dubya’s epic failure to persuade Americans that they really don’t deserve a remotely decent quality of life after they stop working, whispers of "privatization" are creeping into the public arena once again. There are reasonable concerns about social security’s solvency, but some of the proposed reforms seem aimed at unraveling, rather than preserving the system. Rep. John Boehner and others have mulled raising the retirement age to 70, reports the New York Times–in essence, cutting spending at the expense of workers and retirees with the least to fall back on. To which economist Laurence J. Kotlikoff responds:
big benefit cuts, like those being contemplated, will mean big hits to the spending power of the affected generations. Younger cohorts would suffer less pain, but for a longer time, while older cohorts experience more pain for a shorter time. Either way you cut it, it hurts.
On behalf of current and future beneficiaries, the National Organization for Women has launched a national campaign to defend social security from attacks by fiscal hawks. Aging women of color are particularly burdened by the constraints of a fixed income:
…all too often, women have neither a pension nor savings. In fact, fewer than one in three women has income from a pension. Moreover, after a lifetime of wage discrimination, women are far more likely than men to have little in the way of personal savings. The situation for women of color is particularly dire. According to a recent report by the Insight Center, women of color often have no personal savings, or even negative net worth, as they head into retirement.
As a result, Social Security is the mainstay for millions of older women. Every year, a major share of the nearly 24 million women age 62 and older who receive benefits are kept out of poverty because of Social Security.
Now comes the recession and foreclosure crisis–both of which have eroded the modest gains made in building economic security among families of color. Their tomorrow is getting grimmer each day they watch their home equity disintegrate or struggle with long-term joblessness. It may be impossible to lean on their children as a traditional support when the state fails, as young people struggle to launch their lives while besieged by unemployment and debt.
Social security is practically the last line of defense against the twin assaults of economic and racial inequality. If lawmakers abandon it, they’ll be denying elders of color the last bit of recompense they can look forward to after a lifetime of inequity.