Washington’s Whitewashed Social Security Review

Alan Simpson's bizarre tirade should be expected from a commission stacked with old, white men.

By Seth Freed Wessler Aug 30, 2010

President Obama’s deficit commission is a mess. Just for example, former Sen. Alan Simpson, the body’s 78 year-old co-chair, infamously compared Social Security to a cow with too many teats last week. Some of those sucking the cow dry need to get kicked out, he implied. That’s just for example. 

Simpson’s remarks spurred an uproar on the left, and among Social Security’s defenders against Bush-style privatization and cutback. But sadly, his sentiments might as well be expected from a commission stacked with a whole bunch of old white men (angry ones, it seems). Of the 18 people on the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, there are only two people of color. Just three members are women.

This makeup surely contributes to the commission’s blindness on the real challenges Social Security faces–longterm demands that have everything to do with race, wealth and income. The reality is that when we’re talking about Social Security’s longterm viability, we’re talking largely about people of color. That’s because people of color are more likely to rely on Social Security, both as seniors and for survivor and disability benefits. As workers, they make less than their white counterparts, accumulate less wealth and are less likely to maintain private retirement accounts. It should be no surprise, then, that Social Security provides at least 90 percent of household income for a third of blacks and Latinos over 65. That’s true for a quarter of whites.

Meanwhile, workers of color are also more likely to be relegated to lower-paying, more dangerous kinds of work–not to mention that they face vast health disparities and barriers to access to health care. So communities of color also rely disproportionately on Social Security survivor and disability benefits. In 2007, when African Americans were 12 percent of the population, 20 percent of the children receiving Social Security survivor benefits were black. Seventeen percent of disabled workers receiving benefits were black.

Further, people of color also have shorter life expectancies, which means that the notion of raising the Social Security age to 70 in order to cut spending–an idea floated by a number of Republicans–would be a blow to families of color. Black male life expectancy is 69.7 years. "You literally have a situation where people of color are working hard all their life, contributing to system and they end up dying and subsidizing the Social Security of people who live longer," says Maya Rockeymoore, a nationally recognized scholar on Social Security.  

"If we want to play the game and assume the commission is legitimate," Rockeymoore adds, "I would argue that we have to look at how various proposals impact various population groups. They argue, for example, that since everyone is living longer we should raise the retirement age. But they are willfully overlooking the fact that not everyone lives that long." 

The silence on these numbers presents one of the clearest examples of why ignoring racial inequity in public policy comes back to bite everyone. "Were life expectancy, income and wealth disparities taken seriously," says Rockeymoore, "it would be more difficult to justify cuts" to the program.

Wilhelmina Leigh, a senior researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, explains, "there are many ways to fix the system that are relatively painless overall." For example, she says, "The current wage cap is $106,000, and all of the wages that people make above that line are not taxed for Social Security. But if wages above that are taxed, it would result in more than enough to pay for the program in the future."

The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform will not come out with its full proposal until the end of the year, and both President Obama and congressional leaders have asserted their commitment to maintaining a public Social Security system. But if the commission recommends cutting back the program, it may set Social Security up for serious retrenchment, particularly if Congress takes a swing to the right in November.