Social Security, Politricks & Black Poverty

Social Security, Politricks & Black Poverty


Lawmakers in Washington are like basement poker gamblers, pushing money, change, family keepsakes and strips of clothing back and forth across a scratched table.  It’s smoky and the alcohol flows from a spigot given the rhetorical fist fights breaking out these days.  Yet, little gremlins appear hidden in the details, ripping reams of fine lines from multiple deals being thrown back and forth as negotiations focus on the Budget Super Committee.

As the soap-opera unfolds, the average person is lost in a freaky slide show of opposing platforms.  Everything is on a chopping block, Politically, it’s unthinkable that cats in Washington would even consider touching it considering the demographic most effected: senior citizens.

Old folks are the most reliable voters, on either side of the partisan aisle. Why even go there? So, when the President and Congressional Republicans talked for months of potential cuts to Social Security, the reaction was swift and angry from many progressive Democrats who were not having it.

Debt-ceiling talks hammered on through weeks of impasse ultimately resulting in a market meltdown.  Unnoticed was the impression of an African American President proposing cuts to something so critical to battling African American poverty.

“As for how Social Security affects African American seniors, particularly women, Social Security is the only source of retirement income for 40% of African American seniors,” pointed out Benjamin Gerdes, a press secretary for Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) who is a leading critic of using the program as a negotiating tool. Edwards, one of 69 Democrats who shot a fiery letter at the White House letter during the debt-ceiling debacle, is not shy about pointing out that poverty rates for elderly blacks would double from 24% to 65% without adequate Social Security.

The problem, some observers believe, is in the language.  At some point, Congressional Republicans, backed by corps of conservative think tanks and fiscal policy experts, were able to characterize Social Security as an “entitlement” while liberal opponents see it the other way.  How did something that works like a lifetime savings account end up as a government “entitlement” in the first place?  The larger public understanding is that its money socked away from hard work until retirement.  So why even consider touching it?

David John, a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, admits the semantics in a discussion with  “Entitlement is a budgetary term.  It’s not money appropriated annually by Congress,” clarifies John.

But, John, along with many other conservative policy experts pushing for reform, claims that Social Security is in trouble now because “it’s automatic spending.  Social Security revenues will be far less than it is now.”  John warns that Social Security spending is outpacing Social Security revenues.  Heritage, which wants the program included in a larger debt-reduction package, claims it “started to run cash-flow deficits in 2010.”

One solution John promotes is increasing the retirement age to 69. When asked how that would impact African Americans dealing with a wide range of chronic health issues, he emphatically states that a reform plan would keep early retirement benefits for “the roughly 20 percent of people collecting Social Security who retire due to health reasons.”  As if to keep it Robin Hood, John points out the disparity between folks who really don’t need Social Security and the poorer folks who do.

In any case, Kathy Ruffing, a Center for Budget and Policy Priorities Senior Fellow, thinks reforming Social Security at this point is premature.  “Our answer is yes it needs reforming … but it’s important to get it right,” says Ruffing in an email response to “Social Security’s financing challenge is real but manageable.  There is no immediate funding crisis and therefore policymakers have time to weigh changes carefully. We strongly prefer that any solvency package rely chiefly on revenue increases, rather than benefit reductions, because Social Security benefits are already very modest.”

Revenue is the key word at the moment as both White House and Congress attempt to slip in entitlement cuts through the Budget Super Committee.  The sticky part, and the reason for renewed focus on Social Security, may be that the government owes it money. Nearly 35 percent of the $14 trillion plus debt belongs to the program.