The White House and its allies who back overhauling Social Security are launching a highly targeted campaign to convince blacks that President Bush’s plan to create private investment accounts would have special benefits for them.
The most provocative element of the GOP message to blacks: Their shorter life expectancy means that Social Security is not a favorable deal for them, a point contested by Bush’s critics. The president’s plan for private accounts, say Republicans, would particularly benefit blacks by allowing them to build wealth more rapidly and pass a portion of their Social Security contributions to their heirs.
In reaching out to blacks on Bush’s top domestic priority, Republicans are courting a traditionally Democratic voting bloc, which could further pressure Democratic lawmakers to back the president’s plan.
Some Republican strategists also believe the effort illustrates how Bush can reap political rewards from the Social Security issue even if he fails to win passage of his plan in Congress. These strategists believe that Bush’s call for private accounts, and his broader claim to be building an “ownership society,” have special appeal for black voters, many of whom live in economically troubled neighborhoods and have not been able to build their own savings.
The message that African Americans do not fare well in the Social Security system infuriates congressional Democrats, who cite government statistics showing that blacks benefit disproportionately from the current system and stand to lose the most from the proposed changes.
Nonetheless, in the coming weeks, Bush’s Social Security plan will be featured in a variety of GOP outreach efforts to blacks. White House officials will brief black business leaders on Bush’s plan, and the Republican Party chairman will address African American audiences. Black activists backing Bush will hold regional forums to sell the plan, and two new conservative black coalitions will promote private Social Security accounts as part of an agenda to foster economic empowerment.
Under Bush’s plan, workers younger than 55 could divert a portion of their Social Security taxes to privately owned stock and bond accounts, rather than pay it to the government-run retirement program. Critics argue that the government would have to borrow $1 trillion or more to cover the costs of the accounts, which would be unwelcome at a time of high deficits. They also say the plan, while expensive, would do nothing to address the long-term financial problem facing Social Security.
The efforts to gain support for the plan in black communities focus in part on arguments that blacks are disadvantaged by the current system, largely because of shorter life expectancies -- a highly controversial argument that has drawn objections from opponents of private accounts.
Government statistics show that the average lifespan for a newborn black male is 69, compared with 75 for a newborn white male. But critics of that argument say the six-year advantage that white males hold over blacks in lifespan is due to the higher infant mortality rates in black communities, as well as to the higher rates of violent crime, which affect black children and young adults more than whites. These people are dying before they ever pay into the Social Security system.
Life expectancies are closer when comparing adults. A 65-year-old white man is expected to live two years longer than a black man of the same age, according to government statistics.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, all of them Democrats, waved off the idea that the administration’s arguments could be persuasive with blacks. But conservative black activists say the president’s proposal is receiving a warm response, and some independent polling backs up their claim.
“The idea of private accounts is really resonating, particularly among young people,” said the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, a Los Angeles pastor and activist who plans to hold his own forums on the issue this spring.
Polling from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, an independent Washington think tank that focuses on African American issues, shows strong support among blacks for investing a portion of Social Security payroll taxes in private accounts.
A 2002 survey found that 67% of blacks supported the idea. Support jumped to about 79% among blacks 18 to 25, a key target group for Republicans.
“Among younger African Americans, there is a consistent attraction to private accounts and we have seen it for some time,” said David Bositis, a senior analyst at the center.
The polling offers a caution to the White House: Support for the concept plummets when the survey questions link private accounts to President Bush or another Republican.
But the popularity of the idea among blacks gives GOP strategists encouragement on two counts. First, they believe that talking about Social Security in minority communities can win support for the Bush plan from moderate Democrats who rely on black voters to win elections.
Second, they believe it will help the long-term White House goal of developing ties to black voters in hopes of winning at least a portion of that solid Democratic bloc to the GOP in future elections.
“There’s an effort to tell the story in the black community, and it doesn’t have to be hugely successful,” said Michael Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at the libertarian Cato Institute and a leading advocate for private accounts. “It just has to be more successful than Bush was [in winning black votes]. The Democrats are heavily reliant on having 90% of black support, but if that drops to 80%, they’re in trouble.”
This week, senior administration officials will brief black business and community leaders on Social Security. In the coming months, conservative black clergy and other backers of private accounts will lead town hall meetings in South Los Angeles and Detroit.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who in recent days has promoted Bush’s plan to black audiences in suburban Washington and Trenton, N.J., will do so again Monday night at Washington’s Howard University, a historically black school. Aides say he plans to conduct similar gatherings across the country.
The Heritage Foundation is devoting the first issue of a new publication, the Heritage Forum, to the topic of blacks and Social Security. One piece is penned by Star Parker, a black former welfare mother from Los Angeles who now leads a conservative think tank, the Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education, which backs private accounts.
Parker said she was launching a campaign targeting churchgoing, conservative blacks in six cities: Los Angeles; Detroit; Memphis, Tenn.; Dallas; Chicago; and Atlanta. The effort will include town hall meetings in African American neighborhoods, ads in black newspapers and on black radio stations, and entreaties to influential clergy in large churches that have been sympathetic to other conservative causes, such as banning gay marriage and promoting school vouchers.
Parker said she planned to coordinate her efforts with several GOP-affiliated groups, including USA Next, which is running a campaign to discredit AARP, the seniors organization that opposes the Bush Social Security plan. Parker’s town hall meetings, she said, would be combined with another effort aimed at black clergy, the Black Contract with America on Moral Values, which was launched this month to promote a moral agenda that includes private accounts.
Parker, who is also speaking on college campuses, said her campaign would cost several hundred thousand dollars, which she is hoping to raise from foundations and individuals.
At the same time, dozens of black business leaders coordinating their activities with the White House and the GOP will present a nine-point “21st Century Mayflower Compact” next month that emphasizes private Social Security accounts as a way to strengthen opportunities and build wealth for blacks.
Democrats question why Bush and his allies are choosing to highlight shorter lifespan as an argument for changing Social Security, when they should be developing programs to close the disparity on life expectancies between the races.
“This assumes that for the next 30 or 40 years, life expectancies for African Americans are going to continue to be five to 10 years lower than life expectancies of white citizens, which is a very sinister, depressing assumption to make,” said Rep. Melvin L. Watt (D-N.C.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Maya Rockeymoore, vice president for research and programs for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, argues that blacks have more to lose than to gain from Bush’s proposals -- especially considering that blacks benefit more than whites from the survivor and disability benefits that are also components of Social Security.
Although Bush has pledged to protect those aspects of Social Security, critics say the high cost of his changes would put them in jeopardy.
Rockeymoore reels off statistics from government studies to prove her point: Blacks are 10% of the U.S. labor market, but 17% of disabled workers receiving benefits in 2002 were African Americans. About 15% of U.S. children are African Americans, but 23% of children receiving survivor benefits are African American.
Still, with Republicans gearing up their efforts to woo blacks on Social Security, one Democratic lawmaker worries that his party is too quick to dismiss the idea of private accounts.
Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), who is black, this month created the bipartisan Congressional Savings and Ownership Caucus, adopting the same language used often by Bush in promoting what he terms an “ownership society.” Ford has also proposed legislation that would create private accounts on top of the present Social Security system, leaving the current payroll tax system in place. Under his proposal, the government would put $500 into the account of every American at birth.
Ford said that in their “zeal” to oppose Bush, Democrats risked appearing averse to private savings, and that the party should offer alternatives to the Bush plan that would help lower- and middle-income people save with tax incentives, matching dollar programs and other ideas.
“Republicans have done a good job in suggesting that the only way to save Social Security is to privatize it, and they say the only way certain communities will go for this is through private accounts,” Ford said. “Democrats have played into their hand, because we’ve not offered alternatives. We’re going to have to offer alternatives other than ‘no.’ ”
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Race and Social Security
The White House and its allies suggest that blacks are less likely to get the full benefit of their Social Security contributions, because the life span of black males is shorter than white males’. Others say that the life expectancy claim is misleading because retired blacks live nearly as long as do whites, and retirement income is only one part of the Social Security program.
Advocates of private accounts say that at birth, life expectancy is for:
Black males: 68.8 years
White males: 75.1 years
However, much of the difference is explained by infant mortality and homicide rates that disproportionately affect young blacks. Thus by a retirement age of 65, life expectancy becomes for:
Black males: 79.6 years
White males: 81.6 years
Although blacks receive lower retirement benefits on average, they are disproportionately dependent on all aspects of the program:
- Social Security is the only source of retirement income for 22% of the overall population, but for 40% of elderly blacks
- Blacks make up 13% of the U.S. population, but 23% of all children receiving Social Security survivor benefits in 2002 were black
- Black workers are more likely to collect disability insurance payments than whites, 4.2% compared to 2.8%
Sources: Social Security Administration, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, and Congressional Black Caucus Foundation
Los Angeles Times