Bush Shifts Focus to Race in Debate on Social Security

Times Staff Writers

Race became a significant factor in the debate over Social Security on Tuesday as President Bush told African American leaders that the government retirement program shortchanged blacks, whose relatively shorter lifespan meant that they paid more in payroll taxes than they eventually received in benefits.

Bush’s comments came during a private White House meeting with 22 black religious and business leaders who backed his reelection last year -- marking a new line of argument in his attempts to win support for adding worker-owned investment accounts to Social Security.

The conversation demonstrated the White House’s determination to build on outreach efforts to blacks that proved effective in battleground states last year, adding Social Security to issues -- such as opposition to same-sex marriage and support for faith-based social programs -- that Republicans believe can provide common ground with black conservatives.

White House officials did not release a transcript of the hourlong meeting, but several participants said Bush was adamant that his Social Security plan had special appeal to blacks -- and that he intended to make that point in public.


“He brought to our attention that African Americans in particular need to understand how Social Security in its present condition affects the African American community,” said Michelle D. Bernard, senior vice president of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, a Washington policy group.

Robert L. Woodson, who heads the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, said Bush’s remarks were well received.

“He feels that we need to have some options,” said Woodson, whose organization focuses on community revitalization efforts, largely in low-income areas.

Underscoring the rift among black leaders, the president’s remarks are likely to meet resistance today when members of the all-Democrat Congressional Black Caucus are expected to visit the White House.

Caucus leaders contend that blacks rely disproportionately on disability and survivors benefits paid by Social Security, and that Bush’s changes would jeopardize the entire system -- hurting black beneficiaries far more than the private accounts might help them. Furthermore, the White House’s opponents argue, the vagaries of the stock market could leave holders of private accounts with fewer benefits than the current system guarantees.

“We’re very concerned that the administration has been less forthcoming on the real impact of these individual accounts on African American families,” said Maya Rockeymoore, vice president of research and programs for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. “When you look at the different ways that African Americans rely on Social Security ... we’re likely to be devastated.”

Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.), a Black Caucus member, estimated that 68% of disabled African Americans were kept out of poverty by the current disability benefits, while almost 80% of African Americans 65 and older depended on Social Security for more than half of their income.

“Deep cuts in guaranteed retirement, survivors and disability benefits are likely under any plan to privatize Social Security, and African American families cannot afford any cuts due to the disparities in income and unemployment,” Jefferson told reporters in a conference call last week.

But Bush and his aides made clear Tuesday that they intended to circumvent the caucus and other black Democrats in an aggressive public campaign to build support for their Social Security proposals.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush did not support altering the disability or survivors’ benefits of Social Security -- only the retirement benefits.

“This will enable [African Americans] to build a nest egg of their own and be able to pass that nest egg on to their survivors,” McClellan said.

The race question adds fuel to an already politically explosive debate that, to date, has largely focused on disagreements over when and if Social Security will go broke.

In a television appearance Sunday, Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, suggested that Congress consider whether gender and race should be factors in calculating Social Security benefits in order to deal with “inequities on who you are and how long you live.” Women, he said, benefit the most because they have the longest life spans, while blacks benefit the least.

In 2002, the latest year for which statistics are available, a 25-year-old white man was expected to live to 76, while the estimated life span of a black man of the same age was five years shorter, the National Center for Health Statistics reported.

Opponents of private accounts have seized on Thomas’ comments. Two Democratic members of the Ways and Means Committee -- Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio and Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles -- wrote Thomas a letter Tuesday, saying they were troubled by his refusal to rule out benefit cuts “which would disproportionately affect women, African American and Hispanic workers.”

They asked Thomas to clarify how his goal of “privatizing the Social Security program makes it easier, not harder, for people of color to achieve the financial security they have earned through a lifetime of hard work.”

Also Tuesday, Republican Senate leaders meeting with Bush at the White House urged him to move cautiously on Social Security, citing the political dangers of tinkering with the program ahead of competitive congressional campaigns next year.

Among those in the meeting was Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), a member of the Senate Finance Committee who has expressed concerns about how the diversion of payroll taxes into private accounts could undermine the current system. Both the senators and the black leaders told Bush that he needed to improve his public relations efforts on Social Security, participants in both meetings said.

“It’s a PR issue, and you’ve got to project in a way where the money would come from,” said Eugene Rivers, a Boston minister who supported Democrat Al Gore in 2000 but backed Bush last year.

Recent polls show that although many African Americans oppose private accounts, a substantial number -- as high as 40% -- are open to the idea, said Michael Tanner, a Social Security expert at the Cato Institute who is familiar with White House strategies on the issue.

“Let’s put it this way: Social Security reform is more popular than [Bush] is with black voters,” Tanner said.

In addition to discussing Social Security, Rivers and the Rev. Herbert Lusk, head of People for People, a community development group in Philadelphia, said Bush also promised to increase trade with Africa and focus funding on fighting AIDS on that continent. He also promised that his secretary of State-designate, Condoleezza Rice, would meet soon with black ministers to discuss Africa policy.