“A feeling of security.” “A life saver.” “I wouldn’t be here without it.” That is how some of the Black retirees who attended a recent town hall in Richmond, Va., described Social Security. I had the pleasure of hosting that town hall — in partnership with AARP — as part of a new public education campaign about the importance of the program to the Black community. Let’s be clear: Social Security is important to all workers. But it is especially crucial for communities of color. As former Social Security Commissioner Carolyn Colvin explained at the town hall, Black workers are more likely to have lower-wage jobs without pensions or 401(k)s, making it harder to save for retirement. There are many reasons for this, including job discrimination and well-known historic inequities.
“For many in our community, Social Security is the sole source of income, and it keeps many people out of poverty,” Colvin told the audience of mostly Black retirees. In fact, without Social Security, 50.5 percent of Black Americans would be living in poverty. “It’s a life-saving entity,” town hall attendee George Ingram said. “It gives me a feeling of security because I can depend on my benefit every month — and it helps me with my daily expenses. So Social Security means a lot to me.” In 2017 (the most recent year such data is available), 35 percent of elderly Black married couples and 58 percent of unmarried Black seniors relied on Social Security for almost all of their household income. But retirement benefits are only part of the picture. Social Security also provides disability, spousal and survivors’ insurance to adults of all ages (and millions of children). Colvin says these coverages are crucial to the Black community, because Black workers have higher injury rates and lower life expectancy than white people. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney opened the town hall with a powerful testimonial about disability benefits. Stoney was raised by his grandmother, a widow who received Social
Security Disability Insurance. “Her benefits put food on the table and kept a roof over my family’s head,” Stoney told the audience. “I would not be here today if it wasn’t for Social Security.”
That is an important message not only for Black Americans, but for all Americans. Our campaign is about raising awareness of the crucial role that Social Security plays in our lives and will continue to play if Congress takes responsible action to strengthen the program. Reserves in Social Security’s combined trust fund are projected to become depleted in 2034, triggering an automatic 20 percent benefit cut. We can’t let that happen. Our organization supports legislation to extend the life of the trust fund by several decades and provide a modest, well-deserved benefit boost. (Retirees haven’t received an increase in core benefits since the early 1970s.) We largely can accomplish this by having the wealthy begin contributing their fair share to Social Security, instead of asking those who will least be able to afford it — future retirees — to bear the cost through benefit cuts. For the record, raising the retirement age to 69 or 70, as some in Congress have proposed, is a huge cut in lifetime benefits. Adopting a more miserly cost-of-living adjustment formula is a benefit cut. Means testing would slash benefits deep into the middle and working class, despite what its proponents might claim. And no plan to partly privatize Social Security would work without — you guessed it — cutting benefits.
“I worked a long time, long hours, for my Social Security, and when they talk about cutting benefits, I feel like they are taking money away that I worked for,” said Richmond town hall attendee, Harold Hockaday.
“I’m hoping Social Security will still be there [when I retire],” attendee Avis Cotton told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, echoing a common concern among the public that the program somehow will not survive, despite providing Americans with bedrock financial security for nearly 88 years.
This lack of confidence in the future of Social Security is attributable to myths and misinformation propagated by politicians and special interests seeking to undermine public support for the program. That’s why I spend a good amount of time at our town halls debunking myths and misinformation. And there’s a lot of it. First, the program is not “going bankrupt.” There is nearly $3 trillion in the trust fund. Although trust fund reserves will become depleted a decade from now without congressional action, Social Security itself will always be able to pay benefits because of incoming payroll taxes. The only way for the program to be “bankrupt” would be if we somehow had 100 percent unemployment, which is highly unlikely.
I also debunked the myth that politicians are “stealing” from Social Security (which emanates from a distorted view of how the trust fund works), and that the program is a “bad deal” for younger adults (even though Social Security has worked as an intergenerational compact for almost nine decades). I point out that the average 27-year-old with a spouse and two children already has $880,000 worth of life insurance and $900,00 worth of disability coverage from Social Security.
We hope that by sharing the facts about Social Security and emphasizing its value to American workers and especially communities of color, the public will continue to have faith in the program. Once people feel reassured, they can become advocates for Social Security in their own communities, ensuring that the overwhelming, bipartisan support the program enjoys in public polling remains robust.
“To get to where we want to be as a community, we have to share this information,” said Brandon Byerson, a financial planner and panelist at the Richmond town hall. “Take it seriously and have that conversation with the people that you love.”
Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. He is former staff director of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging.