When President Gerald Ford created the first National African American History Month in 1976, he urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Since then, every American president has issued African American History Month proclamations.

This year, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare will commemorate the month with blog posts from a number of the nation’s leading policy analysts, lawmakers, and community leaders.  We’ll examine the importance of programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to the African American community while also paying tribute to generations of African Americans who have struggled with adversity to achieve full citizenship in American society.  NCPSSM Board Chair, Dr. Maya Rockeymoore, begins the month with a look to the future.


Dr. Maya Rockeymoore

NCPSSM Board Chair and President/CEO of Global Policy Solutions


Strengthening Social Security for a Changing America

Some may be afraid of the news.

Children of color are now a majority of all babies born in the U.S.

And the Census Bureau projects that people of color will exceed the number of whites by the year 2043.

From debt reduction proposals to education and health policies, our nation’s changing racial and ethnic demographics have implications for a wide range of policy decisions at the forefront of the national debate about America’s future. Social Security is a case in point.

The strength of Social Security will be more important than ever because people of color are the least likely to have other sources of wealth to rely on in retirement or in the event of disability or the early death of a breadwinner. The ongoing debate about inequality in America has virtually ignored the racial wealth gap even as demographic shifts indicate its growing significance for the nation. A recent Pew Research Center report showed that in 2009 the typical African American and Latino household owned only five and six cents respectively for every one dollar in assets held by the average non-Hispanic white family.  This wealth disparity is reflected in how racial and ethnic groups use Social Security.

The program accounts for the bulk of retirement income for 70 percent of Americans, but its importance as a retirement savings vehicle is even larger for people of color. According to the Social Security Administration, African American and Hispanic seniors are more likely than whites to rely on Social Security for all or almost all of their retirement income.

Reasons for racial wealth disparities are complex but include the fact that people of color have less access to private pension plans and lower enrollment in or contributions to them when they are available, lower rates of investing and home ownership, and fewer opportunities for wealth creation through business ownership. People of color also have a heavier reliance on Social Security’s survivor and disability benefits.  For example, only 26 percent of whites receiving Social Security rely on it for non-retirement benefits compared to 47 percent of African Americans and 41 percent of other people of color. The poorer health status, lower levels of education, and higher rates of poverty experienced by some people of color contribute to their disproportionate rates of disability and early death.

Some believe that race or ethnicity doesn’t matter when it comes to reforming Social Security. But this perspective ignores the fact that there are demographic winners and losers depending on how the program is structured. For example, raising the retirement age—a popular reform option among Republicans and some Democrats—disadvantages those with shorter life spans: a group that is blacker, browner, poorer, and more blue-collar than those who live longer.

There is a fairer way to reform Social Security so that it is well financed and strong for at least another 75 years. One approach, advanced by the Commission to Modernize Social Security (of which I am a co-chair), recommends removing the cap on payroll taxes so that high wage earners contribute more, extending coverage to all newly hired state and local workers and slowly increasing the Social Security payroll tax by a fraction of a percent over a 20-year period to close the funding gap. The Commission’s report also calls for strengthening benefits to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse and economically insecure society. It recommends boosting benefits for the very old, widowed spouses, and the very poor; providing credits for workers taking time off to care for family members; and restoring benefits for college students whose working parent has died, become disabled, or retired.

In his remarks upon the release of the Social Security Trustees report, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner called for a solution that “…strengthens Social Security and does not hurt current recipients, slash benefits for future generations, or tie the program to the stock market.” By prioritizing an equitable reform approach that secures Social Security’s finances while making benefits stronger for everyone, the Commission’s proposal meets Mr. Geithner’s test. As a result, it should receive a full and fair hearing in Washington.

Some politicians, backed by the billion dollar anti Social Security and Medicare lobby, have tried to use a series of self-created Congressional fiscal “crises” to justify benefit cuts to millions of American families. Cutting already modest benefits in Social Security ignores the true causes of our federal deficit and weakens our nation’s most successful anti-poverty and retirement security program. Given the high stakes for U.S. workers of all backgrounds, our nation’s leaders should resist back room deal making in favor of an open process that gives ample consideration to proposals strengthening, not cutting, Social Security to address the needs of an increasingly diverse America.   

Dr. Maya Rockeymoore is Board Chair of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare, Co-chair of the Commission to Modernize Social Security, and President of Global Policy Solutions, a policy consulting firm based in Washington, DC.