On the surface, Social Security may not seem to be a relevant topic for Black History Month. But it is. Social Security has helped provide Americans with basic financial security for generations of retirees, the disabled and their families.  It has been especially beneficial to Black Americans – whose average earnings and retirement savings are lower than their white counterparts’.

One-third of elderly Black couples and nearly two-thirds of unmarried Black seniors rely on Social Security for almost all of their monthly income.  It is a bedrock of financial stability. Without Social Security, 50% of Black Americans would be living in poverty.

In a 2020 article entitled, “Viewing Social Security Through the Civil Rights Lens,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson wrote about the program’s crucial role in the Black community:

“Today’s Social Security program protects Black families through retirement, disability, or death. Its insurance benefits are critical for African Americans who have fewer resources and become disabled at higher rates. Its progressive structure helps low-income earners — many of whom are African American — receive more benefits in relation to past earnings than high-wage earners.” – Derrick Johnson, NAACP President, 8/14/20  

People of color rely more heavily on Social Security because of a lack of other income in retirement.  Few elderly Black Americans receive income from pensions and assets.  White families have about six times more in average retirement savings than black families. This is because workers with lower earnings have a harder time saving. The average white man earns $2.7 million over a lifetime, while the average Black man earns $1.8 million. But Social Security is even more crucial for Black women, who typically live longer than men and have to stretch their financial resources over a longer span of years.

“For Black women, Social Security is a critical lifeline out of poverty. Given their longer lifespan and caregiver responsibilities across multiple generations, many of them have an increased reliance on Social Security during retirement. In addition, Black women’s lower lifetime earnings — which lag behind those of White men and women and Black men — make them even more dependent on Social Security’s progressive structure.” – NAACP, 8/14/20 

When President George W. Bush tried to privatize Social Security in 2005, the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus, and seniors’ advocacy groups (including the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare) successfully fought against it. President Bush sought to rationalize privatization (in part) by falsely claiming that Social Security was not a fair deal for Black Americans, who don’t typically live as long as other demographic groups and collect benefits for a shorter period of time.

“Recognizing the shorter life expectancy of people of color is commendable, but placing them further at risk is no solution,” said Julian Bond, who was Chairman of the NAACP at the time. Bond urged President Bush to focus instead on “the long-term problems the system faces now.”

With Social Security’s trust fund projected to become depleted in 2034, protecting the program’s financial integrity is paramount – not only for Black Americans but for all current and future beneficiaries.  Rep. John Larson, chair of the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, has put forth legislation to extend the solvency of the program and boost benefits for the most vulnerable retirees – including widows/widowers and those living close to the poverty line.

Perhaps the most eloquent summary of the connection between Black History Month and Social Security was penned by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA).  “Black History Month is an accounting and a representation of a generation’s work and pride distinguishing itself in our great country,” she wrote in 2011. “Social Security, too, is an accounting and representation of our lives spent working, paying into a system and being rewarded for it in our old age.”