WASHINGTON – The way President Bush (search) explained it to a group of black supporters last week, blacks are short-changed Social Security income because they are more likely than whites to die before receiving their fair share of retirement benefits.
It is true that blacks, on average, have shorter lifespans than whites. But that is not the only factor that needs to be considered, say economists who study the government's retirement program.
Social Security (search) pays lower-income workers more, relative to what they pay into the program, than higher-income workers. Blacks are paid less than whites on average, so the distribution of benefits favors them. That evens out the discrepancy caused by the difference in death rates, said economist Jeffrey Liebman, a former Clinton administration official whose research is often cited by the Bush administration in support of its own policies.
But there are other features of Social Security that tip the balance further toward blacks. Spouses and dependents of Social Security beneficiaries who die continue receiving half of the deceased person's benefits. Furthermore, the program pays not just retirement benefits but disability benefits to those too sick or injured to work. Blacks, 13 percent of the population, comprise 17 percent of the disability beneficiaries.
On balance, the program may actually benefit blacks more than whites, according to analyses by the AARP (search), scholars such as Liebman and the Social Security Administration's actuaries. Only the conservative Heritage Foundation has concluded otherwise.
Numbers aside, says Liebman, lower income people benefit more from Social Security simply because for them, the program makes the difference between poverty and a decent standard of living. For the well off, it's just another source of retirement income.
Liebman says he favors personal retirement accounts — the cornerstone of the Bush Social Security plan — as long as they are implemented with certain safeguards.
"There are a lot of good reasons to establish personal retirement accounts," he says. "Racial disparities in rates of return from Social Security isn't one."
The Social Security argument highlights a little-discussed but longstanding social problem: the continuing disparity in life expectancy between whites and blacks in America. In 2001, the average life expectancy of a black male at birth was 68.6 — 6.4 years less than that for a white male. The average life expectancy for a black female was 75.5 years — 4.7 years less than for a white female.
"We need to reorient our priorities," said Robert S. Levine, a professor in the family and community medicine department at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn. In a 2001 study, he found that the federal government's stated goal of eliminating health disparities by 2010 would be nearly impossible to realize.
The disparity in life expectancy is even worse for blacks who live in poverty. A 2001 study by the University of Michigan found that in the poorest neighborhoods of Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, a 16-year-old black male could expect to die at 59 years old — 15 years younger than the average white male his age.
Behind the discrepancy lies myriad threats to survival that afflict poor blacks from before birth to old age:
Blacks are 2.5 times more likely than whites to die in the first year of life.
Because they are exposed to more air pollution and have less access to health care, black children, and Hispanic children as well, die of asthma at about three times the rate of whites.
In their teenage and young adult years, young black men are more likely than whites to meet violent deaths. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search) found that homocide deducts about seven months from the life expectancy of the average black male.
HIV and AIDS (search) also disproportionately affect blacks. In 2000, the rate of new AIDS cases was 10 times higher in blacks compared to whites.
Later in life, blacks are more likely to die from a number of chronic diseases, especially diabetes and high blood pressure.
"If the problem we're trying to address is African-Americans having lower life expectancy, increasing their retirement benefits and their ability to pass wealth on to their children is not the way to do that," Liebman said.
According to Philip Landrigan, a professor of community and preventive medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, "the most immediate thing that needs to be done is that we need to take steps to improve the access of poor people, and poor children especially, to the health care system."
In New York's Harlem neighborhood, a program that offered medical care, education, and legal help pressing landlords to deal with mold, dust and air problems in apartments recently cut emergency room and unscheduled doctor visits by 75 percent.
Racism also probably plays a role in shortening black peoples' lives, Landrigan said. Some studies suggest that even when you take into account lifestyle differences, the lack of access to health care and all other factors, there is still an excess incidence of high blood pressure among blacks due to the stress of prejudice.
"The only explanation that people have been able to put on this is that it represents the cumulative effect of the small day-to-day insults that constitute racism in our society," Landrigan said.