Two fresh dangers in the looming Social Security battleground confront blacks and Hispanics. The GOP presidential candidates posed one when they again called for partially privatizing Social Security in recent stump speeches and statements. The idea is nothing but a rehash of the idea floated by George W. Bush in 2005. Bush proposed giving younger workers the option of stashing some of their Social Security payments in private accounts. The idea mercifully went nowhere. And Bush dropped the idea. Most economists called it a prescription for financial disaster; the stock market crash in 2008 punctuated the dire warnings that if billions of middle and low income workers had put their Social Security savings in private accounts a lifetime of earnings would have been instantly wiped out. The economic misery and chaos would have been catastrophic. Those hurt the most would have been those least able to take the financial hit.
The other danger is the soaring poverty numbers. Social Security stands squarely in the middle of the two dangers. The recent census report found that the number of Americans in poverty has hit a near all time high. A disproportionate number of those are blacks and Hispanics. This is where privatizing or any tweak, reduction, or downsize of Social Security would virtually guarantee that the economic pain to blacks and Hispanics would be unimaginable.
Nearly 40 percent of African-American recipients rely solely on a Social Security check for their income. One out of three African-Americans and Hispanics would sink below the official poverty line without their Social Security payout. The economic destitution for older African-Americans would be even worse. According to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, the poverty rate would more than double for them. It's not just older blacks that would suffer. Entire families would also be plunged even further to the financial bottom with any downsize tinkering in social security. More than one in five children depend heavily, many exclusively, on the benefits from Social Security payouts. The monies they receive are survivor benefits because blacks die earlier than whites after retirement.
The massive shrink in public worker employment, the assault on labor union protections, private sector outsourcing, and relentless rises in cost of living, have all sledge-hammered health and pension programs that traditionally were the primary income source for minorities and most workers. Social Security will have to fill even more of the plunging income void for them in the coming years.
GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry opened the door wide on the renewed debate and call by his GOP opponents to gut social security through partial privatization. But neither Perry nor the other GOP candidates have said where the money will come from to make up for the billions in the funding shortfall drained from the Social Security Trust Fund. Despite the doom and gloom predictions of the fund's eminent collapse, it is solvent through 2036. It currently has a $2.6 trillion surplus.
But the GOP candidates really don't have to lay out any plan to preserve the sustainable Social Security funding levels since many Americans are convinced that the system is perilously broken and will require drastic measures to fix it.
The absolute refusal of policymakers, both Democrats and Republicans, to even mention the word poverty, let alone come up with any tangible programs to deal with the escalating numbers of those in poverty further assure that there will be no effort made to spotlight the crucial role that Social Security plays in keeping down poverty. President Obama has gingerly moved around the issue for two reasons. One, Social Security has been mistakenly branded an entitlement, and any talk of preserving an entitlement as a sacred cow is increasingly seen as a political albatross. It's also regarded as a virtual political kiss of death to talk about anything other than finding ways to chop down government spending. And since Social Security and Medicare are by far the best known and most politically vulnerable government programs to target for change and cuts, they have become the favored political whipping programs of both parties.
The Democrats' caution on Social Security and the GOP presidential candidates' increasingly bold attacks on it don't change two facts about Social Security. It's still the program that tens of millions rely on for a significant portion, or all, of their income, and without it they'd be in hopeless poverty. A disproportionate number of those are blacks and Hispanics. The other is that despite the drum beat attacks on it and relentless cry of wolf about its impending collapse, polls show that the overwhelming majority of voters, especially seniors, back Social Security as it is, and will punish any presidential candidate that makes calls for gutting Social Security a part of their campaign rhetoric. This is the saving grace for those who depend on it the most, at least for now.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst and Monday co-host of the Al Sharpton Show. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour on KTYM Radio Los Angeles streamed on ktym.com podcast on blogtalkradio.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com
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