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Bush’s stealth attack on Social Security | EPI Viewpoints

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


Bush’s stealth attack on Social Security

By  William E. Spriggs

When president Bush launched his drive to change Social Security, he argued in part, that it was unfair to African-Americans because their shorter life expectancy cheated them out of old-age benefits.

The president got it wrong, though, because he did not acknowledge that African-Americans benefit disproportionately from the survivor and disability benefits that are integral to the program. Now this omission has resurfaced with a vengeance in a proposal to limit access to the disability benefits.

Social Security isn’t simply for the aged. In a society that requires individuals work to support for their families, Social Security balances the moral equation with benefits for when someone cannot work. It provides coverage when people become too old to work, when a bread-winner has died, and also when a worker becomes disabled. The proposed rules would deny coverage for disabled workers and their families.

About 17 percent of Social Security beneficiaries are disabled, or are the spouse or child of a disabled worker. Unable to muster the political will to cut benefits to old-age beneficiaries, the administration now has taken aim at disability benefits.

While African-Americans make up roughly 11.5 percent of workers covered by Social Security and are only about 8.5 percent of those receiving retirement benefits, they are nearly 18 percent of those getting disability benefits. Studies of the returns on the payments that African-Americans make into the Social Security system show that they do as well as whites, partly because of the progressive nature of the retirement benefit, and partly because of the disability component.

Cuts in disability benefits can upset the delicate balance that makes the system fair for African-Americans.

The administration’s plan would push the complex set of factors used to determine eligibility, making it more difficult to qualify at younger ages. They argue that there is a decline in “blue-collar” work, and that older workers are healthier than they used to be.

Here, too, the administration fails the accuracy test. The decline in blue-collar jobs, especially in manufacturing, does not mean that low-skilled work is becoming more sedentary. African-Americans remain much more likely than whites to be in production or material-moving occupations, 16 percent compared to 12 percent. Many service occupations African-Americans hold — such as janitors, private security guards and nursing assistants — are physically demanding and require good health.

Current research suggests that workers receiving disability benefits are, in fact, not able to maintain full-time regular employment. Raising the eligibility bar will simply cut disability benefits. Perhaps more damaging to those with chronic health issues, it will also cut them off from insurance-Medicare — vitally important to their health.

Moreover, of all children who receive benefits because their parent is disabled, about 21 percent are African-American. Raising the eligibility age for workers also means fewer children will be helped while their parents struggle, unfit for today’s labor market.

This attempted fix for Social Security solvency is being done quietly, through a regulation change posted for public comment. There’s no fanfare from the president, but those who will be harmed will be the victims of his flawed Social Security argument.

By mischaracterizing the program as only old-age benefits, he glossed over the real issue at the core of the debate on whether Americans are adequately served by the system.

Now he is about to make the disabled and African-Americans pay to solve everyone’s problem. That’s what I call unfair.

William E. Spriggs is a  senior fellow at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.


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