- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 9, 2001

Hubris really gives you a lot of latitude. I hope you don't think I am talking about the Chandra Levy case. I am referring to the recent criticisms about Social Security being a raw deal for blacks. Practically everyone knows that over the long term, our current Social Security program faces financial and demographic pressures that cannot be ignored.

The President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security, a bipartisan group created to encourage Social Security reform, recently released a preliminary report and the numbers are grim. The Social Security program will start running a deficit by 2016. By 2038, the Trust Fund will be exhausted and the program will only be able to pay 75 percent of the benefits it has promised to retirees. If no action is taken, massive benefit reductions or tax increases will be necessary.

You have probably heard variations of this before. But what you may not have heard is that Social Security is an especially bad deal for blacks, particularly black men. Why? Blacks generally have a shorter life expectancy than do whites, and as a result, they receive less total Social Security payments over the course of their lifetime. This contributes to a growing wealth gap between blacks and whites.

The liberals won't tell you this, but Social Security taxes also squeeze out other forms of savings and investment. Again, this means that many blacks are unable to accumulate real wealth. After paying daily living expenses, many blacks have no funds left over to invest. Moreover, since Social Security benefits cannot be inherited, the wealth inequity is compounded from one generation to the next.

If you simply raise the retirement age, cut benefits or increase taxes, you only make the problem worse. Rather than responding to this legitimate criticism of Social Security, a liberal think tank called the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (perhaps more aptly named the "I've never seen a big government program that didn't make me drool in awe") says it's unfair to report that blacks of the same income receive substantially less than whites. Why is it unfair? Could it be that we might be forced to re-examine our deeply cherished belief to paraphrase Dr. Joycelyn Elders that every government program is a wanted program?

You think I am joking? According to this group, focusing on blacks and whites is misleading when you only compare similar incomes. The center observes that Social Security has a progressive formula designed to assist lower income workers. Therefore, differences between whites and blacks should be ignored. What? You still don't get it. Well, they explain that since there are more black lower income workers than whites voilà blacks benefit from the Social Security program. Please. Shifting the debate away from the bad deal that Social Security is for blacks (regardless of income because it gives lower income workers a slightly higher return) does nothing to mitigate the inequities. Here is the reality: Poor black workers, middle income black employees and wealthy black earners do poorly when compared to whites in the same group. Why can't the enter see that? You just can't be this wrong by accident. Even a Pavlovian devotion to coercive government schemes shouldn't blind you to the facts.

To be generous, maybe the problem for the liberals is that their systemic willingness to exploit racial sensitivities over the last 35 years has inured them to the real racially-based inequities of this particular program. In any event, the facts are real. Social Security is a raw deal for black Americans.

Imagine if similar disparities existed in employment or in housing. Would the so-called progressives really say it is not noteworthy because poorer people in general were helped overall? Of course not. But when a government program is mistreating people, they conveniently look the other way.

Nevertheless, looking the other way is not only wrong, it is also cruel. Elderly blacks are much more likely to be dependent on Social Security benefits for most or all of their retirement income. If the system is unfair to them, they have very little recourse.

So what should we do? One promising approach is to rely on market-based Social Security solutions. This would disconnect benefits from life expectancy and banish the pitifully poor Jim Crow-style return on investment to the back of the bus. Benefits would be based on what was paid into the system rather than how long you live. Additionally, under such an approach, benefits could be made a part of the person's estate to be inherited by heirs

Many blacks understand this. In fact, a recent Zogby poll showed that blacks support privatization by 58 to 30 percent. Unfortunately, the big government zealots are blind to this reality. They think if government isn't doing it it is either not getting done or not worth doing.

It is precisely this mentality that must be corrected. The lesson of the 20th century is that statist big government bureaucracies are destined to fall short in their objectives. The President's commission gives us a great opportunity to rectify a true injustice, while at the same recognizing the modern benefits of the free market for a critical issue like retirement security. You would have to be blind not to see that.

Horace Cooper is counsel and director of coalitions for Rep. Dick Armey and a senior fellow with the Center for New Black Leadership.

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