- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2005

President Bush met last week with the Congressional Black Caucus. It was an affirmation of his “duty to serve all Americans,” including those, like the caucus, who were constant critics during his first term in the White House, who bitterly opposed his re-election. Mr. Bush was particularly magnanimous considering that caucus members mounted a highly partisan drive earlier this month to deny the Republican president the 20 electoral votes of Ohio. It was the first time since 1969 that a state’s presidential vote was challenged in Congress. Yet, the new chairman of the black caucus, Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina, suggests black lawmakers want to build better relations with Mr. Bush during the next four years. “There is,” he said, “a freshness of attitude that comes with a new administration, we hope.” Of course, Mr. Watt and his colleagues, all Democrats, most of them liberal, won’t see eye to eye with Mr. Bush, the conservative Republican, on the range of issues. However, in some areas the caucus and the president can find common ground, such as education. Perhaps the biggest injustice in this country is that so many black youngsters are consigned to failing public schools, are victims of what Mr. Bush calls “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Part of the problem is money. And since he first took office in 2001, Mr. Bush has increased Title I funding for the nation’s low-income public schools 52 percent and has asked Congress to increase funding for special education by 75 percent. But money is not a panacea, and the evidence is right at the doorstep of caucus members. Washington, D.C., spends more per pupil than all but a handful of states. Yet its predominantly black student population ranks near the bottom of the country in academic performance. To address that, President Bush signed into law a federally financed voucher program for needy parents in the nation’s capital, allowing them to move their children from miserable public schools to better private or parochial schools. The caucus should seek expansion of federal vouchers to other cities where black children are being miseducated. Then, on Social Security, caucus Chairman Watt acknowledges: “The basic Social Security benefit has disparities for African-Americans. We die earlier and subsidize those who live longer.” Indeed, because of different life expectancies, blacks average nearly $21,000 less than whites in lifetime benefits, according to a presidential commission on Social Security. A study by the National Center for Policy Analysis adds that the rate of return on Social Security for black workers is adversely affected by how benefits are calculated. That’s because blacks tend to enter the work force earlier than whites (mainly because blacks are more likely to forgo college). Social Security benefits are based on the highest 35 years of wage income. So, although a person may have started work at, say, 19 years of age, though they may work some 46 years before they are eligible for Social Security, more than a decade of their work, their taxes, will be ignored in calculating benefits. That’s why the personal retirement accounts (PRAs) Mr. Bush proposes as part of Social Security reform would be a boon to future black retirees. They would allow black workers to invest a portion of their payroll taxes in an account — similar to an Individual Retirement Account or 401(k) retirement plan — so they can enjoy the fruits of compound interest. The beauty of PRAs, as the National Center notes, is that they would disconnect Social Security benefits from life expectancy because the rate of return would be based on the investment of wages rather than on age. They also would allow blacks to capitalize on additional working years by investing for retirement while young. And because PRAs would be individually owned, blacks could accumulate wealth and pass it down to their heirs. More than half of blacks favor PRAs, according to a Zogby poll last year. Mr. Watts and his fellow black lawmakers ought to join with Mr. Bush in making them a reality. Finally, there’s homeownership. While three-quarters of white Americans own their own homes, less than half of blacks are homeowners. “We must begin to close this homeownership gap,” said Mr. Bush, “by dismantling the barriers that prevent minorities from owning a piece of the American Dream.” As in education, money is part of closing the housing gap. And the president has given his imprimatur to a federal program helping low-income families come up with down payments when they qualify to buy a home. He also has supported a single-family affordable housing credit to provide builders an incentive to build homes for low-income buyers in distressed areas. But there is another impediment to enlarging black homeownership: That is the insidious opposition to new home construction by well-organized interests, the NIMBYs who feign concern about the homeownership gap but would deny blacks the single-family homes they themselves enjoy. Property ownership is as integral to black upward mobility as civil rights. And on that Mr. Bush and black lawmakers almost certainly can agree. Joseph Perkins is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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