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Civil Rights generation fights for financial equality

L. Toni Lewis | 3/21/2012, 7:43 a.m.

Adorned in a freshly ironed dress and satchel for her books, Ruby Bridges, age 6, walked past an angry mob and into the doors of William Frantz Elementary School.

The girl’s father was initially reluctant to let his daughter become the school’s first African American student, but her mother felt strongly that the move was needed not only to give her daughter a better education but also to “take this step forward for all African American children.”

That was the spring of 1960.

Ruby Bridges is now 57. As she and her peers, who were some of the youngest activists of America’s civil rights movement, begin to consider retirement, they are once again confronting another struggle for economic equality.

America’s looming retirement security crisis disproportionately affects African Americans, an alarming number of whom are retiring in poverty after a lifetime of work.

Half are economically insecure

More than half of African American retirees are economically insecure because of low income and high housing and health care costs, according to a 2011 study from the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass.

The researchers found that more than half of African American and Latino seniors are economically insecure.

And, according to the Brandeis study, a staggering 83 percent of African American seniors have insufficient assets to last throughout their remaining years.

All this is on top of today’s double-digit unemployment, underemployment and the predatory subprime mortgage scheme that targeted minorities and stripped families of their future gains in household wealth.

Last month an analysis of black and Latino retirement from the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Berkeley, revealed that poverty rates are twice as high among black and Latino elders, each at about 19 percent, compared to the overall senior U.S. population at 9.4 percent.

The retirement-security crisis is a problem for current retirees, who grapple with the decision of paying their rent or buying medicine. It is also a problem for their adult children, who often help pay their living expenses.

This threat of deepening poverty — driven by the economic downturn, inadequacies in Social Security and personal savings, and the erosion of traditional pensions in the private sector— looms for current workers, too.

A growing number of ethnic workers are less likely to be prepared for retirement.

The UC Berkeley study shows that less than a third of employed Latinos and less than half of black workers are covered by an employer sponsored retirement plan, a critical resource in ensuring adequate retirement income. As a result, they are disproportionately reliant on the limited income provided by Social Security.

African Americans tend to have lower earnings and household income, as well as higher unemployment, than white workers. Research shows ethnic families also tend to have fewer long-term assets and carry more debt than their white counter parts.

Solutions both economic and racial

Although resolving these issues is critical to delivering economic equality to minority families, finding solutions to ensure retirement security is a racial and economic justice imperative for all Americans.