Civil Rights generation fights for financial equality

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

Experts agree that providing more sensible retirement options to today’s workforce and reinforcing supports for current retirees will make Americans less vulnerable to poverty in their golden years.

For instance, last November, the Commission to Modernize Social Security, a coalition of organizations representing multicultural elders, published its report, “Plan for a New Future: The Impact of Social Security Reform on People of Color.”

During a recent webinar on the report, one commission member, Wilhelmina Leigh, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, in Washington, D.C., noted that blacks and Latinos today have little or no retirement savings. Average Social Security retirement benefits, she said, are only about $1,200 per month, and often less for elders of color. In addition, she said, seven in 10 older African Americans and Hispanics have merely $25,000 or less in savings.

Unfortunately, lawmakers beholden to Wall Street CEOs have proposed “reforms” to state and local pensions around the country that reduce retirement security for public workers.

Armed with heavy rhetoric, these lawmakers have waged war on traditional pensions by demonizing public-sector workers. The typical “greedy” public employee whose pension they have slashed in some states and hope to cut in others is actually an African American father, who diligently rides on the back of a city garbage truck to provide a modest, decent living for his family.

A 2010 study of public-sector workers by Hye Jin Rho of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., stated that policymakers “must not overlook the fact that a large share of public sector workers are in physically strenuous jobs.”

Rho showed, for example, that “almost half (47.5 percent) of local government employees between ages 55 to 65 held difficult jobs – physically demanding jobs or jobs with difficult working conditions – in 2009.”

War waged on social security

These lawmakers and their allies have also waged war on Social Security by making false claims that it is failing. They’ve called for cuts to the program, such as raising the retirement age to 69 or 70, increases that would shrink retirement income for low-income seniors, especially ethnic elders, even further.

But Social Security continues to be solvent. Social Security may face shortfalls 25 years from now, however, projected shortfalls can be eliminated if the program is reformed to ensure the wealthy pay their fair share into the system.

These sources of modest retirement income have successfully kept many retirees out of poverty. Social Security lifts 13 million elderly out of poverty while 4.6 million seniors would be classified as poor or near poor without their modest pension income.

It’s hard to believe that it was only 52 years ago when Ruby Bridges entered the hallways of William Frantz Elementary School and it’s hard to imagine how many of her peers will retire in poverty.

Dr. L. Toni Lewis is chair of the Service Employees International Union’s healthcare division.