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Civil Rights generation fights for financial equality

L. Toni Lewis
Civil Rights generation fights for financial equality

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.

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.