Someone should have walked out of the room over this. When President George W. Bush cobbled together a handpicked group of Black religious and community leaders for a chat at the White House, he tried to sell them on his plan to add private accounts to Social Security. But while Bush has used youth as a way to sell the plan to people who have come of age after the 1970s and who believe, erroneously, that there will be no money left for them once they hit retirement age, for Blacks, he is using another sales pitch: Death.
Bush said, in essence, that Blacks will benefit from his plan because they die sooner than whites, and because of that, they end up paying more into the system than what they get out of it.
At that point, the atmosphere in the room should have shifted from one of congeniality to one of concern and outrage. I mean, here’s the president telling Black folks, in a nutshell, that their shortened lives – lives shortened by racism and lack of access to decent health care and other essentials – is something that they ought to look at cashing in on rather than trying to change.
But judging from news reports, no one in that crowd caught the insult. It seems that many of them were too busy worrying about Bush’s goals to stop gays from marrying than his goals to help Black folks live longer.
And that’s a shame.
First of all, it is true that at birth, Black men are expected to live to age 66, while white men are expected to live to age 74. At birth, Black women can expect to live to age 76, while white women can expect to live to age 81.
Yet the notion that Blacks’ shorter life spans cause them to reap fewer retirement benefits from Social Security simply isn’t true. According to a number of experts, as well as the AARP, while Black men are expected to live eight years less than white men at birth, once they make it to retirement age, that gap narrows to less than two years. For Black women who live to retirement age, that gap also shrinks to less than two years. Meaning that once Blacks are eligible to collect Social Security retirement benefits, they are likely to benefit as much as whites. Not only that, but because Blacks, on average, earn less than whites, they benefit more when those benefits are distributed.
On top of that, Blacks are more likely than whites to collect Social Security Disability benefits than whites. That’s because Blacks, who make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, make up about 18 percent of those receiving those disability benefits.
So to me, the conversation those Blacks who met with Bush at the White House shouldn’t have dwelled on what he was doing to stop Social Security from cheating Blacks, but what his administration was doing to stop the problems that are reducing the chances of Black people even making it to the age when they can collect retirement benefits from that program.
I suspect they wouldn’t have gotten a straight answer.
This is, after all, the administration that last year deleted many references to race in the National Healthcare Disparities Report. Among other things, the scientists found that Blacks and other minorities are more likely to be diagnosed with diseases too late, and receive bad health care in general. Racial disparities in health care, it said, were pervasive.
Administration officials, however, yanked many examples of Black people’s health problems from the report – and glossed over serious issues by saying that improvements were being made.
Yet while Bush and his boys went out of their way to minimize the health care disparities that contribute to Blacks’ lower chances of survival at birth, he was quick to try to sell his handpicked Blacks on how to cash in on that sad predicament — a predicament that he and his cronies would rather deny than deal with.
That isn’t right.
It’s all part of a pattern, of course. This is, after all, the administration that exploited the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 to guide this nation into an unnecessary war. So why shouldn’t Bush exploit the lowered life expectancies of Black people for political gain?
What Bush did doesn’t shock me. But it should have shocked the Black leaders who met with him. The fact that the president, in essence, chose to pimp our misery to push his agenda when his administration has the knowledge, power and responsibility to do something about it should have caused at least one of those so-called Black leaders to leave the meeting outraged.
Or, at the very least, ashamed.
Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist for the Florida Times-Union and has appeared on Nightline and BET Tonight. This article was originally published Feb. 1 on BlackAmericaWeb.com and is reprinted by permission of the author.