Social Security: The 75-year-old lifeline for many African-Americans

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by Catherine Georges

(NNPA)—Just like the years fly by as we age, it’s hard to believe it’s been 75 years since Social Security was first created. And for many Americans of all generations, and of all ethnic backgrounds, Social Security is a lifeline. To fully celebrate this historic anniversary, we need to recognize the program’s importance and its value for future generations.

Social Security is without a doubt the most successful government program in history. In fact, 53 million Americans get benefits, and a vastly larger number are protected if tragedy strikes. Social Security checks put food in the refrigerator, and shoes on people’s feet. They help people repair their homes, buy medicine and pay for utility bills.

However, for a great many households, Social Security is the only source of income. That’s why it’s more critical than ever to ensure the future of Social Security is solid.

For African-Americans in particular, the time is now to ensure that the program stays strong so it can continue to provide the lifetime guaranteed benefits that people depend on.

The average retirement benefit from Social Security is around $14,000—but for Africans-Americans, and due to income levels and varying financial situations, average benefits are lower.

For example, in 2008, the average annual Social Security income received by African-American men 65 and older was around $13,000, and $11,000 for African-American women. Among African-Americans receiving Social Security, 28 percent of elderly married couples and 54 percent of unmarried elderly persons relied on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income. Furthermore, a recent research released by Brandeis University and Demos, a public policy organization, finds that older African-Americans face widespread financial insecurity during retirement, a trend accelerated by the current economic crisis.

So how do we ensure Social Security remains viable for older Americans while at the same time stays strong for our children and grandchildren?

First, we need to find ways to reduce the nation’s debt, without harming Social Security. Unfortunately, some of our country’s lawmakers are considering Social Security cuts to help reduce the federal budget deficit. This is wrong and unfair. Social Security has not contributed one dime to the deficit. We need to remember that these benefits help families pay their bills. We need to keep our priorities in order.

Next, we need to address the long-term solvency of Social Security. We will need to make some careful changes to put Social Security on stable footing for the long haul. This will require some gradual adjustments to revenues and benefits. But we need to make the right changes, so basic protections endure. We need to make sure we maintain adequate guaranteed benefits, especially for those who need them the most.

Finally, Social Security faces a challenge of confidence. For too long, the public has heard that benefits won’t be there when they need them. This pessimism is harmful and off base. It’s time for people to get the facts.

Social Security is not going bankrupt. Without any changes at all, Social Security can continue to pay 100 percent of promised benefits until 2037 and more than 75 percent of benefits after that. But that is not good enough, especially for the people who need Social Security to make ends meet.

Overall, any changes to Social Security should preserve the basic “earned right” character of the program and its fairness, including progressive benefits that are helpful to lower-income workers. Changes must always protect the most vulnerable. Finally, those who pay into Social Security should be able to count on benefits, adjusted for inflation, for as long as they live.

We want to celebrate more historic anniversaries for Social Security in the future. By keeping this great program strong, we can make sure that will happen.

(Catherine Georges is a member of the AARP board of directors. For more information on the health care law, go to http://www.aarp.org/getthefacts.)

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