Op-Ed

Viewing Social Security Through The Civil Rights Lens

August 14, 2020

By NAACP President Derrick Johnson

Today, our nation marks the 85th anniversary of one of the most consequential social programs ever enacted—the Social Security Act of 1935. Considered a signature part of New Deal reform, Social Security sought to provide a measure of income security for older persons and some other vulnerable populations. It also paved the way for future federal protections such as Medicare and the Affordable Care Act. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the bill, he recognized its impact and its promise, calling it “a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete.”

But like other components of the New Deal, the origins of Social Security were rooted in racism. The Act initially omitted large categories of workers of color from retirement benefits and unemployment insurance. When Congress held hearings on the bill in 1935, the NAACP testified that a provision insisted upon by Southern politicians to exempt agricultural and domestic workers would disproportionately exclude Black workers. It was none other than Charles Hamilton Houston, architect of the legal challenge to the “separate but equal” doctrine resulting in Brown v. Board of Education, who objected on behalf of the NAACP and warned Congress that the bill would exclude “Negro sharecroppers and Negro cash tenants, who are just about at the bottom of the economic scale.”

Despite the NAACP’s opposition, the Social Security Act passed with these exemptions intact. As a result, 65 percent of African Americans throughout the country were ineligible for benefits, with an even higher percentage of African Americans in the South excluded from the program. The NAACP’s Charles Hamilton Houston described the law as a “sieve with the holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through.” The exemptions were finally repealed in the 1950s, but they had significantly worsened the economic gap between Blacks and Whites.

Today’s Social Security program protects Black families through retirement, disability, or death. Its insurance benefits are critical for African Americans who have fewer resources and become disabled at higher rates. Its progressive structure helps low-income earners—many of whom are African American—receive more benefits in relation to past earnings than high-wage earners. Older African Americans with lower lifetime earnings and fewer pension benefits are dependent upon Social Security: In 2017, 35 percent of married older African Americans and 58 percent of unmarried older African Americans received 90 percent or more of their income from Social Security. Nevertheless, African Americans benefit less overall from this program due to the persistent pay gap, as well as shorter life spans.

For Black women, Social Security is a critical lifeline out of poverty. Given their longer lifespan and caregiver responsibilities across multiple generations, many of them have an increased reliance on Social Security during retirement. In addition, Black women’s lower lifetime earnings—which lag behind those of White men and women and Black men—make them even more dependent on Social Security’s progressive structure.

This safety net must be protected. In 2005, President George W. Bush threatened to privatize the program and used the shortened life expectancy and systemic inequality experienced by African Americans as justification. The NAACP mounted a nationwide campaign, “SOS—Save Our Social Security,” and joined with the Congressional Black Caucus to successfully defend the program. NAACP then-Chairman Julian Bond stated: “We urge the Administration to address the long-term problems the system faces now. Recognizing the shorter life expectancy of people of color is commendable but placing them further at risk is no solution.” Donald Trump’s efforts today to cut payroll taxes which fund Social Security must be similarly defeated.

Social Security continues to provide a backstop against persistent economic inequality. Our nation has made little progress in reducing wealth and income disparities between Black and White households. The net worth of a White family is still 10 times greater than that of a Black family. Despite laws banning pay discrimination, Black men earn 83 cents and Black women earn 62 cents for every dollar earned by White men. Redlining and housing discrimination have made home-ownership impossible or much less lucrative for Black households. These structural barriers produce diminished opportunities for Black families to build wealth, save for retirement, and pass financial stability to the next generation.

Social Security is even more critical during the coronavirus crisis, which has exacerbated racial disparities. Fewer than half of Black adults currently have a job. Small businesses owned by Black Americans have been forced to close at twice the rate of White-owned small businesses. Black families are now significantly more likely to be food insecure, and their chances of missing a rental or mortgage payment are higher than other racial groups.

The racial disparities revealed by coronavirus and the spotlight on systemic racism resulting from horrific police brutality give our nation a new mandate for building bold social programs that correct longstanding inequalities, repair our economy, and restore the welfare of our families. The relief legislation currently considered by Congress, future programs from a new administration, and private efforts by industry all must center people of color in plans to rebuild and strengthen our economic security. Although the original Social Security Act was racially flawed, we have a new opportunity to move forward with a bold, fair, and comprehensive approach to economic security for all Americans—which must include a robust Social Security.

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About NAACP

Founded in 1909 in response to the ongoing violence against Black people around the country, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) is the largest and most pre-eminent civil rights organization in the nation. We have over 2,200 units and branches across the nation, along with well over 2M activists. Our mission is to secure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights in order to eliminate race-based discrimination and ensure the health and well-being of all persons.

In media attributions, please refer to us as the NAACP.

NOTE: The Legal Defense Fund – also referred to as the NAACP-LDF was founded in 1940 as a part of the NAACP, but separated in 1957 to become a completely separate entity. It is recognized as the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization, and shares our commitment to equal rights.