Struggle for Equality Continues for Civil Rights Generation
by L. Toni Lewis, New America Media
March 3, 2012
Picture Credit: www.newamericamedia.org
Adorned in a freshly-ironed dress and satchel
for her books, Ruby Bridges, age six, 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 rather
to “take this step forward for all African American children.”
That was the spring of 1960.
Ruby Bridges is now age 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, 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 over half (52 percent) of African-American
and 56 percent of Latino seniors are economically insecure.
And, says the Brandeis study, a staggering 83 percent of African
American seniors have insufficient assets to last throughout their
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
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 blacks
and Latinos 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 whether to pay their rent or buy medicine.
It is also a problem for their adult children, who often help pay their
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
A growing number of ethnic workers are less likely to be prepared for
The UC Berkeley study shows that fewer 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
Although resolving these issues is critical to delivering economic
equality to minority families, finding solutions to ensure retirement
security is a racial as well as an economic justice imperative for all
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, ion 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
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 by 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.