The longer Social Security remains on the table for cuts as part of a comprehensive debt reduction plan, the more nervous those close to the program should be. And with good reason. Social Security was conceived as a protection against the risks—such as disability or lack of employment at older ages –that might lead to poverty. It is meant to work in conjunction with other retirement plans or savings as a critical piece of a comprehensive economic security plan. In the aftermath of the Great Recession and in the midst of economic recovery—when unemployment is high (9.1 percent unemployment as of May 2011)— it seems an especially inopportune time to discuss actions which might make people even more vulnerable to the very circumstances Social Security protects against.
While Social Security has benefited men and women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds and income levels, the impact of proposed cuts to Social Security on women of color is particularly troubling. Black women experience higher rates of poverty, are concentrated in low-wage jobs, have fewer employee benefits, and are less likely to work in jobs covered by pensions. This combination of circumstances makes black women particularly vulnerable to economic insecurity at older ages.
Following a fact sheet on the importance of Social Security to Latinas, IWPR released a fact sheet that describes the critical role Social Security plays in the lives of many black women. To begin with, the Social Security benefits received by black women are modest. Black women over the age of 62 average $961 per month in benefits as retired workers. Still, Social Security is the most common source of income for black women aged 62 and older—received by 49 percent of black women aged 62–64, 83 percent aged 65–74, and 88 percent of black women 75 years and older. In fact, a solid majority of black women aged 75 and older rely on Social Security for at least four-fifths of their income.
What would happen to these women if Social Security disappeared? Simply put, without the income received from Social Security many more black woman would live in families or as individuals with incomes below the poverty threshold. If you think this is an exaggeration (as some must, considering the attacks on the program), think again. Even with the program as it stands today, more than one in four black women aged 75 and older lives with an income below the poverty threshold. Without Social Security benefits, six out of ten of these women would live in poverty. When we talk about Social Security beneficiaries, images of the elderly are easily brought to mind. However, 26 percent of black women who receive Social Security do so not by consequence of reaching retirement age, but because of disability. This contrasts to the 12 percent of white women and 14 percent of all adult women combined who receive Social Security benefits due to disability and not age. In other words, for disability benefits alone Social Security is especially important to black women.
It is hard to tell when attacks on Social Security will stop. One thing is for certain: the puzzle of economic security is incomplete without a strengthened Social Security program.
Mallory Mpare is the Communications Fellow with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.