President Barack Obama is well aware of the devastating impact that any cuts in Social Security would have, either through direct benefit slashes or a formula change.
In a ringing statement in 2008, then Democratic presidential candidate Obama flatly said that more than two-thirds of Social Security recipients rely on Social Security for more than half of their monthly income.
But Obama also gave a guarded hint that Social Security might not be the sacred cow that prior Democratic and even Republican presidents have regarded it as. He repeatedly said that his concern was with the long term “solvency” of Social Security. He did not spell out exactly what “solvency” meant or what steps he would take to ensure that solvency. It was apparent that Obama even then believed that Social Security was in some danger and that some steps had to be taken to shore it up.
Obama, though, left the matter there. However, three years later that is no longer the case. With the GOP breathing down his neck to cut a deal to slash and burn programs that have profound effects on health, education and infrastructure spending, nothing is out of bounds and that obviously includes Social Security.
In a review of the positions on Social Security of the top three Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Obama in 2008, a summary question was “Does he or she pledge to not cut Social Security benefits?” The answer for Clinton and Edwards was an unequivocal “yes.” Obama’s answer was “no.”
That “no” has now ignited alarm and anger among House Democrats at the report that Obama had put the “tweak” of Social Security on the bargaining table to get a budget deal with the GOP. It has stirred even greater panic and alarm among those who need and depend on Social Security the most and those are minorities.
There is good reason for their anger; in fact, several good reasons. Social Security has been the jewel in the crown of the Democratic Party’s domestic program since FDR put pen to paper in August 1935 and signed the Social Security Act into law.
No Democratic president, and only one Republican president, has dared to even breathe a hint that Social Security should be changed. George W. Bush tried it with his scheme to privatize part of the program and that failed miserably.
The success of Social Security has rested on two major pillars. It provides a financial lifeline for millions of seniors, and the sick and disabled. Despite the GOP’s con job that it is an entitlement program that must be cut, it isn’t and never has been. It is self-supporting, has not added a nickel to the national debt, and has provided a major boost to the economy by pumping up spending.
The Social Security “tweak” that Obama reportedly put on the table would change the inflation measure that determines whether recipients get a cost of living boost or not. But the bigger reason for the Democrats’ panic and horror at the thought of this or any other change to Social Security is that it would spell even greater destitution for minorities.
Two figures tell the devastating impact that any cut in Social Security would have on minorities. Nearly 40 percent of African American recipients rely solely on a Social Security check for their income. One out of three African Americans and Hispanics would sink below the official poverty line without their Social Security payout.
The original idea was that Social Security would strictly be a supplement to the retirement income of older Americans. But as the figures on income and poverty show, that notion has long since been rendered moot. In 2008, only one out of four African Americans got any income from private assets compared to nearly 60 percent of whites. While more than 40 percent of older whites received income from pensions, the figure for blacks was slightly more than thirty percent.
The massive shrinking in public worker employment, the assault on labor union protections, private sector outsourcing and relentless rises in cost of living have sledge-hammered health and pension programs that traditionally were the primary income source for minorities and most workers. Social Security will have to fill even more of the plunging income void for them in the coming years.
It’s not just the aged among minorities that stand to be big losers with any benefit cut or cost of living formula change in Social Security. The burden will also fall heavily on the disabled. African Americans have higher rates of disability and are more likely to receive benefits from the Social Security Disability Insurance program. They have even less chance than able-bodied retirees of supplementing their Social Security benefits with outside income.
The GOP and President Obama will battle over how to slash Social Security. And, as always, the biggest casualties of that battle will be those who rely on Social security the most. And those are minorities.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a nationally syndicated columnist and an editor at New America Media.