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Social Security denied to millions of ethnic elders

Paul Kleyman

Even in this period of intense national debate over the National Debt, Americans fiercely want to protect Social Security from benefit cuts. But while 40 million seniors received retirement support from the program in 2012, about one in 10 seniors in the United States don’t qualify for Social Security, leaving many without a safety net.

Of the approximately 4 million U.S. seniors not receiving Social Security support, a disproportionate one-third are ethnic elders. In fact, according to the U.S. Census, one-in-six African American, one fifth of Latino and nearly one-in-three Asian American and Pacific Islander seniors cannot draw on the national retirement pension program to make financial ends meet.

African Americans “under the radar”

Many older African Americans who don’t qualify for Social Security “have lived under the radar because they have worked in domestic roles and have been paid cash for their labors” with no contributions going to the program, said Karyne Jones, president and CEO of the National Caucus and Center on Black Aging based in Washington, D.C.

Jones continued, “With most women, it’s the child rearing and caregiving years that don’t rake up any credit towards Social Security.” She added, “Let us not forget chronic unemployment.”

Also affecting access to Social Security support, she and other experts said, may be the high incarceration level among black men. As they get released at older ages, many will end up with little or no Social Security benefits.

Because the Social Security Administration calculates retirement benefits based on credits people receive for at least 40 quarters of covered work — 10 years’ worth during one’s working life, she said, many African Americans paid cash or under the table don’t realize they benefit from the program “until it’s too late.”

Ineligibility for Social Security is particularly high for immigrants. Many who arrive at age 50 or older end up with very low coverage or none at all. About half of Hispanic seniors in the U.S. and 80 percent of older Asian Americans receive no Social Security support.

While undocumented immigrants are flatly ineligible for U.S. benefits, many legally present immigrants do not have enough documented years of work to quality for eligibility.

Financial security for the growing number of black and other ethnic elders is a looming issue. A poll released in September by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found, “Nearly half of black Americans (46 percent) — and about a third of white Americans (36 percent) — say they would ‘like to save for retirement, but don’t seem to have enough money to do so.’”

Wilhelmina Leigh, who coauthored the survey report, stated in an earlier study, “Modifying the Social Security system must include voices of African Americans and other racial/ethnic subpopulations whose dependence on the system is great, but whose patterns of usage may differ from the norm.”

Barriers facing immigrants

Making ends meet is especially difficult for Asian retirees. Those who do get Social Security checks average $2,000 a year ($13,066 less than the total for all U.S. retirees, says a 2011 report from the Insight Center). Pacific Islanders receive even smaller benefits — if any at all — says the study. For instance, Native Hawaiian seniors, because so many had low-wage jobs, average Social Security benefits of less than half that of other Hawaiian elders, including other Asians.

The Insight Center report’s author Meizhu Lui noted cultural and other barriers to assistance for Asian and other immigrants. “Language barriers lead to a lack of knowledge about the Social Security program,” she wrote.

Among other barriers to Social Security that Asian elders encounter, says Lui, are “cultural aversions to large bureaucracies, pride in being independent and a fear of government based on home-country experiences can make eligible foreign-born Asian seniors hesitant to apply.”

A University of Southern California analysis of Latino retirement cites another reason for many low-income immigrants. It calls agricultural labor “a telling example of sub-minimum wage employment where salaries and Social Security contributions for workers often go unreported.”

Ironically, the Social Security Administration has estimated that unauthorized immigrants contributed more than $12 billion alone to the program’s trust fund in 2010 more than the $1 billion the agency says it paid out in fraudulent benefits to undocumented residents. Many undocumented immigrants pay into the system through jobs they got using fake Social Security cards. But they can never collect benefits when they need them.

New America Media