Second in a series of occasional articles examining the economic and political stakes involved in the Bush administration's proposed overhaul of Social Security.
WASHINGTON -- As President Bush prepares to accelerate his sales pitch for overhauling Social Security, he is increasingly wrapping his rhetoric in racial terms. The system, he argues, is ''inherently unfair" to many blacks.
The solution, Bush says, is to embrace his plan for private accounts, details of which he may provide in his annual State of the Union address Wednesday.
Under a system based on wages, the average monthly Social Security retirement benefit received by African-Americans is $775, compared with $912 for whites. In addition, many blacks never receive the benefits because a disproportionate number die before they are eligible. On average, black males die six years sooner than white males.
But some groups representing African-Americans say that Bush's logic is faulty and that creating private accounts would hurt blacks rather than help them. They maintain that Bush is playing a race card to boost his plan.
Representative Charles B. Rangel, a New York City Democrat who was among black members of Congress who met with Bush last week, said he is ''really offended" that the White House and some Republicans are trying to sell Bush's plan for private accounts on grounds that it would be more beneficial to African-Americans.
''It is one of the cruelest things that I have ever read, and I regret that it comes from the office of the president," Rangel said. If Bush wants to do something about inequities between the races, Rangel said, he should address issues including the lack of access to healthcare among many blacks, higher unemployment, and lower wages. Rangel added that unless blacks have better economic prospects, private Social Security accounts will not help them.
''I told the president, 'You can't get out what you can't put in,' " he said.
Whichever side is right, the controversy has put a spotlight on what some say has been missing in the national discussion over Social Security: Is the system filled with inequities that discriminate against certain demographic groups?
Advocates for gays and lesbians, for example, say they are treated unfairly because the federal government does not recognize civil unions or same-sex marriages, and thus does not pay survivor benefits to partners. This could amount to a loss of more than $1,000 a month to a surviving partner. The system is also under fire for its treatment of unmarried retired women, particularly African-American women. This group faces poverty rates among the nation's highest, even with Social Security benefits, according to a Social Security Administration study.
The question of whether the system is tilted against blacks has become a central argument in the debate over private accounts. The White House strategy for selling the idea of private accounts includes an effort to win over African-Americans, on grounds that black males, on average, die at age 69, compared with 75 years for white males. Social Security's full retirement benefits begin to be paid between age 65 and 67.
Bush, at a forum on Jan. 11, said: ''African-American males die sooner than other males do, which means the system is inherently unfair to a certain group of people. And that needs to be fixed."
The president appeared at the Washington forum with an African-American, Robert McFadden of New Jersey, who said his father died at 57. He said all that the family received after his father's death was a $255 check to help with burial expenses.
McFadden's father was too young to have received retirement benefits, and his brother was in college and did not qualify for survivor benefits, which usually are given to children until they graduate high school or turn 18.
''I don't think people realize how painful it is to receive a check like that and have a child in college," McFadden, a Republican and a Bush supporter, said in a telephone interview. ''That is why I think the president is suggesting people have an option" for private accounts.
Maya Rockeymoore, who has studied the issue at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, said Bush's plan for private accounts is not a good solution. The average age of death for blacks, she said, is earlier than for whites because homicide, poverty, and a lack of health care kills many black men at a young age.
She also said blacks get a higher return on benefits for the disabled and survivors. While blacks make up 12 percent of the population, they account for only 8.1 percent of those receiving direct retirement benefits. But blacks make up for that deficit by collecting more from other parts of the program -- the benefits for disabled persons and survivors, Rockeymoore said. African-Americans account for 18 percent of those receiving Social Security disability payments and 23 percent of children receiving survivor benefits, she said.
Rockeymoore said Bush's proposal for private Social Security accounts was flawed because many blacks' low incomes would prevent them from contributing significantly. Asserting that some proposals call for cutting benefits in addition to the creation of private accounts, she said that the plan would hurt many blacks.
''He would be dealing with health care if he really cared about it," Rockeymoore said, when asked about Bush's comment that the Social Security system is inherently unfair to blacks. Rockeymoore said Bush is ''playing a race card" as ''an excuse to change the system for their own narrow ends."
She noted that the Census Bureau says 11 percent of whites do not have health insurance, compared with 20 percent of blacks.
Generally, whites have a significantly higher average monthly retirement benefit than blacks because they had higher wages. Social Security payments are based on wage history, although there are adjustments to compensate for some of the difference.
A White House official denied that Bush is playing a race card and said the president is pushing a program for health insurance tax credits, as well as tax cuts to stimulate the economy. The official did not say whether Bush plans to cut future Social Security benefits because the president has not unveiled his plan.
Jeffrey Liebman, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, has studied the issue of whether blacks are treated unfairly by Social Security. He has concluded that blacks and whites receive roughly the same return on payroll taxes.
Agreeing with Rockeymoore, Liebman said: ''Black retirees on average receive benefits for fewer years than white retirees. But blacks are benefited by the current system because low earners get a higher return on their payroll taxes and because blacks are more likely to receive disability and young survivor benefits."
Liebman also disputed Bush's assertion that his plan for private accounts would make the system more fair to blacks. Even with the accounts, the same disparities between whites and blacks would exist, he said. Liebman, a former adviser to President Clinton, favors a plan for adding private accounts on top of Social Security, not replacing part of the existing system.
Advocates for gays and lesbians, meanwhile, say they are discriminated against because the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriages or civil unions.
An analysis by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force presented a case study in which the denial of joint retirement benefits costs a typical same-sex couple $500 per month and the denial of survivor benefits costs the survivor $1,224 per month. ''For couples who are paying into the system their whole lives, if one dies before retirement age, it is unfair that their partner can't get the same benefits," said Sean Cahill, head of the body's policy institute.
A Social Security spokesman, Mark Lassiter, acknowledged that based on federal law, including the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, the agency must deny any application for survivor benefits from a gay partner. The benefits ''are not payable based on a gay marriage," Lassiter said. He said he did not know of any case in which a same-sex survivor has applied for benefits. Advocates for gays and lesbians said it seems inevitable that there will be a court test.
The Democratic National Committee is on record as supporting benefits for same-sex partners. A White House official said Bush, who backs a ban on same-sex marriage, does not support such benefits for gay and lesbian partners.
Analysts said some inequities in the Social Security system have developed because the program was designed for the 1930s, when women usually remained at home and most people did not have significant assets. As a result, the system pays benefits based only on work history, not on wealth. Indeed, a multimillionaire whose wealth is based on investments, not salary, could be given extra money by the Social Security system, which assumes that a person with a lower wage history needs extra benefits.
''Social Security is a one-size-fits-all and it doesn't take into consideration changes because of income levels, gender, and many other things," said David John, who studies the issue at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
An article on this topic appeared in the Globe of Jan. 14.
Michael Kranish can be reached at email@example.com