'Separate Water Fountains'

Posted: Apr 20, 2005 12:00 AM

I can still remember the separate water fountains and segregated buses as a young boy growing up in Atlanta in the 1950?s. Even as a seven-year-old kid I felt insulted and humiliated by the insinuation that we were not good enough to drink from the same water fountains as Whites, or ride in the front of the bus. Thanks to the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., U.S. House and Senate Republicans, and the sacrifices of many others, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted to end this discrimination and begin to restore the full rights of citizenship for all Americans.

It is now evident that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not apply to the Social Security system. Due to the rising retirement age, differences in life expectancy between Blacks and Whites, and mandatory payroll tax deductions, the system by its very nature discriminates against black men and women.

This built-in discrimination has been present since 1935 when Social Security was established. The original retirement age to begin receiving Social Security benefits was set at 65 years. Black women in 1935 lived to an average age of 55, and black men to the age of 51. Our white brothers did not fare much better, since they were expected to live just 61 years.

This disparity in life expectancy still exists, but unfortunately so does the discriminatory nature of Social Security. Black males today have an average life expectancy of 68 years, yet Congress continues to raise the retirement age. The current structure simply cannot afford to send monthly checks to all citizens over the age of 65. That is a mathematical fact, and a dirty little secret Congressional Democrats do not want you to know.

To compound the discrimination, your mandatory payroll tax deductions do not go to your heirs when you die, but to people you do not even know.  Under the current Social Security structure, deceased black men essentially fund a large percentage of the retirement income of elderly white women, since they live the longest to nearly 80 years on average.

Blacks are disadvantaged further by Social Security because most have few dollars to invest in their own 401(k) or IRA plans. Once payroll taxes are deducted and the necessities of food, clothing, shelter, and transportation are met, there is often little money left to fund a retirement plan. Not surprisingly, 38 percent of black retirees rely solely on Social Security for their income.

Under President Bush?s plan to restructure Social Security, all of the nation?s younger workers, regardless of race or sex, would have the option to divert a portion of their 12.4 percent mandatory payroll tax deduction to a personal retirement account they control and own.

All current and near retirees would receive their guaranteed Social Security benefit, as would those receiving disability or survivor benefits. Senator John Sununu (R-NH) and Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) have each introduced legislation that meets or exceeds the President?s proposal.

Given that we have a President willing to finally address the disparities and discrimination inherent in Social Security, why are Democratic leaders so vehemently opposed to the President?s plan? Nearly all congressional Democrats are opposed to even discussing restructuring Social Security unless the personal retirement accounts option is taken off the negotiation table.

The answer is that congressional Democrats do not want all Americans to drink from the same retirement fountains. They insinuate that we are not smart enough to ride in the front of the retirement bus with them. Members of Congress and all federal workers have personal retirement accounts in what is called the Thrift Savings Plan. They contribute to one of five carefully managed accounts, and when they retire the money is theirs to keep.

The Sununu and Hagel bills both provide for accounts based on the Thrift Savings Plan. Yet, their Democratic colleagues want to deny us the same access to retirement security they enjoy and let the entire Social Security structure go bankrupt.

Perhaps most unconscionable is the opposition to personal retirement accounts by the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus, and many of our nation?s so-called black leaders. Personal retirement accounts would provide future generations of Blacks the retirement security their parents and grandparents never had.

Instead, black Democratic leaders are willing to see the next generation of Blacks remain in economic slavery on the Democratic plantation, so long as they can deny any Republican a perceived political victory.

At least with separate water fountains Blacks and Whites each had water to drink. If we start now, we can end the discrimination in Social Security by demanding that Congress enact an optional system of personal retirement accounts.  If we do not act now, there will be only one retirement water fountain for our grandchildren. It will not be marked ?White? or ?Colored?.  It will be marked ?Out of Order? for all of them.

Mr. Cain is chief executive of The New Voice, Inc. and New Voters Alliance, and host of the nationally syndicated radio talk show "The Bottom Line with Herman Cain." He is past chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, and past chairman and chief executive of Godfather's Pizza, Inc.