The NAACP leapt into the national debate over the future of Social Security yesterday, announcing a strategy to defeat President Bush's planned overhaul by targeting young African-Americans.
With town hall-style meetings on college campuses nationwide, the Save Our Social Security campaign aims to drive home the notion that Social Security benefits are a lifeline for blacks, especially for youths who have lost a parent and rely on monthly benefit checks.
Though blacks make up about 13 percent of the population, 23 percent of the recipients of Social Security survivor benefits in 2002 were black children, according to the Social Security Administration.
Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said Bush's plan for private investment accounts would hurt blacks.
The White House says Social Security must be revamped to stay solvent and argues that private investment accounts can help bridge the wealth gap between blacks and whites.
Bush said several months ago that blacks lose out under the current system because they have shorter life expectancies than whites. Black men have a life expectancy of 69, compared with 75 for white men.
"We are displeased with him using the race card and the black mortality rate as the reason why black people ought to embrace these private accounts," Bond said yesterday after the announcement.
Bush's statement rankled civil rights leaders and many Democrats, who said Bush was insensitive by assuming that blacks' life expectancies will continue to lag behind those of whites.
Since then, battle lines have been drawn in the campaign to win African-American support. The NAACP effort, in partnership with AARP and supported by U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, is the latest example.
In February, Republicans began outreach meetings in black communities nationwide, including one at Prince George's Community College in Largo.
"Many of us African-Americans, who are doing well, have 401(k) plans, investments and such," said Tara Wall, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. "But those who live paycheck to paycheck can set aside this personal savings account to create that nest egg."
At the other end of the spectrum, Maya Rockeymoore, vice president of research and programs for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, said such accounts would keep blacks at a disadvantage because they earn less and have higher rates of unemployment. She has spoken at meetings such as the one held last night at Morgan State University.
"We rely on the full range of Social Security: retirement, disability and survivor benefits," Rockeymoore said. "There is ample evidence that the disability and survivor benefits that so many rely on will be hurt with private accounts."
For 40 percent of elderly African-Americans, Social Security is their only source of retirement income, and blacks also make up about 17 percent of the disabled workers receiving benefits from Social Security, according to federal officials.
Bush's plan would let workers younger than age 55 divert part of their Social Security payroll taxes to private accounts.