Washington Post staff writer Michael A. Fletcher reported that President Bush said African Americans are "shortchanged" by the current Social Security system "because it is so closely tied to life expectancies," but buried criticism of Bush's misleading claim and omitted key facts that debunk that claim.
In his February 11 article, titled "President Calls Current System Unfair to Blacks" with the subhead "He Points to Life Expectancy," Fletcher stated that "[b]lack Americans' life expectancy is 72.3 years -- more than five years shorter than for whites," adding: "Black men die even sooner, living an average of 68.8 years, compared with 75.1 years for white men." But Fletcher failed to report the flaw in this argument: The discrepancy between the life expectancies of blacks and whites is largely due to higher mortality rates for black infants and youths, as Media Matters for America has noted. The more relevant statistic when discussing the racial implications of Social Security is contained in the report "Health, United States, 2004," which was compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics and noted that the difference in life expectancy for blacks and whites who survive until age 65 is only about two years (depending on birth cohort), not the "more than five years" Fletcher stated in the Post.
Furthermore, Fletcher reported without challenge Bush's claim that his plan for private accounts would allow most African Americans to pass on their retirement benefits to their heirs. According to the article, Bush said that "if I were a part of a group of people that were being disadvantaged by the Social Security system ... I'd at least like to have the opportunity to have some of the money I put in the system passable to my family." But as Media Matters has noted, economist Dean Baker explained in a February 2005 Center for Economic and Policy Research report that Bush's expected plan "would require workers to buy an annuity large enough to ensure that (when combined with their traditional Social Security benefit) they would have at least a poverty level income in their retirement," which, for many African Americans, would mean "that they will have to surrender their individual accounts, and will have nothing left to pass onto their children -- just as is the case with the current Social Security system."
After repeatedly referring to Bush's proposed private accounts by the White House-approved term "personal accounts" and noting that Bush's claim is "an argument some have found compelling," Fletcher stated in the eighth paragraph that "others worry that they [private accounts] would weaken the safety net that Social Security has provided." Fletcher cited general concerns about partial privatization of Social Security and ways in which private accounts could be detrimental to African Americans: "A 2003 report by the Government Accountability Office [GAO], the investigative arm of Congress, concluded that blacks tend to receive a higher rate of return than whites from Social Security because of their heavier reliance on the program's full range of benefits." Baker's report addressed the rate-of-return issue in more detail, concluding like the GAO did that the current Social Security system "gives substantially higher returns to African Americans than to whites":
Several studies have found that the progressivity of the [Social Security] payback structure largely or completely offsets the impact of shorter life expectancies, to provide a return to black men that is approximately the same as the return to white men. It is also important to remember that the retirement program is only one portion of the Social Security system. African Americans benefit disproportionately from the survivors and disability portions of the program, so the Social Security system as a whole gives substantially higher returns to African Americans than to whites.