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Social Security Benefit Crucial to African Americans

Two in five retiree households live entirely on it

After lifetimes of earning lower wages, working in jobs that may lack retirement savings plans, and failing to squirrel away enough funds for their late years, many African American retirees have to rely heavily on Social Security to make ends meet.

For two in five households of retired African Americans age 65 or older that receive Social Security retirement benefits, the monthly checks are the only source of income, according to a report, African Americans and Social Security: A Primer, released Monday by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a research and public policy group in Washington.

Almost half of these households rely on it for more than 90 percent of their income. And the benefits are typically lower than what whites receive.

Yet shorter life spans mean that African Americans are less likely than whites to collect retirement benefits, the study found.

At the same time, blacks are more likely than whites to receive disability and survivor benefits, other types of payments that Social Security makes.

Other studies have shown that white households are much more likely than black households to have retirement savings accounts such as IRAs or 401(k)s and life insurance. Among blacks who had retirement savings plans, one survey last year showed that they were twice as likely as whites to reduce their contributions amid the recession.

Portrait of a Senior Man Wearing a White Shirt

— Jeremy Maude/Getty Images

Fragile finances

The reality of older blacks with fragile finances in retirement began many years ago, says Wilhelmina Leigh, author of the Joint Center report and a senior research associate there.

Leigh cites fewer opportunities for jobs in which it is possible to save adequately for retirement, longer periods of unemployment and a lack of education in financial planning.

"Social Security continues to serve as the bedrock of retirement security for millions of Americans today, particularly African Americans, as demonstrated by this important research," said Diane Pratt, a board member at AARP. "These hard-earned benefits will also help provide financial security for our children and grandchildren who will likely have fewer other resources to depend upon for their retirement."

The Joint Center's report is one of three commissioned by AARP, to be followed by reports on the role of Social Security for Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans. The reports are being released as the debate in Washington over Social Security's future picks up speed. Policymakers are considering reducing benefits and raising the full retirement age (from 67) for people born in 1960 and later.

Black-white differences in benefits

More than 51 million people receive monthly Social Security checks. According to the Joint Center's report, African American men received an average $1,109 monthly benefit compared with $1,334 on average for white men in 2008. Black women averaged $946, less than the $1,015 average for white women that year.

The report also says that in a survey in 2009, more African Americans (37 percent) than whites (27 percent) said they expected Social Security to be their major source of retirement income.

Other findings:

  • Of children who receive Social Security disability benefits, about 20 percent are African American, though they make up only 15 percent of the country's child population.

  • The proportion of black children receiving survivor benefits is more than double that of whites — 49 percent versus 23 percent.

Carole Fleck is a senior editor at the
AARP Bulletin.

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