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Laura Ann Foster

excerpted from: Laura Ann Foster, Social Security and African American Families: Unmasking Race and Gender Discrimination , 12 UCLA Women's Law Journal 55-86, 55-59, 85-86 (Fall/Winter 2001) (175 Footnotes)

Created in 1935 to provide income to retired or disabled workers and their spouses, social security is the United States' largest social welfare program. 62% of the elderly receive half or more of their income from social security benefits. Within this group, women and African Americans are especially dependent on benefits. Women depend more on social security than men because they generally live longer, earn lower wages, and have more intermittent work histories. African Americans depend on social security more than whites because they tend to earn lower wages, accumulate less wealth, and lack job advancement. Thus, African American women rely most heavily on social security benefits. Yet despite the greater need of women and African Americans, specific elements of the social security system discriminate against these groups by penalizing dual-income couples, centralizing marriage, and linking benefits to wages.

Unfortunately, these problems are not easily solved. Social security is difficult to reform because any proposed change would disadvantage one group over another. Nevertheless, attempts are being made. Whereas social security has often been under intense scrutiny, in recent years discussions of social security have been infused with a rhetoric of crisis. As the baby boomer generation retires, the rate of contributions will decrease while the rate of payments will increase. According to recent projections, benefits will outweigh contributions by 2014 and the current social security surplus will be depleted by 2034. This 'impending doom' of the social security system has sparked calls for reform while, simultaneously, the political entrenchment of social security makes such reform difficult.

While the renewed interest in social security is promising, gender and race must figure more prominently in the discussion. Although the redistribution of income under social security is complex and scholars debate the discriminatory impact of the system, I will show that the spousal benefits formula, which provides benefits to spouses of retired or deceased workers, creates a two- earner penalty that causes a disproportionate number of African American families to receive lower monthly retirement benefits than white families. In addition, the spousal benefits formula subordinates women by preserving eurocentric family structures, traditional gender roles, and marketplace inequalities.

Scholars must acknowledge these discriminatory elements of social security when developing reform proposals. This Article reveals one form of race and gender discrimination embedded in the social security system in order to expand the discourse surrounding social security scholarship and reform. In other words, its strategy is to raise questions and encourage deeper discussion. Limited to African American married couples, this Articleintends to spark further analysis of the impact of social security on single African American women and other minority groups. This Article does not argue for the demise of the social security system or its spousal benefits formula; rather, it informs scholars and policymakers about the discriminatory elements of social security in order to encourage more meaningful reform and to place African American families into the center of policy discussions.

Part II provides a historical overview of the social security system that describes the exclusion of certain workers and the influence of the state over family policy and female roles. This section continues with a functional overview of social security and an introduction to the policy objectives behind the system. Part III exposes the two-earner penalty that results from basing social security benefits on marriage and explains how this penalty results in disproportionate levels of benefits being given to couples with the same total family income. Part IV then argues that the two-earner penalty disproportionately discriminates against African American couples because both spouses in African American couples are more likely to work, they are more likely to earn less and accumulate less wealth than their white counterparts, and they are less likely to conform to the eurocentric family ideal rewarded under the current social security system.

. . . .

VI. Conclusion

Despite its seemingly objective and neutral structure, social security contains a two-earner penalty that has a discriminatory effect on African American couples and especially African American women. The spousal benefits formula penalizes two-earner couples by reducing their benefits, which disproportionately affects African American couples because they are more likely to be two-earner couples than whites. In addition, the spousal benefits' focus on marriage preserves eurocentric family forms, contributing to the marginalization of African American families. Furthermore, social security benefits are based on a worker's lifetime wage contributions. Wage contributions for African Americans, in particular African American women, are lower than their white counterparts because of historical exclusion, lower wages, lack of job advancement, and lower levels of wealth. This link between wages and benefits excludes a discussion of the marketplace inequalities and lack of wealth accumulation that impact African Americans' standard of living.

Despite these serious flaws in the social security system, this Article does not argue for social security's demise or for the elimination of spousal benefits. The social adequacy objectives of the retirement system bestow a benefit upon African Americans and women that ensures their survival in retirement. Until a more progressive movement towards real equality begins, social security is a needed program to preserve the economic health of the elderly and their families. However, reform proposals must acknowledge the two-earner penalty and its disproportionate impact on African American families. Policy makers must also recognize how the centrality of marriage and link between benefits and wages contributes to the marginalization of African American families. The goals of social security cannot be met without placing African American families at the center of reform proposals.

[a1]. Associate, Beckman, Weil, Shepardson & Faller LLC, Cincinnati, Ohio. J.D., 2000, University of Cincinnati College of Law; M.A., 2000, University of Cincinnati; B.A., 1995, Georgetown University.