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Blog Series: How Social Security Gets Racist Without Really Trying – Part 1

The Social Security Act (Act of August 14, 1935) [H. R. 7260] “An act to provide for the general welfare by establishing a system of Federal old-age benefits, and by enabling the several States to make more adequate provision for aged persons, blind persons, dependent and crippled children, maternal and child welfare, public health…”Social Security

Along with Medicare, to which Social Security’s success is inextricably linked, Social Security is the most successful anti-poverty measure in our country’s history.

Social Security keeps 22 million Americans out of poverty, including 15 million elderly Americans, according to research from Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and pays more money to children than any other government program. In the tattered remains of the American social safety net, Social Security remains of the strongest links.

But beneath the surface of this New Deal mainstay, there is a history, and a present reality of exclusion, discrimination, and loss.

In this blog series “How Social Security Gets Racist without Really Trying,” I will explore the ways that Social Security perpetuates, exacerbates, and is affected by structural racism.

We don’t talk about it much, compared to more obviously urgent issues like affordable housing, but helping people obtain, manage, spend, and retain benefits administered by the Social Security Administration is a huge part of our work.

About a fifth of Bread for the City’s full-time staff members work primarily on issues relating to Social Security benefits, and every program is affected by Social Security in one way or another.


At Bread, we try to examine all aspects of our work through a racial equity lens, so I will try to do that over the course of the next several weeks.We will explore how Social Security redistributes money to whites from African-Americans, Hispanics, and other non-white ethnic and racial groups.

This may be surprising to those who know that Social Security’s benefit formula redistributes money from high earners to low earners and that whites out-earn other groups, but we will show how other program aspects lead to white people receiving a higher benefit to contribution ratio than other groups.

We will discuss how Supplemental Security Income keeps people poor and disincentives work and savings. This program has a disproportionate number of African-Americans enrolled, but the program perpetuates racism further when special rules and exclusions benefit white people because they are more likely, as a direct effect of racist practices, to own homes and maintain normative family structures.

In this blog series, we will also examine the racist origins of the Social Security Act and examine some possibilities for the future. We will hear from some beneficiaries of Social Security’s programs, and I will try to tell the stories of some others.FDR-SS-act

One thing you won’t hear—at least not from me—is any criticism of Social Security’s employees. They are, for the most part, dedicated civil servants committed to providing for the welfare of the elderly, the disabled, the widowed, and the orphaned. They are more likely to be people of color than the general population, although non-white (and female) employees are less common in higher ranking, higher paid positions.

Furthermore, they are vastly under resourced for the task we have given them: from 1995 to 2010, Social Security staff capacity has increased by about 5.5%. In that time, the total number of beneficiaries went up 25.5%. If you think that this gap could be made up by technology, you’ve probably never waited two years for a hearing that gets dismissed because the notice was sent to your old address and the nine databases that SSA uses did not communicate after you waited 6 hours at a field office to give someone your updated address.

For all the good intentions and hard work of SSA staff, they function in a system where race prejudice combined with power, continually leads to health and social outcomes being determined by race.

So, if we don’t blame Social Security, who do we blame? Broader structures of racism? Congress? Roosevelt and the other designers of the New Deal? Ourselves?

I hope that over the course of the next few weeks, we can offer a few observations that will help answer those questions and cause you think about Social Security in a new light.

Click here to read Part 2

Click here to read Part 3

Click here to read Part 4

Click here to read Part 5

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