The soft bigotry of life expectancy.

The soft bigotry of life expectancy.

The soft bigotry of life expectancy.

Science, technology, and life.
March 16 2005 4:08 PM

The Soft Bigotry of Life Expectancy

Different Social Security messages for blacks and Latinos.

Different strokes for different folks?
Different strokes for different folks?

Why is President Bush's Social Security reform plan heading south in the polls? Maybe because he's selling different messages to different audiences and some audiences are overhearing messages meant for others. He's telling older people that nothing relevant to them will change. Meanwhile, he's telling the younger people who are propping up the system that it's a dead end and he'll help them get out. This is why Republican "town halls" that were supposed to boost the plan in the polls failed so miserably. The town halls were for the younger folks, but the older folks showed up. Oops!

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

It turns out the young and the old aren't the only groups getting different pitches. Bush is narrowcasting to blacks and Latinos, too. The message to blacks is that Social Security screws them because they die younger. By all accounts, that's what Bush told black business and community leaders at a two-hour private meeting on Jan. 25. It's also the centerpiece of black community town halls and speeches to black audiences by GOP chairman Ken Mehlman, according to the Los Angeles Times. At one forum, Bush told a black executive, "African American males die sooner than other males do, which means the system is inherently unfair to a certain group of people." The executive, referring to black male life expectancy, said to Bush, "If you're telling me that it's 69, and the [retirement] age is going to go to 67, you do the math." Bush replied, "Right."

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Bush was encouraging a misconception. As Paul Krugman has explained, remaining life expectancy for a 65-year-old black man is 14.6 years, not two. It's true that black male life expectancy at birth is only 69, but black-white mortality differences trail off throughout life. (By the late stages, black men outlive white men of the same age.) So, while blacks are likely to spend fewer years taking money out, they're also likely to spend fewer years paying in.

What's more interesting, however, is another misconception Bush seems to have floated. On Dec. 21, he met with Kweisi Mfume, the outgoing president of the NAACP. According to a Federal Document Clearing House transcript, Mfume told reporters afterward that in the meeting Bush "was very strong in his belief that some communities in particular, because of low life expectancy rates, don't get a chance to get out much of what they put in all their lives." Black men and women "have disproportionately lower life expectancies," said Mfume. "And so my assumption is that that group, along with Latinos, may be what the president was referring to."

Mfume said he hadn't pressed Bush to clarify the reference to "some communities." But the reference did its job. The next day, the Cox newspaper chain reported that "Mfume said they discussed how to account for groups, such as African-Americans and Latinos, that have lower-than-average life expectancy rates and, as a result, don't draw retirement benefits commensurate with what they pay in payroll taxes over the course of their working lives." There's no record of any effort by the White House to correct this account. Indeed, three weeks later, the White House issued a "fact" sheet claiming that "Hispanics, African-Americans, and unmarried elderly women are even more reliant on Social Security." The sheet added nothing to suggest that the rationales for making this claim about the three groups might differ. A couple of weeks ago, in an op-ed for the Los Angeles-based newspaper La Opinión, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez argued that Latinos stood to lose disproportionately if Bush's plan were defeated because over the next 50 years their share of the working population that props up the current system will grow by nearly 50 percent.

What Gutierrez and the White House seem not to have mentioned is that, contrary to the impression Bush gave Mfume, Latinos can expect to outlive whites. According to a report issued five years ago by what is now Gutierrez's department, life expectancy for Americans of "Hispanic origin" in 1999 was 77.1 years among men and 83.7 years among women. That's a 2.4-year surplus for Latino men over white men and a 3.6-year surplus for Latino women over white women.

So, here's the situation. In an op-ed written in Spanish and not made available in English on any federal Web site, the administration argues that Latinos, who live longer than whites do, should support Bush's reform plan because they're growing rapidly as a share of the working population. Meanwhile, in forums and private meetings aimed at blacks, the administration argues that blacks, whose share of the working population is growing at a slower rate than their share of the population over 65, should support Bush's reform plan because they don't live as long as whites do. Only once has Bush slipped up and alluded to one group in the course of making his pitch to the other. And on that occasion, at best, he seems to have conveyed—and failed to correct after its publication—an impression that helped him politically but was contrary to the truth.

The only other ethnic groups analyzed in the 2000 Commerce Department report on life expectancy—or apparent in any other such government report—are Asian-Americans and American Indians. Asian-Americans were beating white life expectancy by six years among men and 6.5 years among women. American Indian men were trailing white men by two years in life expectancy, but American Indian women were exceeding white women by the same amount. So, here are two questions for President Bush: When you told Mfume that some communities in particular were getting shafted by Social Security due to low life expectancy, which communities were you talking about? And if you're telling the whole truth to blacks and Latinos, why aren't you telling them the same thing?