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Social Security: Strengthening a Vital Safety Net for Latinos

By Cruz, Jeff | Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

Social Security: Strengthening a Vital Safety Net for Latinos


Cruz, Jeff, Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy


Since 1935, Social Security has provided a vital safety net for millions of Americans who cannot work because of age or disability. This safety net has been especially critical for Americans of Latino decent, who number more than 50 million or nearly one out of every six Americans. Social Security provides benefits to roughly one out of six Latino households (U.S. Census Bureau 2009).

Social Security is critical to Latinos because it is much more than a retirement program. In addition to protecting those that cannot work because they are too old, the program benefits disabled workers and their families as well as children and spouses of the deceased. Because Latinos have larger families and are more likely to become disabled in physically demanding jobs, the Social Security safety net protects them disproportionately (Torres-Gil et al. 2005).

However, benefits are far from generous. For Latinos over the age of sixty-five, the average annual benefit for men was only $12,213; for women it was only $9,536 (Social Security Administration 2011a). On average, for Latino households age sixty-five or older receiving benefits, Social Security makes up 75.4 percent of the household's total income. For a portion of those households--44.2 percent--Social Security makes up all of the income received (Social Security Administration 2008).

Without Social Security, the elderly Latino poverty rate of approximately one out of six (17.9 percent) would explode to one out of two (50.7 percent) (Torres-Gil et al. 2005). Because of lower lifetime income, longer life expectancies, higher incidence of disability, and larger families, Latinos receive a rate of return on their Social Security contributions that is 35 percent to 60 percent higher than that of the overall population--more than any other ethnic group (Social Security Administration 2011a).

Most Latino and seniors advocates believe benefits need to be expanded. For example, Latinos for a Secure Retirement (a coalition of ten leading Latino organizations) and the Commission to Modernize Social Security (a group of national policy experts representing African American, Asian American, Latino, and Native American communities) created reform plans in 2011 that would expand Social Security benefits.

Eighty-four percent of Latinos agree that preserving Social Security for future generations is critical, even if it means increasing Social Security taxes on workers (Rockeymoore and Maitin-Shepard 2010). Ninety percent of Latinos agree that Social Security's societal benefits are worth the cost (Rockeymoore and Maitin-Shepard 2010).

Despite the importance and popularity of Social Security to Latinos, the past year has seen conservative politicians call for the program to be slashed. For example, some members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, colloquially referred to as the Supercommittee, have called for a chained consumer price index (CPI) benefit cut, which would slash benefits by drastically reducing the cost of living adjustment (COLA). COLA was designed to help Social Security and Supplemental Security Income benefits keep pace with inflation (Social Security Administration 2011b). However, most Social Security experts believe the current COLA is insufficient and should be increased (NCPSSM 2011). The experimental CPI for the elderly (CPI-E), developed by the federal government in 1988, has found that Social Security beneficiaries face higher inflationary pressures than the population as a whole.

Opponents of Social Security have tried to present the proposed adoption of the chained CPI benefit cut as a minor technical change, but it would have drastic consequences for Latinos. Because the benefits cut compounds over time, the disabled and the most elderly would be especially hurt. As stated above, Latinos are more likely to be disabled and to live longer than other ethnic groups. A Hispanic male's life expectancy at birth is 77.

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