How to Lie with Statistics: Social Security and Race

Fans of the Daily Show might remember the show’s “Moment of Zen” a few weeks back. It was a clip from Bush’s forum on Social Security “reform” in which Bush tried to sell the idea that Social Security is unfair to African Americans because, statistically speaking, they die earlier than whites. The exchange featured Bush and an African American man named McFadden.

THE PRESIDENT: Secondly, the interesting — there’s a — African American males die sooner than other males do, which means the system is inherently unfair to a certain group of people. [although it isn’t indicated on the transcript, at this point Bush paused and McFadden drew a breath as if to respond, “damn straight it’s unfair”, but the Pres. continued] And that needs to be fixed. It’s not a — (applause.)

That was it for the Daily Show’s send-up of the event. I’m sure it doesn’t come across in print, but it was very funny on video–the facial expressions were priceless. But on inspection of the transcript it turns out that McFadden was right there to help Bush along with a few statistics.

MR. McFADDEN: I agree, Mr. President, because from the minimal research that I’ve done, the average African American male right now is — the life expectancy is 69, and I may be off a little bit. But if you’re telling me that it’s 69, and the age is going to go to 67, you do the math. (Laughter.)

It does sound unfair. Somehow private accounts will respond to this?

If you were thinking there is something obscene about using this statistic to privatize social security rather than deal with the injustice of racial disparities in quality/length of life, then check out Paul Krugman’s latest salvo against privatization in the New York Times. “Little Black Lies” takes on the life span issue. I quote at length:

First, Mr. Bush’s remarks on African-Americans perpetuate a crude misunderstanding about what life expectancy means. It’s true that the current life expectancy for black males at birth is only 68.8 years – but that doesn’t mean that a black man who has worked all his life can expect to die after collecting only a few years’ worth of Social Security benefits. Blacks’ low life expectancy is largely due to high death rates in childhood and young adulthood. African-American men who make it to age 65 can expect to live, and collect benefits, for an additional 14.6 years – not that far short of the 16.6-year figure for white men.

Second, the formula determining Social Security benefits is progressive: it provides more benefits, as a percentage of earnings, to low-income workers than to high-income workers. Since African-Americans are paid much less, on average, than whites, this works to their advantage.

Finally, Social Security isn’t just a retirement program; it’s also a disability insurance program. And blacks are much more likely than whites to receive disability benefits.

Put it all together, and the deal African-Americans get from Social Security turns out, according to various calculations, to be either about the same as that for whites or somewhat better. Hispanics, by the way, clearly do better than either.

Okay, well done Krugman. It seems so transparent one wonders why Bush and his Merry Pranksters push it? The answer lies in that last two paragraphs quoted. The point of the political exercise is to pit whites against blacks, etc., etc. To Krugman’s credit he doesn’t end with the racial balance sheet which–even as it contradicts Bush’s argument–pits one group against the other for a finite slice of the pie.

Is this an example of what Mr. Bush famously called “the soft bigotry of low expectations?” Maybe not: it isn’t particularly soft to treat premature black deaths not as a tragedy we must end but as just another way to push your ideological agenda. But bigotry – yes, that sounds like the right word.

And cynicism.

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