The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Wade Henderson Speech at LCCR Social Security Press Conference


Good morning, and thank you all for coming. I'm Wade Henderson, Executive Director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the nation's oldest, largest, and most diverse civil and human rights coalition; I'm also Counselor to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, whose education and policy initiatives support the work of the Leadership Conference and our member organizations.

The LCCR is a non-profit, non-partisan coalition that strongly believes that the goal of equal opportunity and a more just society is the unfinished business of America; and that only by working together can we advance the cause of civil and human rights.

I'm joined today on a matter of national importance by several leaders of the progressive civil rights movement, representing a broad section of the American public: Debra Ness, President, National Partnership for Women and Families; Brent Wilkes, Executive Director, League of United Latin America Citizens (LULAC); John Lancaster, Executive Director, National Council of Independent Living; and Hilary Shelton and Brandon Neal, Washington Bureau Director and Director of the Youth and College Division (respectively), NAACP. You'll hear from each of them in a moment.

We're here because Social Security, a program which is vital to the civil rights of all Americans and which our constituents disproportionately rely on, is under stealth attack. And by joining with existing networks of concerned citizens here in Washington and all across the country - we intend to defend it.

As you know, tomorrow the Senate Finance Committee will hold its first hearing on the President's proposal to allow for the privatization of a portion of an individual's social security investment. We're using this occasion to announce the Leadership Conference's launch of major public education and grass-roots initiative to defend the integrity of the Social Security Program by highlighting the inherent risks of the privatization proposal. We are joining together with AARP, Americans United to Protect Social Security, the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations, and ACORN to strengthen the voices of those who may otherwise go unheard in this important national debate.

Why, might you ask, is the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights joining the fight to oppose the President's privatization proposal? Given the intense debate in the Senate over issues like judicial nominations and the so-called "nuclear option"; or the upcoming reauthorization important provisions of the Voting Rights Act which expire in 2007, it's not as if the civil rights agenda isn't already full.

But unfortunately, the fight to preserve social security is too important to ignore. And the Social Security Program is too important to our constituents and to the goals we support to allow the civil rights community to be marginalized or worse yet -- to marginalize itself by our failure to participate in this critical national debate. Let's be clear: We have no choice but to fight to preserve Social Security and to oppose risky schemes that jeopardize to program's long-term health and solvency!

The truth is that Social Security is one of our nation's most important civil rights programs. It protects the welfare and retirement security of 47 million retirees, Americans with disabilities, widows and children of whom a disproportionate share are minorities.

For 40% of older African Americans and 38% of older Latinos, Social Security is their sole source of income, without it the poverty rate of both groups would more than double.
One out of two women over the age of 65 - including more than two-thirds of unmarried women - would slip into poverty without Social Security.

More than 7 million Americans depend on Social Security's disability benefits, including 1.6 million children who have a parent with a disability.

What is most clear about Social Security is that its social insurance component is as important as its retirement benefit - in fact, half of Social Security payments are disability and survivor benefits. Unfortunately, this fact is often overlooked in many early discussions about the impact of the President's proposal.

Now before calling my colleagues to the podium, I have to make one final comment about the cynical way in which the President's program for private accounts is being marketed. The President has been using African Americans as props to hype the notion that African American men are somehow being shortchanged by Social Security because they die young.

First, the President's facts are wrong and misleading. Among African American men who do reach retirement age, there is no gap between the length of time in which they receive Social Security retirement benefits and that of white men. For African American men who don't reach retirement age, they are much more likely than whites to receive Social Security disability benefits, and their families are far more likely to depend on Social Security survivor benefits.

Second, we welcome any indication that this Administration has finally recognized the dire problem that poor health care in the African American community is shortening lives. But, if the President is serious about addressing the mortality rate among African Americans, he'll stop trying to exploit it for political gain and start working for access to quality health care in the minority community and for all lower-income Americans.

Proponents of Social Security privatization have been trying to frame the debate around the importance to African Americans, Latinos, women and other marginalized groups of becoming part of an expanding "ownership society."

But the argument leaves out pertinent facts. Little is said about the vagaries of the stock market, which were much in evidence last week, or that the privatization proposal does nothing to alleviate the long-term solvency issues of the present Social Security system.

Sure, being part of the "ownership society" has great appeal. But, claiming it can be done with a risky scheme to privatize Social Security is a bait and switch of criminal proportions. When it comes to the nation's birth right of equal opportunity - its social contract with the American people - we shouldn't be hustled by a grand scheme based on a bedrock of "fools gold".

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