Monday, March 21, 2005

A distressing example of "target marketing" in action. And the Republicans have the gall to accuse the left of dividing the country along lines of race....
The Soft Bigotry of Life Expectancy
Different Social Security messages for blacks and Latinos.
By William SaletanPosted Wednesday, March 16, 2005, at 1:08 PM PT

Different strokes for different folks?Why is President Bush's Social Security reform plan heading south inthe polls? Maybe because he's selling different messages to differentaudiences and some audiences are overhearing messages meant forothers. He's telling older people that nothing relevant to them willchange. Meanwhile, he's telling the younger people who are propping upthe system that it's a dead end and he'll help them get out.

This iswhy Republican "town halls" that were supposed to boost the plan inthe polls failed so miserably. The town halls were for the youngerfolks, but the older folks showed up. Oops!It turns out the young and the old aren't the only groups gettingdifferent pitches. Bush is narrowcasting to blacks and Latinos, too.

The message to blacks is that Social Security screws them because theydie younger. By all accounts, that's what Bush told black business andcommunity leaders at a two-hour private meeting on Jan. 25. It's alsothe centerpiece of black community town halls and speeches to blackaudiences by GOP chairman Ken Mehlman, according to the Los AngelesTimes.

At one forum, Bush told a black executive, "African Americanmales die sooner than other males do, which means the system isinherently unfair to a certain group of people." The executive,referring to black male life expectancy, said to Bush, "If you'retelling me that it's 69, and the [retirement] age is going to go to67, you do the math." Bush replied, "Right."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 only69, 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'realso likely to spend fewer years paying in.

What's more interesting, however, is another misconception Bush seemsto have floated. On Dec. 21, he met with Kweisi Mfume, the outgoingpresident of the NAACP. According to a Federal Document Clearing Housetranscript, 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 outmuch of what they put in all their lives." Black men and women "havedisproportionately lower life expectancies," said Mfume. "And so myassumption is that that group, along with Latinos, may be what thepresident was referring to."

Mfume said he hadn't pressed Bush to clarify the reference to "somecommunities." But the reference did its job. The next day, the Coxnewspaper chain reported that "Mfume said they discussed how toaccount for groups, such as African-Americans and Latinos, that havelower-than-average life expectancy rates and, as a result, don't drawretirement benefits commensurate with what they pay in payroll taxesover the course of their working lives."

There's no record of anyeffort by the White House to correct this account. Indeed, three weekslater, the White House issued a "fact" sheet claiming that "Hispanics,African-Americans, and unmarried elderly women are even more relianton Social Security." The sheet added nothing to suggest that therationales for making this claim about the three groups might differ.A couple of weeks ago, in an op-ed for the Los Angeles-based newspaperLa OpiniĆ³n, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez reportedly argued thatbecause of their disproportionate reliance on Social Security, Latinosstood to lose disproportionately if Bush's plan were defeated. (Theop-ed can't be found online, and I've asked the Commerce Departmentfor a copy of it but haven't received it, so for now I'm relying on aMarch 4 Los Angeles Times account of it.)

What Gutierrez and the White House seem not to have mentioned is that,contrary to the impression Bush gave Mfume, Latinos can expect tooutlive whites. According to a report issued five years ago by what isnow Gutierrez's department, life expectancy for Americans of "Hispanicorigin" 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-yearsurplus for Latino women over white women.So, here's the situation. In an op-ed written in Spanish and not madeavailable in English on any federal Web site, the administrationargues that Latinos, who live longer than whites do, should supportBush's reform plan because upon retirement they relydisproportionately on Social Security.

Meanwhile, in forums andprivate meetings aimed at blacks, the administration argues thatblacks, who upon retirement rely disproportionately on SocialSecurity, should support Bush's reform plan because they don't live aslong as whites do. Only once has Bush slipped up and alluded to onegroup in the course of making his pitch to the other. And on thatoccasion, at best, he seems to have conveyed?and failed to correctafter its publication?an impression that helped him politically butwas contrary to the truth.

The only other ethnic groups analyzed in the 2000 Commerce Departmentreport on life expectancy?or apparent in any other such governmentreport?are Asian-Americans and American Indians. Asian-Americans werebeating white life expectancy by six years among men and 6.5 yearsamong women. American Indian men were trailing white men by two yearsin life expectancy, but American Indian women were exceeding whitewomen by the same amount.

So, here are two questions for PresidentBush: 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 wholetruth to blacks and Latinos, why aren't you telling them the samething?

William Saletan is Slate's chief political correspondent and author ofBearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War.Photograph of George Bush by Roger L. Wollenberg/UPI Photo

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