Friday, March 11, 2005

Sen. Obama: Privatization pitch offensive to blacks

Obama finds Bush's pitch 'offensive'

March 11, 2005

BY LYNN SWEET Sun-Times Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said Thursday that President Bush's argument for African Americans to support his Social Security plan is "offensive."

Bush is courting African Americans with the pitch that the Social Security system is unfair to black men because of their shorter life expectancy.

Obama said the notion that Bush would tailor his Social Security appeal to blacks by talking about their shorter lifespans -- without linking it to the causes of the death rate -- was "stunning'' and "puzzling.''

Obama said he would prefer the president not frame his Social Security argument "in racial terms.'' Obama's strong words may have special significance since he is the only African-American senator.

Last Jan. 11 at a White House forum on Social Security, Bush said "African-American males die sooner than other males do, which means the system is inherently unfair to a certain group of people. And that needs to be fixed.''

Bush is traveling across the country to win backing for his proposal to divert a portion of Social Security payroll taxes to fund individual investment accounts. Democrats oppose the creation of these private, or personal, accounts and said they will not deal with any presidential proposal until they are taken off the table.

"I frankly found the statement that the president made somewhat offensive,'' Obama said at a press briefing with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), focusing on the impact the creation of individual investment accounts would have on blacks.

"There is no doubt a disparity in the lifetime opportunities between white America and black America. And that is something that everybody at this table is committed to closing,'' Obama said.

Group: Blacks get a lousy deal

He criticized what he said was the cynical use of disparities as a reason to dismantle Social Security. Instead, people should be talking "about how are we going to close the health disparities gap that exists, and make sure that African-American life expectancy is as long as the rest of this nation."

"The notion that we would not be talking about lack of health insurance, and reducing diabetes, and reducing incidents of AIDS, and making sure that African Americans have the wealth and the income to save into retirement and supplement Social Security is stunning to me."

Maya Rockeymoore, a vice president of research and programs at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, said at the briefing that Social Security survivor and disability benefits -- which are part of the package that includes retirement payments -- are used by African-American families and the conversation about change should deal with all three aspects of the program.

Stephen Moore, president of the Free Enterprise Fund, which is backing Bush's bid for investment accounts, defended the approach. "I think the Republicans should go into the black communities and let people know what a lousy deal they get from Social Security."

Obama, Moore said, did not take issue with the "fundamental truth'' that there is a racial death rate disparity.

"This is not about why the life expectancy is lower," Moore said. "It is about the fact of life that blacks do die at younger ages and they get a relatively worse deal out of Social Security than whites."

Said Obama, "This is as if the president is arguing for privatization of fire protection because our houses aren't worth as much as houses in rich neighborhoods. Or maybe we could privatize police protection because if we get robbed, our stuff is not as nice. It defies logic.''