Minority Seniors Struggle to Retire

Cherie Vargas
Metro Editor

A recent study shows people of color have difficulties
retiring after decades of working.

From working the assembly line at a meat packing plant to scrubbing toilets and cleaning kitchens for numerous maid services, Bay Area resident Mary Hernandez, 67, says she has done it all.

Bouncing from job to job and earning less that $5 per hour from previous employers, Hernandez has come to terms with the possibility that she may never retire.

“I am 67 years old and have held at least 30 jobs in my lifetime,” said Hernandez.  “I will probably be working for the rest of my life.”

A recent study from UC Berkeley revealed it’s much more difficult for Latinos and African-American workers to retire as opposed to their Caucasian counterparts.

As people of color have historically struggled to overcome the barriers established by corporate America, many Bay Area residents are concerned these socio-economic issues may never be resolved.

“Working for 30 years has gotten me nowhere,” said Hernandez.   struggled my entire life to just provide for my kids.”

Structural racism in the economy has created an unequal distribution of retirement income, said Nari Rhee, associate academic specialist at the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.

“Minorities are being marginalized in the labor market and are stuck in low waged jobs,” she said.

In 2010, nearly 28 percent of African-Americans and 26.6 percent of Hispanics were below the poverty threshold, compared to nearly 10 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 12 percent of Asians, according to a report from the National Poverty Center.

“If we look at this from a racial perspective, there is still chronic unemployment and a lack of educational resources within most major black communities in the United States,” said Nicholas Baham, CSU East Bay assistant professor of Ethnic Studies. “And if we open this up to other minority communities you’ll most likely find the same thing.”

Like Baham, Rhee attributes disproportional retirement wages to the notion minorities have not been given the same opportunities as Whites throughout their careers.

“[Latinos and Blacks] often work in sectors that are less likely to offer health care and retirement benefits, so that means that workers of color have a harder time accumulating wealth,” said Rhee.

The lack of accessible retirement plans for elderly people of color limits the possibility of economic security in the future, while working in low wage industries heightens the risk of reliability on state and federal funding.

Although Social Security has dramatically decreased poverty rates among seniors across all racial groups, minorities benefit less than whites.

“Workers of color are much more reliant on social security for retirement income. At the same time they have lower claims on social security because of lower lifetime earnings,” said Rhee.

Among Social Security recipients, African-Americans and Latinos receive 26 percent less in average annual benefits than their White counterparts.

However, over 30 percent of Blacks and 26 percent of Latinos, compared to 22 percent of Whites, rely on Social Security for more than 90 percent of income in retirement,” according to Rhee’s research brief, “Black and Latino Retirement (In)security.”

As the economy suffers, social programs and regulations which were put in place to provide wide spread economic growth are under attack. Cuts to spending have been targeted towards Social Security.

In April 2011, Congress passed a budget that cut Social Security administrative funding by nearly $1 billion, in addition to President Obama’s initial requested amount, according to the Federal Times.

Rhee says the unequal distribution of retirement income between minorities and Whites is the aftermath of about 20 to 30 years of private sector pension in corporate America.

“Looking into the future with inadequate pension coverage and the threat to social security we’re facing a future where more and more workers are [destined] to retire into poverty,” said Rhee.

Beyond the blue-collared labor industry, Latinos and African-Americans also experience racial inequality working in the white-collared labor sector, which factors into the wages they earn after retirement.

As an African-American male, Baham has witnessed several instances where family members and friends have been overlooked for employment promotions based on race alone.

“A lot of us like myself, work in institutions where in order to be paid more money, you have to move up the administrative ladder,” said Baham. “So to the extent that there are still racial ceilings established in certain areas limiting or deferring your upward mobility until the end of your career, than you can’t really acquire those full benefits and retirement is much harder to achieve.”

In order to place minorities on an equal playing field in the retirement arena, Rhee says the government must enact policies to improve the quality of jobs in regard to wages and benefits.

“We’ve been doing this low road, WalMart economic strategy and we really need more of a high road, high skill, high wage strategy,” said Rhee.

As the nation’s public service sector continues to lose government funding, Baham believes we should turn to education for the solution to the retirement dilemma.

“Once you have equal access to education, which you can argue from primary school up, that there still is de facto segregation in schools in this country, you have equal access to college, you have non-discriminatory hiring practices, now we can talk about an equal distribution of retirement income,” he said.

Then and only then, Baham says, will things begin to change.