Another Take on the Times’s Memphis Piece

And the Social Security connection

The New York Times’s excellent piece Sunday—already praised by our Holly Yeager—ended with an unsettling conclusion: Blacks in Memphis are losing ground, economically speaking. The story was laced with all kinds of numbers to bolster writer Michael Powell’s thesis, but it was the people whose stories were laced through the report that interested me the most. The Times told of people like Tyrone Banks, a fifty-year-old who held two jobs, one at FedEx and one cleaning buildings. He lost both of them. When he was working, he typified upward financial mobility: he had a brick house, a retirement account, had put one child through college, and, as he put it, was “proud of what I’ve accomplished.”

Now he is on the verge of losing his home and is facing bankruptcy, the apparent victim of unsavory banking practices. “My whole life is backfiring,” he says.

There were other fifty-somethings whose predicaments the Times reported. A fifty-six-year-old African-American engineer named Howard Smith once “felt like a rich man.” He owned three homes, had a good-paying job, and looked forward to a pleasant retirement. Then it all disappeared when he, too, lost his job. Although he sent out sixty applications and had twelve interviews, he got no callbacks. The bank foreclosed on one of his homes. “The banks and Wall Street have taken the middle class and shredded us.” Smith said.

Gwen Ward, also in her fifties, was laid off from a job that she held for the last fifteen years. She also talked about how her upward financial trajectory had simply collapsed. She now lives with her mother.

I thought of these cases, and the current chatter among the Washington economic cognoscenti about raising the Social Security retirement age to seventy, and connected them to some comments made last Friday by Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the House majority whip, who himself is African-American. Mike Stark, a reporter/activist who blogs at, asked Clyburn where he stood on President Obama’s deficit commission, and possible fixes to Social Security.

Clyburn told Stark:

When I was a little boy, my dad was 55 years old. I thought he was an old man. Come July 21 if all goes well, I’m going to be 70 years old. I’m not thinking about retiring. And so most 70 year olds I know are not thinking about retiring anymore. And so all of that needs to be taken into consideration going forward.

Was Clyburn, who is obviously well-connected, revealing that there’s Beltway support for raising the retirement age? When Stark asked Clyburn about the prospect of means testing—that is, giving Social Security benefits only to the poorest Americans—Clyburn said “we ought to be discussing means testing.” Some Social Security experts believe that means testing will destroy the social solidarity of the program and turn it into another welfare scheme. If that happens, those not getting benefits could have their private accounts managed by Wall Street firms, long an objective of many Street money managers and conservative think tanks.

I couldn’t help thinking of all the people the Times writer interviewed who are going to have a devil of a time making it to age sixty-two (the age for taking early retirement benefits), let alone to their normal retirement age of sixty-six or sixty-seven. Age seventy—why, they’ll really be struggling by then. Today, more than half of all workers claim Social Security benefits when they reach age sixty-two. Those include the fifty-somethings like those portrayed in the Times article who cannot stay in the workplace even if they want to. Today’s displaced workers are just hanging on until they can collect their benefits, even if those benefits are reduced, perhaps leaving them without adequate income when they reach their seventies and eighties.

Which brings me back to Rep. Clyburn. What do his own constituents think? How many of them can make it to age seventy? Clyburn represents the sixth district in South Carolina, where 57 percent of the population is African-American and one quarter is disabled. Nearly one-quarter of individuals in his district live below the poverty level, and the median household income (in 1999 dollars) is only about $29,000.

So the next time some politician talks about solutions for fixing Social Security, take a look at how those solutions will affect their constituents. That would really bring home the people story.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.