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Originally published Tuesday, March 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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GOP wooing blacks on Social Security

The White House and its allies who support overhauling Social Security are launching a highly targeted campaign to convince African Americans...

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — The White House and its allies who support overhauling Social Security are launching a highly targeted campaign to convince African Americans that President Bush's plan to create private investment accounts will have special benefits for them.

The most provocative element of the GOP message to African Americans: Their shorter life expectancy means Social Security is not a favorable deal for them, a point contested by Bush's critics.

The president's plan for private accounts, Republicans say, would particularly benefit African Americans by allowing them to build wealth more rapidly and pass a portion of their Social Security contributions to their heirs.

In reaching out to blacks on Bush's top domestic priority, Republicans are courting a traditionally Democratic voting bloc.

Some Republican strategists also think the effort illustrates how Bush can reap political rewards from the Social Security issue even if he fails to win passage of his plan in Congress. These strategists think Bush's call for private accounts and his broader claim to be building an "ownership society" have special appeal for black voters, many of whom live in economically troubled neighborhoods and have not been able to build their own savings.

Black activists recruited

The suggestion that African Americans do not fare well in the current Social Security system infuriates congressional Democrats, who cite government statistics showing that blacks benefit disproportionately from the current system and stand to lose the most from the proposed changes.

Nonetheless, in coming weeks, Bush's Social Security plan will be featured in a variety of GOP outreach efforts to African Americans. White House officials will brief black business leaders on Bush's plan, and the Republican Party chairman will address black audiences. Black activists backing Bush will host regional forums to sell the plan, and two new conservative black coalitions will promote private Social Security accounts as part of an agenda to foster economic empowerment.

Under Bush's plan, workers younger than 55 could divert a portion of their Social Security taxes to privately owned stock and bond accounts, rather than pay it to the government-run retirement program. Critics say the government would have to borrow $1 trillion or more to cover the costs of the accounts, which would be unwelcome at a time of high deficits. They also say the plan would do nothing to address the long-term financial problems facing Social Security.

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Polling sees black support

The efforts to gain support for the plan in the black community focus in part on arguments that African Americans are disadvantaged by the current system, largely because of shorter life expectancies.

Government statistics show that the average life span for a newborn black male is 69 years, compared with 75 for a white male. But critics of that argument say the six-year advantage white males hold over black males is due to the higher infant-mortality rates in black communities and the higher rates of violent crime, which affect black children and young adults more than whites. These people are dying before they pay into the Social Security system.

Life expectancies are closer when comparing adults. A white man age 65 is expected to live two years longer than a black man of the same age, according to government statistics.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, all of them Democrats, waved off the idea that the administration's arguments could be persuasive with blacks. But conservative black activists say the president's proposal is receiving a warm response, and some independent polling backs their claim.

"The idea of private accounts is really resonating, particularly among young people," said the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, a Los Angeles pastor and activist who plans to hold his own forums on the issue this spring.

Polling from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, an independent Washington, D.C., think tank that focuses on black issues, shows strong support among blacks for investing a portion of Social Security payroll taxes in private accounts.

A 2002 survey found that 67 percent of blacks supported the idea. Support jumped to about 79 percent among blacks age 18-25, a key target group for Republicans.

"Among younger African Americans, there is a consistent attraction to private accounts and we have seen it for some time," said David Bositis, a senior analyst at the center.

The polling offers a caution to the White House: Support for the concept plummets when the survey questions link private accounts to Bush or another Republican.

Another link to black vote

But the popularity of the idea among blacks gives GOP strategists encouragement on two counts. First, they think talking about Social Security in minority communities can win support for the Bush plan from moderate Democrats who rely on black voters to win elections. Second, they think it will help the long-term White House goal of developing ties to black voters in hopes of winning at least a portion of that solid Democratic bloc to the GOP in future elections.

"There's an effort to tell the story in the black community, and it doesn't have to be hugely successful," said Michael Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at the libertarian Cato Institute and a leading advocate for private accounts. "It just has to be more successful than Bush was [in winning black votes]. The Democrats are heavily reliant on having 90 percent of black support, but if that drops to 80 percent, they're in trouble."

This week, senior administration officials will brief black business and community leaders on Social Security. In coming months, conservative black clergy and other backers of private accounts will lead town-hall meetings in South Los Angeles and Detroit. And Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman has been promoting Bush's plan to black audiences across the country.

The Heritage Foundation is devoting the first issue of a new publication, The Heritage Forum, to the topic of blacks and Social Security. One piece is penned by Star Parker, a black former welfare mother who leads a conservative think tank called the Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education, which backs private accounts.

Parker said she is launching a campaign targeting churchgoing, conservative blacks in six cities: Los Angeles, Detroit, Memphis, Dallas, Chicago and Atlanta. The effort will include town-hall meetings, ads in black newspapers and on radio stations, and entreaties to influential clergy in large churches that have been sympathetic to conservative causes such as banning gay marriage and promoting school vouchers.

At the same time, dozens of black business leaders coordinating their activities with the White House and the GOP will present a nine-point "21st Century Mayflower Compact" that emphasizes private Social Security accounts as a way to strengthen opportunities and build wealth for blacks.

Democrats question why Bush and his allies are choosing to highlight shorter life span as an argument for changing Social Security, when they should be developing programs to close the disparity on life expectancies between the races.

"This assumes that for the next 30 or 40 years, life expectancies for African Americans are going to continue to be five to 10 years lower than life expectancies of white citizens, which is a very sinister, depressing assumption to make," said Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Maya Rockeymoore, vice president for research and programs for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, says blacks have more to lose than to gain from Bush's proposals, especially considering that blacks benefit more than whites from the survivor and disability benefits that are also components of Social Security.

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