On August 28, 1963, 250,000 people converged on the National Mall in Washington to demonstrate their commitment to racial justice and civil rights. Fifty years later, while progress has been made, the dream that Dr. King shared from the Lincoln Memorial has yet to be fully realized. Perhaps none understands that more keenly than the generation that Dr. King addressed on that day – many of whom were then age 18 to 40, and now are 68 to 90.
According to the most recent data, African-Americans age 68 to 90 are more than twice as likely as the general population to live below the poverty line, which is around $14,000 for this group. More than 22 percent of older blacks, including more than one in four older African-American women, count on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income, as compared with fewer than 15 percent of the general population. In all, inequality of pay and employment during their working years, which resulted in less savings and a reduced likelihood of receiving a pension, continue to take their toll.
The socioeconomic inequality is mirrored in differential health outcomes as well. Nearly half of African-Americans age 68 to 90 consider themselves in “fair” or “poor” health, compared with less than one-third of the general population. About one in three have a disability, approximately 10 percent more than their white counterparts. In general, older black Americans are more likely to suffer from chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. As such, according to the CDC, life expectancy in 2010 for those who reach age 65 was slightly less than two years lower for black men and one year lower for black women than for their white counterparts.
While the injustices faced by younger generations are on full display in the media and will dominate the narrative around the 50th anniversary of the march, the generation that marched on Washington in 1963 is also confronting no less pressing, but perhaps more subtle, economic injustices.
African-Americans age 68 to 90 are more than three times more likely than similarly aged whites to receive benefits from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly the food stamp program). Consequently, they will be disproportionately affected by the decrease in benefits because of the end of the Recovery Act’s temporary boost on November 1, to say nothing of the $40 billion of program cuts proposed in the House of Representatives.
In addition, cuts to Social Security, such as the proposal to decrease benefits across the board by measuring cost-of-living adjustments with the Chained CPI, would do significant harm to older African-Americans, given their disproportionate reliance on Social Security for income in retirement.
So while unemployment and civil rights will take center stage as hundreds of thousands turn out in our nation’s capital to celebrate the legacy of the 1963 March on Washington and continue to fight for equality in all its forms, we should also make room in the conversation for the folks who made their voices heard in 1963. Their fight for economic justice is not over yet.