Human Nature

Se Habla B.S.?

The White House lies about Latinos and Social Security.

Last week, I faulted the White House for leading the press and public to believe, falsely, that Latinos tend to die younger than whites do. This myth helps to sell President Bush’s Social Security reform proposal to Latinos, since it implies that they collect Social Security for fewer years, on average, than whites do. To debunk the myth, I pointed to a U.S. Census report showing that Latinos outlive whites by an average of three years.

Has the administration changed its language since I flagged the error? Yes. The White House no longer obliquely implies that Latinos die younger than whites do. It now repeats that falsehood explicitly.

Let’s recap the original transgression. In a meeting three months ago, Bush led outgoing NAACP President Kweisi Mfume to believe (according to a transcript of Mfume’s comments afterward) that Latinos and blacks, “because of low life expectancy rates, don’t get a chance to get out much of what they put in” to Social Security. Mfume’s comments, in turn, led some newspapers to report that Latinos “have lower-than-average life expectancy rates and, as a result, don’t draw retirement benefits commensurate with what they pay in payroll taxes over the course of their working lives.”

Well, maybe Mfume misunderstood Bush. Mfume said Bush referred to lower life expectancy among “some communities.” I’ve asked Mfume’s office for more detail; he hasn’t called back. I can’t imagine what other “communities” Bush might be talking about, since the Census report shows that all other ethnic groups whose life expectancies are measured by the government live at least as long as whites do. But I can’t prove that Bush referred explicitly to Latinos or that he’d been fairly warned that such a reference would be false.

Cheney has neither excuse. Two days ago at a “town hall” meeting in Nevada, the vice president declared, “Life expectancy, for example, among African Americans and Hispanics is less than it is for others. They get a worse return, if you will, out of Social Security than others because they don’t live long enough to draw the benefits that was equal what they’ve paid into the system over time. So it is an important consideration.”

Has the press alerted readers to the falsehood of Cheney’s claim? Far from it. Today’s Wall Street Journal reports, “For African-Americans … [Republicans] argue that personal accounts offer a better deal; blacks’ shorter life expectancy, the argument goes, means they collect traditional Social Security benefits for a shorter period and thus would help their families more with personal accounts they could leave to heirs. They argue that Hispanics would benefit for the same reason …” The Journal leaves the impression that while short life expectancy among Latinos may or may not be a good reason to support personal accounts, it’s a fact.

Well, it isn’t. And the press should stop passing it along without checking it. And the White House should stop lying about it.