Recent years have seen a spike in both traditional and social media coverage of violence against black youths. The creation of the viral hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, most recently associated with the Ferguson, MO police killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, captures this shift in public attention towards the long prevalent issue.
There is another segment of the black population whose lives are being undervalued in 2014. Elderly blacks' lives are not properly accounted for as changes to retirement policy are considered in Washington. Policymakers are using the fact that the "average" American's life span is increasing to justify raising the retirement age to 70, in spite of black Americans not sharing equally in this increase in life span. If black lives do indeed matter for the old as well as the young, then policymakers will have to grapple with the persistent and growing disparities in life span and sickness between the elderly black and white populations.
Black Americans Live Shorter Lives than White Americans—For Men, the Gap is Growing
Even though the "average" American is living longer at age 65, there are still significant gaps in life span between elderly black and white American men and women. In a policy note on racial disparities in longevity (life span) and mortality (risk of death), I look at the creation of a gap in expected years of life between black and white men at age 65. Starting in 1950, this gap in longevity has grown steadily to almost two years in 2010. For women the changes have been more mixed, with a gap in life span growing between 1950 and 1980, and shrinking between 1980 and 2010 to a one year difference.
Black Americans Don't Make it to Retirement Without Activity Limitations
In a follow-up note on racial disparities in morbidity (sickness), I look at black and white Americans' expected years free from activity limitations in relation to the current full retirement age. While Whites can expect to live 67 years without being somehow debilitated by sickness, just barely reaching the current full retirement age, Blacks can only expect about 61 years. This means elderly Blacks face the reality of having to either work while physically impaired, or applying for often stigmatized disability benefits.
If #BlackLivesMatter to Policymakers, Retirement Policy Should Account for Racial Disparities
Throughout the two policy briefs mentioned and a longer white paper on the subject, I discuss what researchers consider to be the major causes for these trends, and potential ways to reverse them. Differences in socioeconomic status account for over two-thirds of the gap in life span and for a significant portion of the differences in activity limitations as well. That being said, measures to address gaps in income and education level could go a long way towards increasing black American life spans and decreasing their rates of sickness.
The creation of the viral hashtag #BlackLivesMatter provides an opportunity to hold our government responsible for ensuring that black American life is adequately valued, no matter the age. Just as both traditional and social media have brought attention to young black life being cut short through direct violence, we should also direct our attention to the conditions leading to elderly black life being cut short indirectly. These conditions, as well as the realities faced by elderly black Americans, need to inform policymakers' decisions as they consider changes to retirement policy.