Pension history lesson

As Black History Month comes to a close, we are reminded that many of the social and economic justice struggles that persist today began over a century ago. One history lesson worth remembering and learning from today -- as so many African Americans are struggling to survive in retirement – is the movement beginning in the late 19th century to create pensions for former slaves for their years of unpaid labor. The controversial concept came in the aftermath of the emancipation when most former slaves had no financial resources, property or education, which are critical to personal economic independence and stability.

Although slavery is far behind us, many African Americans continue to live in poverty, unable to ensure economic stability in our later years. We’re less likely to have access to employer-sponsored retirement plans as a result of the current retirement security crisis.

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African Americans are also less likely to participate in 401(k)-style defined-contribution plans, contribute lower amounts, and are more likely to make early withdrawals from these plans that require consistent large contributions from workers to be even near adequate. This reminds us why even 120 years ago traditional pensions—which provide workers with guaranteed retirement income—were viewed as vital to delivering retirement security to older workers of color.

In 1890, the ex-slave pension movement received a boost when William Connell, a Nebraska Republican, introduced the first ex-slave pension bill in Congress. The bill, H.R. 11119, was modeled after the military pension system for Civil War veterans.

According to the National Archives and Records Administration, Connell’s bill came at the request of Walter Vaughan, a Democrat from Omaha. The former mayor of Council Bluffs, Iowa, believed  such bills would not only deliver economic justice, but would also serve as a “Southern tax relief bill” with ex-slave spending helping to fuel the economy.

The push for ex-slave pensions continued to gain momentum in the 1890s and early 20th century with strong backing from the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association of the United States of America (MRB&PA) and other ex-slave pension organizations. The MRB&PA is considered the largest of these groups with more than 100,000 members.

The grassroots organization supported a proposed age-based pension payment scale that appeared in every ex-slave bill from 1899 onward. Under the proposal, the maximum benefit for freedmen would be $500 at the time of disbursement and $15 per month for the rest of their lives. If passed, a very modest number of blacks would have received the pensions as only 21 percent of the black U.S. population had been born into slavery by 1899.

Despite its popularity, the ex-slave pension movement faced crippling opposition from federal agencies—the Bureau of Pensions, the Post Office Department and the Department of Justice— that it wasn’t able to overcome. The agencies worked collectively in the late 1890s and into the early 20th century to investigate individuals and groups in the movement.

The officials who pursued the investigations thought the idea of providing pensions to ex-slaves was unrealistic because the government had no intention of compensating former slaves for their years of involuntary labor.

Despite its failure, the ex-slave pension movement did help many to realize the importance pensions play in providing economic stability to black Americans once they could no longer work. Traditional defined-benefit pensions have played a significant role in helping create and maintain access to the middle class for black families.

It is so necessary to understand our history and remain vigilant. Unfortunately, state legislatures and municipal governments seek to dismantle their pension systems - which places Black America at risk of losing long fought for gains towards economic justice.

Policymakers must focus more on strengthening sustainable pension systems rather than imposing drastic pension cuts, so that all workers are able to retire with dignity.

Lewis is a geriatrician and Healthcare Chair of the Service Employees International Union.