Research Report Limitations on Social Security Benefits for Black Retirees
Exploring Structural Racism's Impact
Richard W. Johnson, Karen E. Smith
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How much people receive from Social Security depends on how much they work, earn, and contribute to the program over their lifetime, whether they qualify for benefits from a surviving or deceased spouse, and how long they live. Consequently, the systemic disadvantages that Black people face in education, employment, earnings, health, longevity, and marriage often limit their Social Security benefits.

Using dynamic microsimulation techniques, we compare annual and lifetime Social Security benefits for Black and white retirees and show how eliminating many of the systemic disadvantages that Black workers face could narrow the racial gap in benefits.


  • For adults born between 1996 and 2005, we project that median annual Social Security benefits at age 70 reach $27,200 for Black beneficiaries, compared with $36,100 for white beneficiaries, a 25 percent shortfall. Over a lifetime, the median present value of Social Security benefits reaches $406,700 for Black adults, 26 percent less than the $546,500 median value for white adults.
  • We project that eliminating the systemic disadvantages that Black people face in education, employment, hourly earnings, marriage, health, disability, and marriage would boost median annual Social Security benefits and median lifetime benefits 23 percent for Black beneficiaries.
  • Of all the systemic disadvantages we examine, the disadvantage in hourly earnings accounts for the largest portion of the racial disparity in Social Security benefits.


Social Security, the nation’s largest federal program, provides crucial cash benefits to retired workers, people with disabilities, and their families. The program is especially important to Black retirees, who receive a disproportionate share of their retirement income from Social Security.

Our results suggest that policies that increase earnings for lower-income workers and reduce racial discrimination in the labor force could boost Social Security benefits for Black adults. Options for improving earnings for low-income workers include increasing the minimum wage, expanding apprenticeships, devoting more public funds to workforce development programs, and strengthening labor unions. Other potential policies and practices could more specifically target Black workers. Options include strictly enforcing antidiscrimination laws; forbidding employers from questioning job applicants about their salary history, which can perpetuate past discrimination and other inequities; and encouraging employers to provide more career mentoring for Black workers and invest more in programs to root out implicit bias in the workplace.


Using the Urban Institute’s Dynamic Simulation of Income Model 4 (DYNASIM4), we simulate education level, health status, marital history, employment, hourly earnings, and mortality under two different scenarios and use those outcomes to project Social Security benefits under each scenario.

  • Our baseline scenario replicates existing racial disparities in those outcomes.
  • Our alternative scenario assumes that the systemic disadvantages facing Black people in those areas have been eliminated and projects demographic and economic outcomes for Black people using the same equations and relationships used to generate projections for white people.
  • Comparing the baseline and alternative scenarios shows how much eliminating the systemic disadvantages that Black workers face in education, employment, hourly earnings, marital status, health and disability status, and mortality would boost their Social Security benefits.
Research Areas Aging and retirement Race and equity Wealth and financial well-being
Tags Black/African American communities Economic well-being Income and wealth distribution Structural racism Social Security Retirement policy Racial barriers to accessing the safety net Older adults’ economic well-being
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center Office of Race and Equity Research
Research Methods Dynamic Simulation of Income Model (DYNASIM) Microsimulation modeling
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