American Indians and Social Security

At Boston's original tea party in 1773, American patriots -- symbolically dressed as Mohawk Indians -- dumped three shiploads of His Majesty's chamomile into Boston Harbor. They couldn't have known that more than two centuries later, another tea party would try to dump Social Security into Boston Harbor as well.

The Republican budget plan devised by Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, beloved by the Tea Party, proposes a draconian future for this landmark program that would hurt all older American and especially American Indians.

Indian elders have average annual incomes of just $2,063 -- about two-thirds the amount of those for other American seniors. More than one of three Indian elders has severe disabilities and can no longer work.

This week, the National Congress of American Indians voted unanimously for a resolution to support Social Security without cutting benefits for recipients. The tribal leaders represent most of the 3.4 million Americans who identify themselves with a tribe.

They met in Lincoln, Neb., where tribal leaders representing the nation's 566 American Indian and Alaska Native tribes met to discuss Indian Country issues.

It started when Indian elders from New Mexico's 19 Indian Pueblos got together last year to discuss Social Security. They were worried about the information, or lack of it, that they were getting. They agreed that they do not want the age of eligibility raised. They agreed that they do not want to see the Cost of Living Allowance cut. They do not trust the information they are getting from politicians. They are worried about losing the safety net for their grandchildren.

This week, the resolution was adopted by the nation's tribal leaders, and has become the unified statement of Indian Country: "Don't cut Social Security benefits."

When compared with the total population of the United States, the American Indian and Alaska Native population has poorer health and higher poverty rates. It's not going to get better in the foreseeable future. In a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projection for health and income disparities in 2030, for these seniors will have lower levels of health and economic well-being than the aged population (62 and older) as a whole.

Many Indian elders may be accustomed to poverty. The median family income for American Indian and Alaska Natives is $44,347, as compared to $68,390 for non-Hispanic Whites.

They will be disabled -- seriously enough to prevent them from working, at more than 34 percent, 2.3 times the national average. Their per capita wealth will be about half that of the total senior population. And Social Security is the only safety net between them and disaster.

Most Indians, on the other hand, take a longer view of the social contract, perhaps best expressed in the Seventh Generation credo of the Iroquois Confederacy -- a centuries-old coalition of northeastern tribes. It says that each of us should consider every action we take in terms of its effects upon on our unborn children seven generations from now. It emphasizes respecting and preserving the safety and well-being of elders.

Apparently these new "patriots" will have to learn some wisdom from the Indians the hard way -- at the voting booth. Although Indian voters are few in number, their voting blocks can determine close elections, especially in rural areas.

Recently, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski acknowledged that her "success in running this history-making write-in campaign would not have been possible if Alaska's Native people did not turn out at the polls, did not energize, did not come together as they did."

If the new Tea Party prevails, the future isn't very bright for the Seventh Generation of American Indians. The Tea Party apparently would break its social contract with them as conveniently as the U.S. broke those 800 treaties in the 1800s. America will put both in jeopardy if the Ryan budget is adopted.

Dave Baldridge, executive director of the International Association for Indigenous Aging, assisted Indian elders in creating their resolution. He is a member of Cherokee Nation. This op-ed was written in association with The OpEd Project, which seeks to expand the range of opinion voices.