NEW YORK — After Dr. Sarah Williams lost her husband Clarence to lung cancer in 2015, her grief was soon accompanied by financial worries about providing for their 9-year-old twins.
Affording basics like school supplies and field trips strained Williams' part-time professor salary in North Carolina for more than a year. Eventually she discovered her twins were eligible for federal survivor payments from the Social Security Administration (SSA) for children who lose a parent. Both children soon started receiving payments of hundreds of dollars a month, helping to alleviate the financial burden that came with their father's death.
But many Black children who lose a parent never see benefits like those that helped Williams' family, a problem that has drawn the attention of advocates and lawmakers who say the SSA should be doing more to close the racial gap that exists among children who receive benefits and those who don't.
"The numbers are startling"
Every employee in the U.S. pays Social Security taxes, and individuals who have worked long enough become eligible for monthly benefits when they retire or become disabled. When they die, their surviving family members might also qualify to receive benefits. Whether a child under 18 is eligible depends on several factors, but those who do qualify typically get 75% of the benefit the deceased parent was entitled to receive. Last year, surviving children who qualified for benefits got an average of $957.05 a month.
There are approximately 10.1 million Black children nationwide, and Census data reveals an alarming 9.6% of them, or about 975,000, had lost at least one parent as of 2021. That figure has doubled in the past decade, with a sharp increase due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One study found that Black children lost caregivers at twice the rate of White children from April 2020 until the end of 2022.
Recent Social Security data shows that only about 26% of Black children who have lost a parent — 257,533 — are receiving survivor benefits, according to the analysis by David Weaver, a former Social Security Administration executive and researcher. The comparable percentage for non-Black children is 46%. Roughly 30,000 fewer Black children are receiving survivor benefits than in 2009, the last time the data was broken down by race.
Weaver's findings raise questions about why the remaining roughly 717,000 Black children who have lost a parent are not receiving survivor payments, and what can be done to increase their access to benefits they might be entitled to.
"I think the numbers are startling," Weaver told CBS News. "Social Security is supposed to be a social insurance program, so its benefits are supposed to be broadly distributed."
This gap in eligibility for Black children obtaining survivor benefits has been the subject of little public discussion by SSA, likely in part because data detailing the racial breakdown of beneficiaries has been incomplete for decades. But other research has identified racial eligibility gaps in different parts of Social Security, including one study that found Black men are less likely to be insured for disability benefits. Weaver said lawmakers could make changes to the eligibility requirements for survivor benefits that could address these issues.
For those who are eligible, a lack of awareness that Social Security offers payments for family survivors — and not only retirees — is often cited as the primary impediment to connecting children with the benefits they're owed. The surviving parent or caregiver is responsible for claiming the benefits on the child's behalf, and many are unaware that the benefit exists.
"Families may not even know they are eligible," said Joyal Mulheron, a bereavement policy expert. "When you experience the death of a loved one, it's not simply being sad. It can throw the stability of a family into chaos."
Regular communication from the government regarding survivor benefits has also been curtailed over the past decade.
Before 2011, all workers over 25 received a statement in the mail every year that detailed benefits options in case of an unexpected death. Statements are now only mailed to workers before their 60th birthday. Instead, the SSA encourages workers to sign up for an online account to track what benefits they might be entitled to.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress has pushed to reverse the change in recent years and mandate that Social Security restart mailing benefit statements to all American workers older than 25, which would include information on survivor benefits.
Even if a grieving family is aware of the benefits, the application process can be complicated and difficult to navigate. Martha Shedden, president of the National Association of Registered Social Security Analysts, noted that there is no option to apply for survivor benefits online. Instead, family members must apply in-person or over the phone, which have backlogs that built up after offices shut down and staff left during the pandemic.
"Survivor benefits are the most-under collected of all of the benefits because I think many people may not know that they are eligible for them," Shedden said. "The other problem is you can't apply with an online application. You must either call or go into an office. The biggest issue about Social Security is that people do not realize how much money is at stake. The claiming decision is very confusing and complicated and they don't know who to turn to for help."
Shedden cautioned that the longer a grieving family waits to file for benefits, the more money the children will miss out on, since retroactive payments only go back six months.
"A silent problem"
Some experts pointed out that many children enter the care of extended relatives who may be unfamiliar with the deceased parent's working history or unaware that they can apply for the child's benefits. Others are placed in dysfunctional foster care systems, where Black children are disproportionately overrepresented.
Patrice Willoughby, the senior vice president for global policy and impact at the NAACP, told CBS News that the Social Security Administration needs to do a better job of identifying family caregivers or foster systems taking care of Black children who have lost a parent.
"While the problem itself is urgent, because we cannot allow for children to fall through the cracks, it is a silent problem because there is not an advocacy component associated with the needs of Black children holistically," Willoughby said.
Currently there is no nationwide system to identify children who have lost a parent or caregiver, said Catherine Jaynes, president of the Children's Collaborative for Healing and Support. The group is working with states to improve data collection practices, including by specifying on death records when the deceased person leaves behind a child, as is currently done in Brazil.
Jaynes also said states could compare parental death records with the names on childrens' birth certificates to flag when a child loses a parent. No state currently matches records.
Asked about the disparity for survivor benefits for Black children, an SSA spokesperson said the agency is "committed to equitable access" but acknowledged there are "many reasons" why a child may not receive a survivor benefit, noting that some are ineligible due to a parent's short work history. The spokesperson said the administration does not have "readily available" statistics on how many Black children are denied benefits but said there are efforts to improve race and ethnicity data to examine the program.
To try to improve awareness about the survivor benefits, the SSA spokesperson said they've conducted "hundreds" of outreach activities since 2021 that serve the African American community.
But some lawmakers say the agency's efforts are insufficient. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who chairs the subcommittee overseeing Social Security, believes SSA has to do more to reach children, especially children of color, a spokesperson said.
Brown and other Senate Democrats have asked President Biden to appoint a "beneficiary advocate" to champion the program's beneficiaries inside the agency and address user frustrations, similar to the Internal Revenue Service's taxpayer advocate.
Still, the issue has not received the kind of attention on Capitol Hill that's needed to close the gap, experts said. "Congress has not done enough to help these young survivors get the benefits they need," said Weaver, the analyst.
As for Williams, her twins will soon age out of the survivor benefits program when they turn 18. She hopes Mr. Biden, who became a young widower himself after his first wife passed away in a car crash, will continue to look out for families like hers and the widowed moms of Black Women Widows Empowered, the bereavement support group she now runs.
"Widows are finding us, sometimes within days of their loss or first year of their loss. I would hate to see widows go a year or two without the needed support and help," Williams said.