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.
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.
“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.”
“A silent problem”
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.
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.