The Social Security Lifeline

Written by

Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Kimberly Hayes Taylor Kimberly Hayes Taylor is a national award-winning veteran journalist who specializes in health writing. Also an author and speaker, she is based in Detroit.

Initially, when Mary Lou Blakeney began collecting her Social Security benefits 18 months ago, it meant extra money for dining out, concerts, plays and traveling.

That abruptly changed a few months ago when the retired nurse and her husband of 38 years separated, and decided to divorce. Now, the 67-year-old who lives in High Point, N.C., uses her social security money to pay for life’s basics such as food, utilities, medicine and trips to the doctor.

“I’m struggling right now until all this legal business is taken care of. I really need that money,” says the former High Point City Council member who advocates for seniors through five advocacy groups. “Even a small cut to my benefits will make a big difference.”

Nearly 60 million retirees, disabled Americans and children who have lost parents receive Social Security benefits. Because Social Security comprises such a large portion of the federal budget – about 20 percent – advocates fear that as Congress debates changes to solve the nation’s deficit problems, they will cut Social Security benefits. That’s why groups such as Social Security Works, a coalition of more than 270 national and state organizations representing 50 million Americans have forcefully argued that Social Security didn’t cause the deficit, and benefits shouldn’t be cut to reduce it.

One advocate is Alex Doolittle, executive director of the Seattle Community Law Center in Seattle, which helps low income; disabled and homeless people get or maintain Social Security benefits.

“For many of the clients we serve, their Social Security makes the difference between being healthy or being sick, being housed or being homeless, and in some circumstances life or death. Their benefits are the only money they live on,” says Doolittle, also an attorney.

“Financially, the United States is having a real moment and having to ask a lot of very difficult questions. Social Security is the wrong place to look to answer those hard questions.”

Mark Hornbeck, a spokesman for the AARP, says the group also is sending a similar message to Congress: “Don’t cut Social Security to reduce the deficit,” he says. “The government needs to get it own house in order and cut waste, crackdown on pork-barrel projects, close tax loopholes instead of raiding our children and grandchildren’s retirement funds.”

The AARP reports Social Security benefits keep 36 percent of seniors out of poverty.

Meanwhile, a report released May 13 warns that Social Security will be depleted by 2036, a year earlier than projected. In the report, trustees that oversee Social Security and Medicare, which include Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, called on Congress to address the issue and make needed changes to avoid future “disruptive consequences.”

Whatever Congress decides to do, it can’t be done on the backs of seniors, the disabled and poor, Blakeney says.

“A senior citizen has no business choosing between a meal and a pill,” she says. “If they keep this talk up, the Gray Panthers are going to call for a march on Washington about health reform, Social Security and Medicare, and I’ll be in the front of the line.”

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