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Social Security debate about people, not numbers
by Timm Herdt
Scripps-McClatchy Western Service


March 30, 2005

After a certain report landed in my e-mail inbox Friday, there was something I just couldn't keep myself from doing over the weekend.

I went to church on Easter Sunday, looked around the pews and counted the Social Security checks.

Frankly, after all the sound and fury this winter over Social Security and its future, I needed a different perspective from which to look at the issue.

Face it: Who can understand what $11 trillion means? That's the figure President Bush and others have used to estimate the future shortfall, but who can possibly grasp the time frame used in the calculations that got them to that bloated number: "the infinite horizon"?

Trillions of dollars and infinity are not concepts I get.

Here's a perspective I can wrap my arms around: One out of three individuals and couples older than 65 rely on Social Security for more than 90 percent of their income.

For two out of three, Social Security accounts for at least half of their income.

For women - widowed, divorced or never married - the reliance on Social Security is even more pronounced. On average, single women older than 65 receive 84 percent of their incomes from that monthly government check.

These figures, along with some California-specific data, were released last week by the Economic Policy Institute and the California Budget Project.

This was the report that hit my inbox Friday, and the reason I started paying special notice to the seniors at my church and in my community over the weekend.

These numbers tell us in a specific way, using an understandable scale, why Social Security has long been an untouchable issue in American politics.

It is untouchable because in those 15 million households in which Social Security accounts for more than half the monthly income, it is the difference between subsistence and destitution.

To be sure, the debate in Washington is not about those folks now receiving checks; no one is seriously saying their benefits should be touched as part of an effort to fully fund the system's future liabilities.

But Michael Ettlinger and Jeff Chapman, the report's authors, make this chilling point about the baby boomers who will soon join the ranks of beneficiaries:

"For most retirees, cuts in benefits would have a very large effect on living standards. With the rate of savings at historically low levels, there is reason to believe that coming generations of retirees will not be in any better position."

The data are striking enough for the over-65 set. For older seniors, the importance of Social Security is even more significant.

Social Security accounts for the majority of income for 77 percent of those older than 75 - most who no longer have the option of working part time and many who have spent down the personal savings they held at retirement.

What do those numbers mean in terms of real people?

On average nationwide, Social Security provides a retirement income of just less than $900 a month.

Statewide, there are 1.4 million senior couples and individuals who get at least half the money they live on from Social Security. For 743,000, that $900 a month accounts for 90 percent or more of their income.

Looking at Social Security on this human scale, rather than through the prism of those massive actuarial tables they talk about so much in Washington, the importance of preserving benefit levels becomes as apparent as all those gray heads that could be spotted in church pews Easter Sunday.

To be sure, the researchers at the Economic Policy Institute use their data to make a political point: that making a portion of Social Security benefits dependent upon investment returns from a private account, as President Bush advocates, would be very risky.

In the authors' words: "These data demonstrate that the majority of elderly can ill afford to gamble with their retirement income now or in the future."

To borrow a phrase from a generation still a very long way from Social Security eligibility, whatever.

The key point of this study is not at all political. Rather, it is the stark human reality it reveals: Social Security checks are and will largely remain not a luxury but a lifeline.


Contact Timm Herdt of the Ventura County Star in California

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