Jeanne Majors was forced into an early retirement when her job at New York’s LaGuardia airport was abolished due to a week economy and soaring fuel prices. With minimal savings and no additional family support, she opted to start collecting her Social Security benefits years early, at the age of 62.
However, despite collecting $1043 per month from the fund and an additional $800 from her pension, Majors, a Brooklyn New York native, is usually left wondering how to make ends meet at the end of the month.
According to a recent study by the National Women’s Law Center the median annual Social Security benefit for a 65-year-old single African American woman is $10,680. However, as the bipartisan debt ceiling conversions progress in Washington, one proposed bill would slash Social Security benefits to seniors by 0.3 percent every year they collect a check.
For seniors like Majors, who live in high priced urban areas, that would mean a loss of $375.00 per year for the rest of her life, bringing her annual income hovering close to poverty levels by age 85.
“I don’t understand, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and I don’t do drugs,” she said frustrated. “I just don’t know where the money goes at the end of the month.”
A majority of her monthly expenses are earmarked for her rent, cell phone, house cleaning supplies and grocery bills. “I don’t eat out much and don’t go shopping much,” majors said. “Even though I live at the YMCA and my rent is based on my income, it still cost me almost $700 a month to live here.”
The Social Security fund was created by the Franklyn Roosevelt administration after the great depression, to ensure the old and feeble would not succumb to poverty. Supported solely by payroll taxes and the Federal Insurance Contribution Act (FICA), the insurance fund is the largest spend by the federal government, bypassing defend spend and Medicare/Medicaid.
In 1937, just two years after the fund was created, Social Security paid $1.3 million dollars in benefits to over 53 thousand beneficiaries. In 2008 over $615 billion dollars were paid to just under 50 million beneficiaries.
Thanks to longer life expectancies, recent bouts of high unemployment and the numerous new recipients known as baby boomers that are now eligible for benefits, the fund is being depleted faster than originally expected. Policy makers are now worried if Social Security Insurance will have the longevity to support those who are currently paying into the fund through payroll taxes. Those who will be the seniors of the future.
According to the 2010 report by the Social Security Board of Trustees, 54 million people were receiving Social Security benefits, while 157 million people were paying into the fund making the total income $781.1 billion and expenditures were $712.5 billion.
By 2035, there will be less than three potential income earners for every retiree in the population. Despite a current $2.6 trillion dollar surplus, the fund’s debt to compensations trend predicts that the number of beneficiaries will bypass the amount of benefits available by 2036. The trust fund would then be exhausted by 2036 without legislative action.
A recent proposal by a bipartisan group three Democratic and three Republican senators, also known as the ‘Gang of Six’, reportedly created a balanced debt plan. Their proposal to the president suggests a change in calculating the Consumer Price Index, (CPI) which is used to increase Social Security benefits based on the annual cost of living increase, (COLA.)
The program cut would actually decrease the amount of benefits to current and future beneficiaries annually, and the proposal suggests that the lack of funding would force seniors to make wiser purchase choices and to buy lower cost items.
Critics of the proposed cut to COLA suggest that the chained CPI would not work for the elderly population. Daniel Marans, a Policy and Legislative Associate at Social Security Works l association, suggests that lowering the fixed income of African-American seniors woman, who tend to outlive their spouses, would not force them to renegotiate their spending habits but would rather push them into poverty.
“Research has shown that African-American woman have higher life expectancies than their male counterparts. If the Chained CPI proposal is to be approved, their annual cuts would get bigger as they get older,” said Marans.
Marans’ points out that although seniors could probably replace expensive everyday necessities with generic low cost ones, the high price of health care and the all to often inability to replace brand drug costs or medical surgery, is not addressed in the proposed Social Security cost reduction plan. “You can replace the type of toothpaste you buy but if you need a heart bypass you cannot replace that with a hip surgery.”
For African-American seniors like Majors who live in high priced urban cities, the current average annual Social Security benefit of $10,680 barely covers their current standard of living. If the proposed .03 percent cut to Social Security is passed it may increase the longevity of the insurance fund but it may not increase the longevity of the seniors the fund was created to support.
“I have maintained a certain type of lifestyle for the last 40 years,” said Majors. “I could possibly cut back but there are some things I cannot cut back on like the bare necessities of an apartment to live in, a phone to call my disabled sister on, and food to eat.”
Although Majors considers herself lucky to have a pension to fall back on, a cut to her annual Social Security benefits would have her wondering what else she can do to sustain her current lifestyle of simplicity.
“I’ll have to see what else I can do without. I already wear the same shoes and pants for years, I guess I’ll have to learn to eat a little less too.”