Social Security in the Heartland: Jennifer Tayabji

What Social Security means to real people

Before the year ends, the president’s fiscal commission will bring forth a plan for cutting the deficit. While commission co-chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles have announced that everything that costs the government money is on the table—wars, hunger programs, agricultural price supports, entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, and thousands of other programs—only Social Security has risen to the top. That’s largely because of the public relations machine created by billionaire investment banker Peter G. Peterson and a mainstream news media that have paid scant attention to Social Security. (Peterson is a CJR funder.) If anything, Peterson’s message has gotten through. A Gallup poll found that more than half of current retirees expect their benefits to be cut, and sixty percent of all Americans believe that Social Security won’t be able to pay benefits when they stop working.

The stories and columns that have appeared border on the wonkish and elliptical, and have failed to tell ordinary Americans what’s at stake. What does all this talk mean for them? CJR went to America’s Heartland—the metropolitan area of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois—to find out. This is the first of a series of posts that discuss how possible changes in Social Security will affect the area’s residents. The entire series is archived here.

Jennifer Tayabji is the kind of person that Alan Simpson likes to talk about. She’s young, and fits his conception of some retiree’s grandchild. As the former Wyoming senator likes to say, we have to fix Social Security for our grandchildren. The twenty-nine-year-old Tayabji has heard that kind of talk. “I don’t have confidence Social Security will be there when I do retire, especially if they raise the retirement age,” she told me. “A lot of people in the lower income bracket will be alive, but by the time they get to that point, the idealized notion of what retirement is will be gone.”

Tayabji has a lot of work responsibility for someone her age. She is the executive director of the Illinois Disciples Foundation, a local philanthropic organization that makes grants to non-profits in the area. Once a chemistry major in college, she didn’t finish her degree because she didn’t want to be a chemist. So she got a job as an administrative assistant at the foundation, quickly learned the business of giving away money, and moved up the ranks. She has been the executive director for a year and a half, and now makes $35,000 a year. Each pay period, $80.83 comes out of her check for her Social Security taxes.

Like it does for all workers under the system, the Social Security Administration sends her an annual statement giving an accounting of the amounts she has paid into the system and what her benefits are likely to be given her current income at this point in her career. If she were to retire at age sixty-seven, currently the normal retirement age for someone her age, her benefit would be $1358 per month, about the average benefit someone retiring today at age sixty-five now receives. At age sixty-two it would be $956, and at age seventy, with delayed retirement credits which are available to workers who postpone taking their benefits, she’d get $1684.

Of course, if Tayabji’s income rises substantially, those benefits would also increase, since the more someone earns, the larger the benefit. The problem is, as Tayabji sees it, her income won’t go up that much more. Her partner just started a business, so she wants to stay in the Champaign-Urbana area and continue to work for a non-profit with a mission to improve health care and mental health services. “That’s where my strong passion is,” she says. She’s not sure she will finish her degree, and thinks that her income potential is somewhat limited. “$45,000 or $50,000 is realistic,” she says. “A lot depends on the economy. I had a different outlook three or four years ago. I was younger and had more hope. I thought then it wouldn’t be hard to get his great job that pays all your expenses, and now I’ll be happy to have a job.”

Her number one financial worry isn’t far-off retirement; it’s finding the down payment to buy a house with her partner. He has no credit history, and hers is hardly stellar. Tayabji said she used a lot of credit to live on and had medical debts. Paying off her creditors is also a primary concern, and any spare cash goes toward that goal. That means she doesn’t have enough to save in a pension plan like an IRA or a 401(k). Tayabji said that she did start a Roth IRA but was forced to close it because she didn’t have the money to maintain it. The minimum monthly contribution was $50, but she said that was “pushing it.” The $50 was going toward credit payments, so she closed out the $75 she had been able to save over eight or nine months. She won’t set up another IRA until her debts are cleared.

There’s no pension or 401(k) plan where she currently works, but she knows that some of the larger non-profits in the area do have pension plans which she could contribute to later on if she ends up working for one of them. So unless her employment prospects bring a much higher salary and a pension, her only retirement income will be Social Security, with whatever the average benefit is when she retires. If the retirement age for her age cohort is pushed to seventy, that translates into a benefit reduction for her.

We talked about what Social Security is and is not, and while Tayabji said she didn’t know a lot about it, she said that “it’s definitely important to have,” adding that “in general we don’t know where the money we put in goes and what it means down the road.” When I asked her if it was a welfare program, she said “yes and no.” I probed further. “Yes, in the sense that it’s there to help us out to provide assistance. No, in the sense that we pay into it. People think that welfare is claiming something they haven’t earned.”

I asked her about how she would feel if the retirement age were raised for collecting full Social Security benefits, an option that’s gaining traction among Washington’s economic cognoscenti. Tayabji said it was hard to concretely understand how she would be affected because “I’m wondering what my next job will be.” But then she said “it would definitely be upsetting because there has been no reason explained that justifies raising the age. There has not been much in the media. That blanket statement people are living longer isn’t applicable to many groups,” she explained.

“In regards to the deficit,” she said, “we need to do something to reduce it, but raising the age of retirement is not the way to do that. It definitely favors the upper classes, not working or lower income people.”

Taybaji apologized for not knowing more about the system. “I feel like I need to know more,” she said. What would help? “Having a really informative site that has information that was really objective,” she told me.

Who would you trust to provide it? I asked. “Certain media sources—more progressive ones and more investigative journalism,” she replied

I questioned her about conservative sites. “I would want to see multiple sources from different angles and perspectives,” she answered. What about the government? “I’m sure the government has something, but it wouldn’t be an objective source,” she said. “To me there’s not a lot of transparency in the government.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.