Social Security in the Heartland: Jude Love

What Social Security means to real people

This is the seventh in a series of posts that discuss how possible changes in Social Security will affect the residents of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. The entire series is archived here.

The president’s deficit commission has now presented the broad outlines of fixes to Social Security. One of those recommendations is to gradually raise both the age at which Social Security beneficiaries can receive their full benefits, as well as the age at which they can receive early, reduced benefits. The commission proposal would eventually raise the age for full benefits to sixty-nine, and the age for early benefits to sixty-four.

Jude Love, now sixty-eight, won’t be affected by any of the changes Congress may enact in the next few years, but her circumstances are not different from those that millions of today’s younger workers will face when it’s their turn to retire. Love’s predicament is suggestive for tomorrow’s workers, particularly older women who still live in poverty despite the success of Social Security in erasing poverty among the elderly.

Although Love was raised in an upper middle class family, she didn’t earn a lot of money during her working years. A divorcee, she said she worked some when she was married, but her husband, a pharmacist, “didn’t want me to work.” In the last several years she has tried to earn a living selling cars and doing telephone solicitations. Occasionally she works for local theater groups and does some amateur acting. On her last job for a telemarketing company, she made $8.50 an hour selling credit cards and insurance. The company closed four and a half years ago, but before it went out of business, the firm cut her hours so at the end she worked only four hours each day. At most, she says, she earned about $15,000 or $16,000 a year.

Three years ago she got cancer and needed radiation treatment just as she needed to find a new job. She relied on unemployment insurance—$136 a month—and food stamps to get by. It was tough, she says: “I have been through some rude awakenings in the last few years.” Love is still looking for work. “I will clean for people and coach people for acting. I’ve interviewed for secretary, waitress and Wal-Mart jobs.” Next week, she told me, “I am going to McDonald’s.” She had heard they pay $7.85 to $8.10 an hour. “It’s hard for an older person here because they take college kids who will work for no benefits,” she explained.

Love has encountered another problem in the job market. Some of the places she has looked don’t want full-time workers; they want people to work six to twelve hours a week. “That messes up other money that you have coming in,” she says. By that, she means if she earns too much, she would lose government benefits like food stamps, since what she gets depends on other income she has.

Love took her Social Security benefit when she turned sixty-five. Although she could have taken it at sixty-two, she’s glad that she didn’t. As it is, she only gets $713 a month, enough to cover the $470 rent, but not much else. “It’s getting harder and harder to live,” she told me. She does not own a car and takes the city bus wherever she has to go. She relies on her daughter to bring food, coupons from a family services agency to use at a farmers’ market, and $16 a month worth of food stamps.

She had a lot to say about raising the retirement age for Social Security benefits. I asked whether she thought it should be raised. “No,” she said. “I would have been homeless if I couldn’t have my benefit at age sixty-five. There would have been no way to pay the rent. It’s very scary.”

The deficit commission offered a vague proposal for a hardship exemption to accommodate those in a financial squeeze like Love. Hardship exemptions veer into the territory of means-testing, as in welfare programs. Presumably those applying would have to show that they really need their benefits early. That sounds like the tough tests that people face when they now apply for Social Security disability benefits. Some experts say that that new applicants could make the current three-year claims backlog even larger.

“Social Security is not a welfare program,” Love said. “It’s a little nest egg that you planned on. It’s like a pot at the end of the rainbow, so to speak. They should leave Social Security alone. You paid into it. It’s yours at sixty-two.”

For more from Trudy Lieberman on Social Security and entitlement reform, click here.

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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. Tags: , , , ,