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How retirees say benefits need to change

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It’s no secret that Social Security is underfunded, and many Americans struggle to make ends meet with their monthly benefit checks.

Now, congressional leaders have asked an important question about reforming the program.

‘Should we vote now or should we kick the can on the road?’ said Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., this week at a House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee meeting.

Larson, who serves as chairman of the subcommittee, posed the question to Julian Blair, a Washington, DC resident, retiree, and veteran, who testified at the hearing.

“Congressman, I say we should have voted yesterday,” Blair said.

The exchange highlights the issue lawmakers face now that President Joe Biden is in office while Democrats also control the House and Senate: How quickly can they tackle Social Security reform?

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Biden ran on a campaign platform touting major changes in Social Security. One of his proposals is to increase the minimum Social Security benefit to 125% of the federal poverty level. He also wants to do away with rules that reduce benefits for those who also have certain types of retirement income, called the Windfall Elimination Provision and Government Pension Offset.

Larson also submitted his own bill called the Social Security 2100 Act, which aims to extend benefits while extending the program’s solvency into the next century.

Both Biden and Larson’s plans would require some payroll tax increases, particularly for high earners, with the aim of providing greater benefits to lower earners.

“To the shame of this nation, millions have worked all their lives, poured into a system and received a check from Social Security that is below the poverty line,” Larson said at the hearing.

Currently, 4-in-10 Social Security beneficiaries rely on those benefits for most of their income, Larson said. The average retired worker receives $18,500. Still others receive payments below the poverty line — $12,880 — particularly to women and minorities.

For Americans who collect Social Security and struggle to make ends meet, changes to raise the minimum benefit and do away with rules that reduce monthly checks for those who also have retirement incomes may not come soon enough.

So does Blair, who started contributing to Social Security at age 15 while working summers at a Virginia tomato factory. He went on to serve in the Air Force and the Army and fought in Thailand during the Vietnam War. After military service, he held various positions at Corning Glass Works.

Today, Blair calls Social Security “a critical part of my income.” But it’s still not enough.

“Although I have worked and contributed all my life, my Social Security benefits are far too low to cover my monthly expenses,” Blair said in his congressional statement.

“In fact, my Social Security doesn’t even cover my entire rent,” he said. “Fortunately, because of my military service, I also get a military pension. So I’m doing well, but not everyone is so lucky.”

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Covering expenses is also a problem for Kitty Ruderman of Queens, New York, who depends on Social Security for most of her income after retiring as a legal secretary and administrative assistant.

“My rent alone exceeds my monthly Social Security payments,” Ruderman said. “I find myself skimping so much, seeing where the money goes. I have to be so very careful or I’ll soon be eating my meager savings, which I urgently need to supplement Social Security.”

It has become even harder to make ends meet in the past year, with prices for prescription drugs and groceries skyrocketing and Social Security benefits not keeping up, she said.

According to Mary Widmier, a Houston retiree who has spent 36 years in public education, it is difficult to make ends meet for those whose benefits have been reduced by the Windfall Elimination Provision.

Widmier started working at the age of 16 and went to the University of Houston to become a math teacher. Her career led to other positions including assistant high school principal, director of human resources development and chief of human resources.

Widmier also worked in the private sector for 21 years. However, the Social Security benefits she earned during that time are reduced because of the provision for eliminating windfall gains. She receives less than $120 a month, which automatically goes to cover her Medicare Part B coverage.

There are thousands of people with similar stories, Widmier said.

An office of the Social Security Administration in San Francisco.

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Most civil servants, including teachers, take on less money than they would otherwise earn working in other industries. Now they are faced with reduced retirement income.

“We’re not asking for more than we’ve paid into the system,” Widmier said. “We’re just asking for a more equitable formula.”

Two separate bills sponsored by Representatives Richard Neal, D-Mass., and Kevin Brady, R-Texas, could change that, Widmier said.

A separate proposal, the Social Security Equity Act, also has broad support.

The Alliance for Retired Americans announced Thursday that a petition in support of the bill has been signed by about 77,800 retirees. The legislation would eliminate the windfall elimination provision and state pension compensation, which would eliminate Social Security benefits for certain spouses, widows or widowers who also have federal, state or local pensions.

Admittedly, it can be difficult to push through a broad-based Social Security reform bill that addresses all of the problems facing the program and also gets plenty of support from both sides of the aisle.

Therefore, Rep. Tom Reed, RN.Y., urges lawmakers to legislate, including issues they can now agree on, such as protecting widows.

“Instead of waiting for the perfect bill, you agree to what we can agree on today,” Reed said.

Are you a retiree receiving benefits and struggling to make ends meet? If you’re willing to share your story for a future article, please email [email protected]

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