By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY — As he finished his spaghetti at the “Lunch and More” meal site Friday at John Calvin Presbyterian Church, 76-year-old Philip Kepley griped that leaders in Washington sometimes operate with a third-grade mentality.
“Plain old politics,” he said. “… It’s a problem they created and one they can fix. They made a mess, and I think they’ll straighten it out — to some degree.”
Kepley doesn’t buy into President Obama’s warning earlier this week that come Aug. 3, without an increase in the country’s debt ceiling, Social Security recipients may not be getting their monthly benefits.
It’s a matter of priorities, Kepley said, and if push comes to shove, making sure Social Security recipients are covered no matter what happens to the debt ceiling will be a top priority. In that way, Obama’s using Social Security as a scare tactic, he says.
“It’s not an August issue for me,” Kepley added, “but I’d hate to lose that part (of his retirement income). … Social Security will have to have modifications over the long term.”
Seniors’ reactions to the Obama statement that Social Security checks may not go out next month range from outright fear to disgust that older citizens — and children — are again being used for political leverage.
More than 52.5 million Americans receive Social Security benefits as retired workers, disabled workers, widows, widowers, spouses and children. Within 13 Rowan County zip codes, there were almost 24,000 beneficiaries at the end of 2009, translating to $25.4 million a month coming to citizens through Social Security (see chart on Page 2A).
Those numbers are low because they do not include Rowan Countians who live, for example, in Kannapolis and Mooresville zip codes.
“There are many people (for whom) it would mean disaster, even to miss a check or for it to be two weeks late,” said Jo Kearns, president of the local AARP chapter and senior move manager for Smart Choice Senior Transitions.
“It’s scaring a lot of older folks and, I think, unnecessarily.”
Carolyn Osian, 70, receives her Social Security benefits every second Wednesday of the month. She planned to visit her credit union Friday to warn them that some automatic drafts (mostly for insurance) won’t be covered if she doesn’t receive her Social Security in August.
“It does frighten me,” Osian said, and she doesn’t want to be a burden on her children, who are trying to support their own families.
“It’s the only income I have,” Osian said, “and I don’t want to fall back on them.”
She has been watching much of the debt-ceiling debate in Washington over her C-Span channels.
Eileen Hanson-Kelly and her husband have two Social Security checks coming to their household. “In our experience — and it’s true around the country — we spend every bit of that money every month,” Hanson-Kelly said.
She described Republican lawmakers as playing Russian roulette with seniors — “and when they do that, they run a big risk.”
“I think it’s very risky to put seniors’ livelihoods in jeopardy,” she added. “I’m worried about them playing around with the debt ceiling as if it can be fixed in one stroke.”
The debt crisis is a long-term thing and the notion that the country faces a deadline now reflects how inflexible Republican lawmakers are, Hanson-Kelly said. A long-term fix, she added, has to address loopholes and subsidies that allow major corporations such as General Electric and wealthy Americans not to pay taxes, or their fair share of taxes.
“I’m very worried about this because if they don’t come to an agreement soon, it will have a disastrous effect on the whole economy, not just seniors,” Hanson-Kelly said. “The fragile recovery we’re in will come apart.”
Jerry Shelby, 69, said if the country had allowed the Bush tax cuts to expire and had not tried to fund two wars without a tax increase, “we wouldn’t be in this problem.”
“I hope Obama doesn’t cave, but I think he will,” Shelby said.
Shelby contends Social Security can be fixed. “What the Congress needs to do is show leadership and say, ‘Our retirement is strictly going to be Social Security,’ ” Shelby said. “Most of them are millionaires who don’t need Social Security.”
He also called for the income of people taxed for Social Security to be raised to whatever the president is making.
Pat Beck complained that Obama’s statement Tuesday about Social Security was a scare tactic, pure and simple. He hopes that fearful seniors will call their representatives and put pressure on them to raise the debt ceiling, Beck said.
“And I think our representatives got us into this mess,” she said.
Many seniors who spoke to the Post for this story noted that as a demographic group, they are more educated and more likely to vote and make their voices heard.
Beck, 77, has been a widow for 25 years and is an active AARP member. She attended a Seniors Without Partners meeting Thursday and, looking over the crowd, realized that everybody was dependent on Social Security, “and I don’t see how they could live without it.”
“Naturally, I depend on mine,” Beck added. “It’s important to me.”
It’s funny, Beck said, how you never hear anything about congressmen not getting their paychecks.
Several people answered a Facebook question posed by the Post about President Obama’s Social Security warning.
“I, too, think it’s a scare tactic that will frighten many elderly people that depend on this money,” Lynn Bernhardt said. “I also think it’s a shot below the belt to target Social Security recipients.”
Mary Jo Simpson also called it a “political scare tactic” with an election on the horizon.
“The government spends in so many areas, but when they want more, they threaten cutbacks in four: Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, military and education,” Simpson said.
Elizabeth Turneabe asked if the Social Security checks don’t go out, how many other things don’t get paid?
“Things like rent, insurance, car payments,” she said. “And if those don’t get paid, what happens? Some of the payments can float for a few days, maybe even weeks, but there are usually penalties. … So, basically, the government is taking a short-term payday loan from the people, and the people get to pay the interest and penalties.”
Patsy Flint said the public tries to sort out what the politicians say in print — “and we’re usually wrong.”
“There is so much more going on than we’ll ever know,” she said. “Wait until we read the history books 20 years from now! Where, oh, where, is Walter Cronkite when we need him?”
Back at John Calvin Presbyterian Church’s meal site, 69-year-old Jane Ketchie said it was always her understanding that pay-ins to Social Security were going into a trust that was set aside. “I hope it’s an area that cannot be touched,” she said.
“Something is not right there, either what he (Obama) said, or something we don’t know about,” Ketchie added. “It’s almost like they try to confuse you.”
Ketchie supplements the Social Security income she and her husband receive by working as the church secretary. Social Security helps pay for basic needs such as the telephone and electric bills, she said.
Close to Ketchie, W.L. Mowery put the finishing touches on his lunch. A Duke Power retiree, Mowery considered Obama’s warning a scare tactic. What would change for him without a Social Security paycheck in August?
“Well, I’d certainly have to change my lifestyle,” he said.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.
By Mark Wineka