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What does Social Security Mean for Tennesseans?

What does Social Security mean to you?

Your answer may depend on age, income, whether you’re currently receiving benefits. As much as Social Security is a national issue, it is also a personal one.

When accountant Joan Johnson of Gray retired in 2005, she didn’t think Social Security would be vital to her. But with the economic downturn, that changed.

“When the bottom fell out of the market my 401(k) was gone. So Social Security is it for us.” says Johnson. “Without it I’d be out job hunting, probably looking at minimum wage - if I could get hired. There are young accountants who will work for nothing right now so folks don’t want to hire people my age.”

Some 1.2 million Tennesseans – one in six – rely on Social Security to cool and heat their homes, buy food, pay for needed medications. It makes up 50 percent or more of the income for about 54.5% of Tennesseans age 65 and over.

Bettye Jo Wells of Chattanooga is still years away from retirement but, but she personally knows the importance of Social Security. When she was six-months-old, her father passed away leaving her mother with few options to support their family. Survivor benefits made a significant difference.

“My mom tells a story of how when my father died people recommended she move us into the projects. Because of the benefits we were able to be in a better neighborhood. Without it we would have been in a dire situation. I shudder to think,” stated Wells.

When she retires, Wells will have other income, but she’s concerned Congress might tap into Social Security to reduce the deficit.

“I just have to hope and do what I can to influence policy and decision makers to not touch the surplus and do what they can to keep it solvent. It’s a lifeline that we still need,” she said.

Remember that the benefits have been earned. Workers pay into the system and rightly expect Social Security to be there for them. Plus, it hasn’t contributed a dime to the deficit.

Some say the program is in imminent danger, but even without adjustments Social Security will continue to pay 100 percent of benefits until 2037 and then 75 percent of benefits for decades after.

In an opinion piece for The Tennessean, AARP volunteer J.T. Henry of Nashville remarked “those checks bolster my military pension and allow me to live in comfort.”

He feels lucky he doesn’t have to subsist on Social Security alone. “There would be a financial struggle. I wouldn’t be able to afford where I live, to give to my church, or do the things I can do for my grandchildren, which is very important to me.”

Henry supports making modest adjustments to ensure its solvency.

“I want it to stay there for everybody who has earned the right by working. Think of the trauma if people who are currently receiving it weren’t. Talk about chaos,” said Henry.

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