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Social Security in Action

Real people share how the program has helped

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Social Security isn't just for retirees who are taking their benefits after a career of paying into the system.

The benefits also help widows, people on disability, young children who have lost a parent, and others.

These stories capture the program's broad range and impact.

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Janet Boes hold her dog, Gracie

Poon Watchara-Amphaiwan

Boes collected Social Security Disability before switching to her retirement benefit.

Janet Boes, 67

Daytona Beach, Fla.

Collects: Retirement benefits

At 59, I retired as a college lecturer and clinical social worker because I was diagnosed with several autoimmune disorders and lost the use of my hands. I collected Social Security Disability for a few years, then switched over to my retirement benefit, which is $900 a month.

Since I don't have a 401(k) or pension, Social Security is what I live on. I used to share a home with my partner, but I've been on my own since she died 14 years ago. I make a little extra money working occasionally for the county court system.

My partner left me a small income from the royalties of a textbook she wrote, but that ends this year. Still, I own a wonderful house—and by budgeting carefully, I cover my monthly expenses, own a car, care for my dog and socialize with my friends.

See also: Securing Social Security's Future

Ronnie McNab volunteers at All Saints Catholic Church

Poon Watchara-Amphaiwan

McNab suffers from short-term memory loss after a car accident and collects disability benefits.

Ronnie McNab, 52

Houston, Texas

Collects: Disability benefits

Nineteen years ago I was in a bad car accident, and I haven't been able to work full time since then. I was in a coma for 24 hours, and although I'm fine physically, I have short-term memory loss, cognitive deficit disorder and attention deficit disorder.

Now I get Social Security Disability benefits of $600 a month, which I use for food, transportation and other expenses. I live with a friend and try to contribute money when I can.

I've had paying jobs, and I'm looking now, but in the meantime I volunteer at a church food pantry, which I like. It's very tough to get by. Without Social Security, I don't know where I'd be.

See also: Social Security's Dramatic Start

Tom Reed

Poon Watchara-Amphaiwan

Congressman Reed was financially supported as a child through child survivor and military death benefits.

Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), 44

Corning, N.Y.

Collected: Child survivor benefits

I'm the youngest of 12 kids. When I was 2 years old, my father died of a heart attack. My mom was left on her own to raise the six of us still living at home. My dad served 20 years in the Army and 10 years in the civil service, so my mom was able to support us with a combination of military death benefits and Social Security child survivor benefits. If she didn't have that Social Security check, life would have been much different for us.

I can't imagine the stress of having young kids and the responsibility of being a single mother without those resources. Taking care of us was her life mission, and she was confident she could figure it out, knowing that money was coming in. I wouldn't change my childhood for anything, despite all the difficulty. Social Security had a lot to do with that.

See also: Maximize Your Social Security Benefits

Theeta Cokley

Poon Watchara-Amphaiwan

Theetta Cokley lives on the monthly check she receives for widow's survivor benefits.

Theetta Cokley, 82

Bernie, Mo.

Collects: Widow's survivor benefits

My husband, who was a truck driver, died of lung cancer in 2000, and at that point his Teamsters pension ended. Now I get Social Security widow's benefits of $1,298 a month, which is what I live on.

My mortgage is paid off, and I do have a small nest egg for emergencies, like car repairs, but I don't know where I'd be without Social Security. It means everything to me — I count it as a gift every month, and I rely on it. I take care of my own home and lawn, and I'm careful with the AC in the summer and the heat in the winter. My son recently helped me find a better drug plan, which has saved me money on my medications.

I'm very content. I'm close to my family, and I live a good life.

See also: 6 Ideas to Strengthen Medicare

Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass

Bill Clark/Getty Images

Congressman Neal used his child survivor benefits to help pay his college tuition.

Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), 67

Springfield, Mass.

Collected: Child survivor benefits

I was 13 when my mother died. My two younger sisters and I went to live with an aunt and were back and forth between her home and our grandmother's. Our dad died when I was 18, and my sisters and I started collecting child survivor benefits from his Social Security. At that time you could get the benefit even after you were 18 if you went to college, so I used mine to help pay my tuition.

It wasn't much money for any of us, but it made a difference.

When are you planning to take Social Security? Join the discussion!

My aunt and grandmother, who were two of the kindest human beings you'll ever meet, had pensions and they had their own Social Security, and between their income and the child survivor benefits, we lived as a family. It was the genius of Roosevelt's Social Security plan that allowed us to stay together.

See also: Medicare for a New Generation

Joe Everett plays baseball with his grandkids

Poon Watchara-Amphaiwan

Everett retired from the federal government on full retirement benefits in addition to a military pension.

Joseph Everett, 64

Indianapolis, Ind.

Collects: Retirement benefits

My career was with the federal government. For the last 15 years I worked as a public affairs specialist for the Social Security Administration. I was able to retire from federal service on full retirement benefits at age 56. I was also Air Force active duty and in the reserve for a total of 30 years and retired on a military pension when I turned 60.

Because military base pay is subject to Social Security tax, I also collect a Social Security benefit. It's not huge, and I don't need it for day-to-day living expenses — it's something I put away to give my four grandchildren someday.

Right now, I'm the volunteer president of the AARP Indiana state office, so I'm an advocate for Social Security. For so much of the population, it's the sole source of income, and it's important to protect it.

Learn to maximize benefits! Read AARP's Social Security for Dummies


Doris Gillispie with her granddaughter, Shatavia Walker

Poon Watchara-Amphaiwan

At age 62, Gillispie collected widow's benefits from her husband's Social Security, while she still worked.

Doris Gillispie, 82

Milwaukee, Wis.

Collects: Retirement benefits

I contributed to Social Security through a life of working. Years ago I owned a fish market with my late husband. After we sold it, I worked for the Milwaukee school system, and when I was in my 60s and 70s, I was a political advocate and activist.

I started collecting widow's benefits from my husband's Social Security at 62, when I was still working, but now I collect $1,020 a month of my own retirement benefit. I also have a pension my husband left me, but the Social Security checks have made things easier financially. I've even been able to help one of my grandkids through college.

We worked hard all those years, and we're entitled to those benefits.

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