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Debt ceiling, protecting Social Security are topics as seniors meet with AARP reps

Attendees were polled and Social Security issues discussed as Lisa Lamkins, advocacy director for AARP Wisconsin, met with seniors in River Falls last week. Judy Wiff photo.

As part of an eight-city tour around Wisconsin to discuss the nation's debt problems and the possible effects on Social Security and Medicare, AARP representatives met with retirees in River Falls last week.

"We want to give (members) the facts about what is being proposed, some insight on what AARP thinks and invite them to let us know what solutions they would prefer to see for reforming these programs," said Jim Flaherty, communications director for AARP Wisconsin.

The United States debt ceiling can be raised in and of itself, but this is the first time that issue has been intertwined with the federal budget and budget deficits, said Lisa Lamkins, ASRP advocacy director.

Using electronic remotes, the 33 seniors attending the meeting indicated that 93% of them have been following debt ceiling talks either very or somewhat closely. When suggesting how Congress should handle the federal budget deficit, 7% suggested using tax increases only, 21% suggested spending cuts only and 71% preferred a combination of the two.

Seventy-two percent of those at the meeting indicated that the issue is very important to their everyday lives.

"It's going to change everything -- whether we eat or not," said one man.

Interest on the federal debt is one of the things that have to be paid and she's sure Social Security will be paid, but the administration may have the ability to delay paying some bills, said Lamkins. But by law, she said, the administration can't pick and choose the bills it will pay -- it must treat all spending approved by Congress equally.

Proposals to make cuts to Medicare and Social Security as part of deals to pay the nation's bills are not reasonable, said Lamkins.

"Social Security didn't cause the deficit," she said.

Neither of the two major proposals on the table as of last week proposed major changes in either Social Security or Medicare, said Lamkins.

But, she said, "Until it's completely off the table, it's on the table."

Some plans include spending caps, which would affect everyone in the program. Since Social Security hasn't added to the deficit, it shouldn't be any part of deficit reduction plans, said Lamkins.

"The future is cloudy," responded a man. Social Security is a trust fund but because past administrations have used the cash in the fund to balance budgets, much of what's left is in government treasury bonds. He said he'd prefer the cash to the bonds.

"Everybody should have their fingers in the pie," said a man, insisting that funding cuts should be made in all areas.

"Social Security is only a minute part of the problem," said the woman. "The whole system has to be changed."

Social Security benefits aren't all earned, said another woman. Her husband died when he was 39 and their son was 12. Both she and the boy received monthly Social Security checks until he turned 18.

No matter how many children in a family that loses its breadwinner, each would receive a monthly Social Security check, she added.

"It's not just people that are paying that get Social Security benefits," she summarized.

Social Security is also a family-income protection program and a disability program, agreed Lamkins.

When those present were asked how important Social Security and Medicare are to them, 96% responded "very important."

Social Security provides a base amount and is a benefit a recipient can't outlive, said Lamkins. Even when stock market investments tanked, beneficiaries had Social Security to fall back on.

Lamkins said half of those who receive Social Security rely on it to provide more than 90% of their income.

Social Security was originally intended as a retirement supplement, responded a man. But, he said, "It's basically a Ponzi scheme, and it's going broke."

"In order to save this country, we're all going to have to take a hit someplace," said another man.

If anything, Social Security has become more important to more wage-earners, said Lamkins, noting that more and more people are taking Social Security benefits at age 62 after losing their jobs and not being able to find another.

When asked if Social Security should be cut to reduce the federal deficit, 82% of those present said no, 7% said yes, and 11% were not sure.

While the presenters had hoped to also talk about Medicare, the discussion never got that far, and Lamkins offered to return for that topic.

But she quickly asked if Medicare should be cut to reduce the deficit. Of those present, 85% said no and 15% were not sure.

Tweaks such as requiring a recipient to pay a $1 for each medical test and co-pays for in-home care have been suggested, said Lamkins, adding that there's a lot to talk about.

She said that currently the average Medicare recipient pays annual out-of-pocket costs of $5,500 on an annual income of $22,000.

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.