Mary Allan Mill and her fellow retiree friends rarely go to restaurants anymore. They watch TV together instead of going out to movies. They take turns driving errands to save gas money.
Stock investments that were supposed to cushion Mill's later years provided meager returns after the recession struck. Not to mention that stock she bought years ago with a once-reputable firm called Lehman Brothers. "We don't want to talk about that," she said.
The financial lifeline that props her up? Two very familiar words: Social Security.
"I'd be homeless without it," the 77-year-old St. Petersburg resident says of her monthly benefit of $1,371.06. "They'd have another home up for foreclosure."
Social Security, the financial blanket created during another rather sharp economic downturn, turns 75 this month. Yet, even as some groups like AARP want to throw a birthday bash for the stalwart, septuagenarian system, others are focused on bashing its shortcomings. Or at least considering major changes — cutting benefits, postponing eligibility or perhaps raising tax deductions — to not only extend Social Security's life but also to ease the federal deficit.
Right now, it's just talk. But it's enough to scare people like Mill, who started working at the age of 17 and spent decades in the travel and real estate industries. "I've worked too darned hard for my Social Security and I want them to keep their fat little paws off of it," she snaps.
Messing with Social Security has been called the third rail of American politics. You just don't go there. It was a lesson learned by George W. Bush when, as president, he tried to rally multigenerational support to letting people divert part of their Social Security payroll taxes into private accounts that could be invested in stocks and bonds.
In the wake of the stock market upheaval of 2008, that idea lost steam. But there's renewed debate over other money-saving options amid the specter of a $1 trillion federal deficit and calculations that Social Security's slow grind to insolvency is coming at a quicker pace than forecast just a few years ago.
In June, the U.S. Special Committee on Aging released a report recapping some ideas most frequently discussed for shoring up Social Security, without endorsing any specific course of action.
The system, which funnels monthly payments to some 53.3 million Americans, is currently financed by a 6.2 percent payroll tax on wages below $106,800. One option to strengthen it is raising or eliminating the payroll cap. Another, which has gained some bipartisan support, is raising the full retirement age for eligibility to 70, beginning with those at least 20 years away from retiring.
AARP, the dominant public policy voice for millions of retirees, hasn't outlined its preferences except to say a major overhaul is unwarranted. The group's messages are straightforward: Don't tap Social Security to prop up other government programs or attack the deficit. Any changes to Social Security should be modest, such as those made in 1983, and should not affect monthly benefits.
"AARP strongly believes it is not fair to reduce benefits for those already in or near retirement," the association states in a position paper. "You paid into Social Security every year throughout your working life. This is your money and you deserve to receive the benefits you paid for it."
The association also objects to those who paint Social Security as being in imminent dire straits. A Social Security trustees report indicates the program can continue to pay 100 percent of promised benefits until 2037 without any changes, based on tapping surplus funds that have been invested in U.S. government securities for 25 years.
To call the Depression-born Social Security System a financial lifeline is not an overstatement. Half of Floridians on Social Security rely on the benefit for half their income. Some 25 percent count on Social Security for at least 90 percent of their income.
All told, nearly 3.7 million Floridians receive Social Security payouts. But a tidal wave of future recipients have rising doubts it will still be there when their time comes.
A recent USA Today-Gallup Poll found a record six of 10 nonretirees predict Social Security won't be able to pay them benefits when they stop working. Three-fourths of those 18 to 34 don't expect to get a Social Security check.
Among current retirees, just over half expect their benefits to be cut eventually, the survey found.
AARP Florida state director Lori Parham says similar trepidation surfaces every generation. But she points out that Social Security has held its own as a steady source of income, even during this bitter recession. "Social Security is doing all right," she said. "It will be there for your children, and hopefully your grandchildren and great-grandchildren."
The fear is just one way that the system is misunderstood, AARP representatives say.
Social Security is typically equated with the elderly. But benefits are also paid to children, to widows and widowers, and to nearly a half-million disabled workers who are too young to qualify for regular Social Security benefits.
Judy Kahn is part of that latter group receiving Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI.
Kahn, who lives in St. Petersburg's Pinellas Point neighborhood, used to be a busy trial lawyer suing insurance companies on behalf of homeowners and businesses.
Then, in 2002, she had a hysterectomy and stopped breathing while in the recovery room. "I suffered what they said was a minor brain injury," she said. "I'm here to tell you, there's no such thing."
Still highly communicative with no obvious impairment, Kahn spent three years trying to convince doctors that something was seriously wrong. She was always a quick study and voracious reader, but suddenly struggled to learn new things. She couldn't do her job as a lawyer anymore; she worked at Dillard's selling men's clothes, but struggled there as well, with the job lasting only three years.
Only after doctors finally consented to a brain scan did Kahn discover she had had two or three strokes.
In 2005, at the age of 61, she started receiving Social Security disability payments.
Between strong financial support from her family and the insurance, "it's made it possible for me to have a decent retirement," she said. "I can't even imagine what my life would be like if I'd either be dependant on my family for every dime or I'd be on the street."
Now 66, she has transitioned from disability insurance to regular Social Security payments.
She also reunited with her ex-husband, Steve, who has his own debt of gratitude to the Social Security system. Dying of liver disease five years ago, Steve was approved for a successful liver transplant, using a combination of Medicare and Social Security disability to keep up with medical bills.
"Because of Social Security and Medicare, he got to meet his twin grandsons and play with them. He knows that," Kahn said.
"For me, Social Security was a lifestyle saver. For Steve, it was literally a lifesaver."
Jeff Harrington can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8242.