‘I would have nothing’: Low-income older people fear debt default that stops Social Security


(NEW YORK) — The threat to Social Security payments posed by a debt ceiling impasse keeps Linda Stanberry, 76, dwelling on her worst fear: the loss of the home she has lived in for 48 years.

Stanberry, who depends entirely on about $1,800 she receives in federal benefits each month, said she hardly saves anything after expenses like food, utilities, prescription drugs and supplemental insurance for cancer coverage.

The federal government could fail to pay some of its bills as soon as June 1, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned this week. If that shortfall interrupts Social Security, Stanberry would need emergency cash, she said.

“I would have nothing,” Stanberry, who lives in Southwest Virginia, told ABC News. “There’s no way I could keep my home.”

Stanberry is one of millions of low-income older Americans who rely on Social Security for almost the entirety of their funds. In all, roughly 1 in 7 Americans age 65 or older depend on the federal benefits for 90% or more of their income, Social Security Administration data shows.

If the U.S. fails to make Social Security payments next month, or even delays payments for a few days, low-income older people would face dire circumstances, foregoing basic necessities like food and medical care, experts and advocates told ABC News.

“For older adults living paycheck to paycheck, this debt ceiling process has been absolutely terrifying,” Ramsey Alwin, the president and CEO of nonprofit National Council on Aging, told ABC News. “Losing that check means they wouldn’t be able to put food on the table.”

A failure to make Social Security payments would hit some older Americans by next week.

The federal government is scheduled to make payments on June 1 to enrollees in a supplemental social security program for low-income older people with disabilities. The following day, a batch of Social Security payments totaling $25 billion is scheduled to go out to general recipients, targeting the most vulnerable such as older enrollees.

Additional payments are scheduled to go out on June 14, June 21 and June 28, each of which amounts to about $25 billion.

“This could be absolutely disastrous,” Peter Kempner, the legal director at New York City-based Peter Kempner Volunteers of Legal Service, who works closely with older adults in poverty, told ABC News.

Many low-income older people lack savings, leaving them especially vulnerable to a financial shock, he added.

“They live government paycheck to government paycheck,” Kempner said. “They don’t have reserves to float themselves for a couple months in case benefits are suspended because of what’s going on in Washington.”

As a debt default nears, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters on Friday that he remained confident that negotiators would soon strike a deal.

Negotiators “made progress” overnight, McCarthy said, declining to offer specifics of the potential agreement.

McCarthy is commiting to provide House members 72 hours to review the bill before bringing it to the floor for a vote, leaving little time for a deal to be ratified before a potential cash shortfall on June 1.

Even a delay in Social Security payments of a few days could put low-income older people in an agonizing position of prioritizing their little remaining spending between rent, food and transportation to medical appointments, experts and advocates told ABC News.

“Every single day that goes by makes a difference,” Cindy Cox-Roman, the president and CEO of advocacy group HelpAge USA, told ABC News.

Charles Turner, 74, relies solely on some $1,000 in Social Security that he receives each month, he said.

Since he suffers from a disability that limits his mobility and use of public transportation, Turner depends on rideshare services that cost as much as $25 each way to get to weekly doctor’s appointments and Tai Chi classes at a senior center, he said.

“It would be a challenge to just even go shopping for food and get to physical therapy appointments,” said Turner, who lives in Washington D.C.

Policymakers engaged in debt ceiling negotiations, he added, overlook these direct consequences for older people.

“They don’t see us,” Turner said. “We’re just lost in the lurch.”

ABC News’ Katherine Faulders, Gabe Ferris, Allison Pecorin and Alexandra Hutzler contributed reporting.

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