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Forum highlights value of Social Security and dispels myths

AARP volunteer Barbara Oates helps Samuel Winston Sr. create his online Social Security account.
Jeff South

See more photos of the event here.

Carolyn Colvin, former head of the Social Security Administration, recalled recently meeting a woman in her 60s who was struggling financially and had to choose between buying food and buying medication she needed.

“I asked if she was getting her husband’s benefits (from Social Security). She said, ‘No. After all these years, he divorced me and married someone else,’” Colvin recounted.

But by law, a divorced person is entitled to Social Security benefits based on the ex-spouse’s work record as long as the marriage lasted at least 10 years. Colvin explained this to the woman.

“So now she’s getting $400 additional each month,” Colvin said.

The rules governing benefits for ex-spouses came into play with another woman Colvin met. The woman said she planned to divorce her husband after nine years of marriage – just short of the time required to qualify for Social Security benefits under his record.

Colvin’s advice: “Sweetheart, don’t do that. Go to a hotel for another year. You’ve earned that benefit!”

Colvin told those anecdotes in Richmond recently at a standing-room-only forum sponsored by AARP and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

The free event, titled “Social Security: Here Today, Here Tomorrow; Securing a Financial Future Within the Black Community," drew nearly 80 attendees – the room capacity – to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia.

The panelists were, left to right, Max Richtman of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare; Carolyn Colvin, former commissioner of Social Security; and Brandon Byerson, a local financial adviser.
Jeff South

Upon arriving, attendees played games and won prizes for answering questions about Social Security, and with help from AARP volunteers, they created personal online Social Security accounts.

Then they gathered in an auditorium and an overflow meeting room to hear a panel of experts discuss the Social Security system, which was created under President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935.

The panel included Colvin, who was the acting commissioner of Social Security from 2013 to 2017 under President Barack Obama; Max Richtman, president and CEO of the NCPSSM; and Brandon Byerson, a local financial adviser.

I would not be here today if it wasn't for Social Security.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney

Levar Stoney
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney says Social Security was a lifeline for his family.
Jeff South

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney welcomed the attendees by noting that he “would not be here today if it wasn’t for Social Security.”

“I was raised by my grandmother,” Stoney said. “And I tell folks every time that my grandmother saved my life. But indirectly, it was Social Security that saved my life.”

As a widow and with a disability, the mayor’s grandmother received a monthly Social Security check.

That money “put food on the table and kept a roof over my family's head,” Stoney said. “It kept me and my brother clothed. It got me through high school and allowed me to be the first of my family to go to college.”

Social Security was “more than a safety net for us,” Stoney said. “It was a lifeline.”

That is true for many of the 1.6 million Virginians – one in five of the state’s residents – who receive Social Security benefits. And it’s especially true for African Americans, Colvin noted.

Compared with other groups, Colvin said, African Americans are more likely to work at lower-wage jobs and cannot save as much money for retirement. So after retirement, they often depend more heavily on Social Security benefits.

“For many in our community, Social Security is the sole source of income, and it takes many people out of poverty,” Colvin said.

In addition, she said, “Social Security is more than a retirement program.” It also helps people when a worker becomes disabled or dies prematurely. And Colvin pointed out that Black workers have higher rates of getting injured and dying young.

Richtman, a former staff director of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, emphasized that Social Security is not an entitlement like public assistance. Rather, “it’s an earned benefit,” funded by a payroll tax.

In Virginia, about 1.15 million Social Security beneficiaries are retirees, who receive an average of approximately $1,600 a month. In addition, about 200,000 Virginians get disability benefits, 145,000 adults receive spousal and survivor benefits, and 95,000 children get benefits after a parent on Social Security has died.

That is why Social Security is so important, Richtman said. “We all have a stake in it – not just retirees but younger people as well,” he said.

“If you are a 27-year-old worker with a spouse and two children, you have right now almost $2 million dollars in value in life and disability insurance” through Social Security, Richtman said. “It’s there for you, and a lot of young people don’t know.”

The Richmond panel discussion, moderated by WTVR-CBS 6 anchor Reba Hollingsworth, was the first of five town hall meetings planned by NCPSSM and AARP. The others will be in Lansing MI, Las Vegas, Philadelphia and Milwaukee.

Richtman said the events represent “a campaign to help people fully understand the value of Social Security” and to dispel myths about the program.

One such myth is that the Social Security system has gone broke.

“It’s not true,” Richtman said. He said the system currently has a reserve of about $3 trillion.

However, in about 11 years, there won’t be enough money in the Social Security trust fund to pay everybody full benefits. If nothing is done, benefits then would be cut by 20% or more. 

“That's a very different proposition than saying it's broke, it's bankrupt, there's no money there. That gives people the idea that the program isn't worth saving, and that just isn't true,” Richtman said.

He said he is confident that Congress will make up the shortfall.

One solution is to raise or eliminate the cap on the amount of wages subject to the Social Security payroll tax. Currently, the “taxable maximum” is $160,200; the tax doesn’t apply to income above that cap.

Retirees can begin receiving Social Security benefits at age 62; however, if they can hold off until their “full retirement age” of 67, they receive a much larger monthly check.

To address the shortfall, some politicians have proposed raising the full retirement age to 70 on grounds that beneficiaries are living longer. Richtman opposes that idea:

“Sarcastically, I have said, ‘Well, raise it to 100 or 110. Then you won't have a funding problem.’ Obviously, that’s ridiculous, right?” Richtman said.

“People are living longer. That does not mean people can work longer.”

Byerson – who has a degree in finance and banking from Virginia Union University, where he also starred on the men’s basketball team – told the people in the audience that it’s their responsibility to spread the word about the importance of Social Security.

“To get to where we want to be as a community, we have to share this information,” he said.

“From my 10 years of doing financial planning in this community, being from this area,” Byerson said, he sometimes feels “that we're keeping things a secret.”

“Take it seriously and have that conversation with the people that you love,” he said.

Couldn’t attend the forum? Watch the replay online

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare has posted a video of the Richmond town hall forum on its Facebook page. The forum begins at about the 13th minute of the video.

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