"If it weren't for Social Security, I guess I'd be out on the street somewhere."
Retired construction worker Harry Byers, Sr. says he depends on his monthly Social Security check from the U.S. government. With President Bush aiming to reform the system, Mr. Byers - and other retirees at a senior center in Washington, D.C. -- are talking about the importance of the Social Security program.
"I worked for 40 years all told," Mr. Byers says, "maybe a little more. I started working when I was about 16, helping bricklayers and whatever."
After all that time on the job, the pension he receives from the company he worked for amounts to only $35 a month, which isn't enough to cover even a week's worth of expenses. The additional Social Security check allows him to pay for his groceries, utilities and other bills.
"It's no luxury," Mr. Byers remarks. "You have to have to adjust yourself to the money that's coming in in order to make ends meet." Still, he says he is happy he's been able to stay in the house he finished paying for three years ago.
Like other workers, a portion of Mr. Byers' salary during the years he was employed went to pay Social Security taxes. The benefits he is receiving now are based on his earnings averaged over his working career. Congress created the program in 1935 as a "safety net" to guarantee workers some income after they retired.
The Social Security Administration recommends that older Americans should not rely on the government check as their sole source of retirement income. Almost 36 million retirees receive Social Security benefits, and, for most of them, it is only one of a number of sources of income. But, like Harry Byers, many of them say they wouldn't be able to get by without that monthly check.
Yvonne Samuel is among those speaking out about Social Security at the Congress Heights Senior Wellness Center. "This is my lifeline for finances," says Ms. Samuel, who retired two years ago after suffering a stroke. "It's not enough, but it helps a lot." She uses the check to pay her rent and utility bills. Her children help out with other expenses.
Bertha William used to work for a restaurant chain. She also spent 25 years as a medical clerk in a veterans hospital, so she receives a government pension as well as Social Security. If she only got her pension, "it would be hard, hard, hard," she says. "The money I receive from Social Security means so much because I can pay my utility bills, buy my medication, [and] go to the doctor from time to time."
Joseph Brown, 79, also receives a government pension after 34 years working for the Smithsonian Institution. But he says he still needs his monthly Social Security check. "With medical expenses and prescription drugs so high," Mr. Brown says, "every little bit helps."
Americans are encouraged to set aside personal savings while they are working in order to supplement their Social Security. But some retirees say that was not always possible. Mr. Brown says he had to work several jobs to support his family. "During that time, I had two or three jobs at one time."
Not all retired Americans depend on their Social Security benefits to meet their living expenses. For many, the monthly check is extra income that allows them to travel or buy an occasional luxury item. But many more find themselves in the same situation as the seniors in Congress Heights. Concern over their well-being is one of the reasons the debate over Social Security reform is likely to remain heated in Congress and across the country.