Social Security was a different story. “That’s what I have to live on. It has to pay most of my bills,” she said. She gets about $1000 a month, and she thinks the benefit is based on her husband’s income. They were married for fifty-six years. He was a factory worker and died four years at age ninety-three. The daughter of a coal miner, Rose said she worked doing housework for others, but said she “never made big money. It wasn’t easy.”
“If I didn’t have Social Security, they would have to keep me,” she said referring to her niece and her niece’s father. Rose got up and wiped a few tables. She came back and looked me squarely in the eye. “I hope they don’t take Social Security away. That’s all I have to live on. It’s hard. Everything costs so much.” Dry cleaning bills in particular, she said.
Janet Spencer, age seventy-five, was munching a Philly cheesesteak on a street corner when I asked her to talk. She was from Lexington, Kentucky, and visiting the city with her daughter, who was attending a conference. She had worked twenty-seven years as an administrator in a school system and had a pension from the school district. She did not pay into Social Security, which some public employees did not do, so the program was irrelevant to her, financially speaking.
At first Spencer claimed not to worry about Medicare. “I don’t know if these changes will affect me or not,” she said. But the more we talked, the more I learned that she did have some concerns. She told me she “had heard all kinds of things that they are going to privatize medicine. That’s the most scary one,” she said. “If you have a heart attack but are too old, you won’t get a procedure. They will have a priority, and if you’re too old, you won’t get it.”
Spencer continued: “I don’t think privatized medicine will work.” When I asked how she thought it might work, Spencer replied. “Like I said, they will pick and choose who will get care and who won’t, and I don’t know who the “they” are. I don’t think privatization will ever happen.” Then I realized she was confusing privatization with rationing and the death panel arguments. Perhaps that’s what she heard from her news sources—mostly Fox News and her friends who heard about this on the radio.
Our conversation dipped into politics. Spencer said she was an independent although most of the time her candidates did not win. She did not vote for Rand Paul. “I like Rand Paul, but he is not a Kentucky person. He’s not going to be nearly as scary as people thought he was.” By then, Spencer had finished her sandwich and hurried off to the bus stop.
The wind was coming up, and I tucked into the lobby of Wells Fargo bank to get warm. A woman with longish red hair was selling March of Dimes raffle tickets to bank employees on their lunch break. Forty-one-year-old Kelly Murray, a bank clerk, stopped to buy a ticket. She said she works nine and a half hours a day, six days a week, and doesn’t have a lot of time to read or listen to the news. She knew about Social Security and Medicare, in broad strokes. “The Republicans want to cut and the Democrats want to keep them,” was her summary. She did have a couple of other thoughts. “From what I hear Social Security is running out of money, and it won’t be there when I am ready for it.” As for Medicare, she said: “From what I hear about privatization, it would be a huge mistake.”