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A Forced Early Retirement, and Not Enough to Live On

When changes in her contract work at Microsoft timed with with her partner’s need for full-time care, Aganita Varkentine left the workforce earlier than she had anticipated. In order to care for her partner,  Aganita had little choice but to begin her Social Security benefits at age 62, even though she knew her benefits would be higher if she waited longer to enroll.

Today, Aganita has lived almost entirely on her Social Security checks for 15 years. Without this income, “I’d be on the street,” she says.

After her medical and dental premiums, Aganita receives a monthly net income of $1,118. This is $64 less than the average benefit of $1,182.24, and only 110.5% of the Federal Poverty Level. This income allows Aganita to pay for her essential needs but it does not provide a comfortable living. After her day-to-day expenses, medical care, and helping to support her son as he enrolls in SSI Disability Insurance, this small budget is stretched thin.

She used to live in Seattle, but the skyrocketing cost of living became too much on this fixed income and Aganita moved to Tacoma in search of affordability. At 77, Aganita performs remote transcription work part-time to supplement her income.

Medicare ensures that Aganita can take care of most essential medical needs, but she still pays a lot for her medical and dental care. Medicare requires copays, often very high ones to see specialists, and Aganita says she has to think twice before seeking the care she needs.

Medicare doesn’t cover dental care, so Aganita must pay for her dental care independently. “My teeth are probably in worse shape than they should be, because I hesitate to go in.”

She purchased a dental coverage plan through Kaiser, and is happy to have found a dentist that allows her to pay her bills in installments without sending them to debt collection. Paying for medical and dental care is “a constant struggle,” Aganita says.

Aganita is a Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action (PSARA) board member, and is active in the fight to expand and protect Social Security and Medicare benefits. She is concerned about the misinformation that circulates about Social Security. “People need to know what’s really going on.”

Retirees, having contributed to Social Security throughout their time in the workforce, are unable to retire comfortably. People forced to take time out of the workforce, as Aganita did to take care of her partner, receive lower benefits.

“Something very important would be to scrap the cap,” says Aganita, referring to the maximum earning subject to Social Security taxes. As of 2017, the cap stood at $127,200, and any income earned beyond that point was not taxed for Social Security. If the cap was removed and all income was taxed evenly, there would be enough money in the Social Security Trust Fund to pay full benefits for future generations, and there would be a greater opportunity to expand the program.

Millions of Americans are in Aganita’s position, working to stretch their limited and fixed Social Security income to cover their basic needs. Removing the income cap on the Social Security, rather than making the current administration’s proposed cuts to the fund, would secure a stable and healthy future for America’s seniors, families, and communities.

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