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When 'Fixed Income' Means Getting By On Social Security

Oct 31, 2013
Originally published on October 31, 2013 12:23 pm

Social Security has long been thought of as just part of a retirement plan — along with pensions and savings — but it turns out a lot of people depend on it for most of their income.

According to the Social Security Administration, nearly a quarter of older married couples and almost half of single retirees count on Social Security for at least 90 percent of their income.

Gilroy Hain proves that's not an easy life.

Payday comes on the third Wednesday of the month, and Hain, 64, has certain rituals. He gets $1,500 from Social Security. That's actually more than the average monthly benefit of $1,269. Hain takes care of the necessities, then splurges just a little on luxuries — though to look at his rented bedroom, the word "luxury" doesn't come to mind.

There's no bed. He has what he calls his "sleeping couch" and his "sitting couch." There's a desk and some drawers. All the furniture came from the ramshackle home of his landlady, Myrna Anderson Allen.

Taking in lodgers is relatively new for her. "I'm losing my jobs because of my age," says Allen, who's 78. "I needed an additional source of income."

Hain has been renting a bedroom in her home for about a year. His rent is $500 a month, less than half of what an average one-bedroom apartment goes for in Los Angeles. He kicks in another $50 for utilities. That leaves him with $950 for everything else. But since he doesn't have health insurance or own a car, the money goes a long way.

"No problem," says Hain. "I'm actually living below my means."

That's why renting a car is one of his payday rituals. He can afford the $60 for the car, insurance and gas. The rental place is near the University of Southern California, which happens to be his alma mater. It's about 3 1/2 miles away. He walks.

It's a walk he loves. Though the neighborhood has seen better days, it's filled with beautiful old Craftsman-style homes. And Hain comments on the architecture as he walks, noting a faithful renovation here, a bad one there.

Hain is familiar with the finer things. He made pretty good money most of his life working in the aerospace industry. He never finished his degree at USC, but back in the day, you could get a job and work your way up.

"Just the fact that I could distinguish a molecule from an atom was enough to get me in the door," he says.

Hain worked for various aerospace and engineering companies around the country. The longest he was ever with any one employer was seven years. He went from job to job to job until all of a sudden, when he was in his 50s, there weren't any more jobs for him. He drained his meager 401(k) account waiting for his job search to pan out. It never did.

Darker Days

As he drives the rental car, Hain explains that it's part necessity, part payday indulgence. He uses it for errands and grocery shopping, but also for what he calls "nostalgia trips." Those are monthly excursions to places he used to live in better times. Recently, he also took a trip to one place he ordinarily wouldn't go. It's a busy boulevard next to the Century City shopping mall in West LA. He points to a row of trees. That's where he slept after he emptied his 401(k). The trees used to be thicker, he explains, which provided more privacy.

"It was actually almost like little rooms, vegetable rooms," Hain says. "There was a branch where I could hang clothes if I needed to let them dewrinkle. But I had a regular little setup, very neat."

From there he would walk up the street a couple of blocks to his part-time job at Starbucks. He says no one there realized he was homeless.

"I just make a point of crossing the street when I was sure nobody was watching. I kind of liked the stealthy thing," says Hain. "And I did it for two years."

And then he lost that job and went on general relief. That's just a little more than $200 a month. It was a dark time. "I think I was aware that I was a little bit out of my mind," Hain says.

But Social Security saved him. "If Social Security hadn't been here, it would've been quite a different story," he says.

Hain is now even able to save money. It's for emergencies — like when he had to replace his eyeglasses — or for a trip to Ikea someday, if he gets a place of his own.

The final payday stop is the grocery store. It's too far from where he lives for him to carry all he needs, so he uses the car to stock up. He says he doesn't make a fixed budget for food. "I don't actually need to," he says. "I stay within one without writing anything down."

As he pays, the checkout guy smiles and wishes him a great day. And though Hain may not be having "great" days right now, just getting by is his success story.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

As Congress works to come up with another budget agreement, one tempting target will be the roughly 20 percent of the budget spent on Social Security. Some 57 million Americans get benefits, and about a third of them depend nearly completely on Social Security.

NPR's Ina Jaffe introduces us to a Los Angeles man who lives on Social Security, and nothing else.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: On the third Wednesday of the month, 64-year-old Gilroy Hain has certain rituals that he follows. It's the day his Social Security shows up in his bank account: $1,500. He takes care of necessities, and splurges just a little on luxuries. Though, to look at his room, the word luxury doesn't come to mind.

GILROY HAIN: Yes. This is my sleeping couch. And this is my sitting couch. It's leather, and it's very comfy.

JAFFE: The furniture had all been lying around the home of his landlady, 78-year-old Myrna Anderson Allen.

MYRNA ANDERSON ALLEN: So we just got odds and ends.

JAFFE: Allen's been renting Hain an upstairs bedroom in her home for about a year now.

ALLEN: I'm losing my jobs because of my age, and I needed an additional source of income.

JAFFE: Hain's room cost $500 a month - less than half of what an average one-bedroom apartment goes for in L.A. He kicks in another 50 bucks for utilities. That leaves him with $950 for everything else. But since he doesn't have health insurance or own a car, the money goes a long way.

HAIN: I'm actually living below my means.

JAFFE: Which is why he's now on his way to pick up a rental car. He can afford the $60 splurge that includes gas and insurance. The car is parked near the University of Southern California, which happens to be his alma mater. It's about three and a half miles away. He walks.

HAIN: And after Normandy is Vermont. We're going to go right on Vermont.

JAFFE: Hain loves this walk. The neighborhood has seen better days, but it's filled with beautiful old Craftsman-style homes.

HAIN: And if you look on the balcony, each little pillar is a different color.

JAFFE: Gilroy Hain is familiar with the finer things. He made pretty good money most of his life working in the aerospace industry. He never finished his degree at USC, but back in the day, you could get a job and work your way up.

HAIN: And just the fact that I could distinguish a molecule from an atom was enough to get me in the door.

JAFFE: Hain worked for various aerospace and engineering companies around the country. The longest he was ever with any one employer was seven years. He went from job to job to job, until all of a sudden, when he was in his 50s, there weren't any more jobs for him. He drained his meager 401(k) account, waiting for his job search to pan out. It never did.

HAIN: And now, parking lot 49.

JAFFE: Hain climbs into the rental car. It's part necessity, part payday indulgence. He uses it for errands and grocery shopping, but also for what he calls nostalgia trips - monthly excursions to places he used to live in better times. But because there's a reporter tagging along, he also goes to one place he used to live that he might not have chosen to visit.

HAIN: You can see at the end of the street, just beyond that sign was where I would sleep.

JAFFE: Hain is point to a row of trees along a busy boulevard next to the Century City shopping mall in West L.A. It's where he slept after he emptied his 401(k). We can't get too close because of construction, but there used to be more trees there, he explains, which provided more privacy.

HAIN: It was actually almost like little rooms, vegetable rooms. There was a branch where I could hang clothes if I needed to let them de-wrinkle. But I had a regular little setup, very neat.

JAFFE: From there, he would walk up the street a couple of blocks to his part-time job at Starbucks, where he says no one realized he was homeless.

HAIN: I'd just make a point of crossing the street when I was sure nobody was watching. I kind of liked the stealthy thing. I did it for two years.

JAFFE: And then he lost that job and went on general relief. That's just a little over $200 a month. It was a dark time.

HAIN: I think I was aware that I was a little bit out of my mind.

JAFFE: But Social Security saved him.

HAIN: If Social Security hadn't been here, I don't know. It would've been quite a different story.

JAFFE: He's now even able to save money for emergencies, like when he had to replace his eyeglasses, and for a trip to IKEA someday, if he gets a place of his own. But for the moment, he puts plans and memories on hold. His next payday stop is the grocery store.

HAIN: I'm overloaded with baby spinach. That'll do.

JAFFE: Hain needs a car to be able to stock up on groceries, because the store is too far away for him to carry all he needs. He doesn't have a fixed budget for food.

HAIN: I don't actually need to. I stay within one without writing anything down.

JAFFE: But he keeps a running tally in his head as he pays.

HAIN: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thanks so much, man. Have a great one.

JAFFE: Gilroy Hain may not be having great days, but getting by, that's his success story. Ina Jaffe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.