‘I would have nothing’: low-income seniors fear debt default that slows down Social Security

The threat to Social Security payments posed by a deadlock on the debt ceiling keeps 76-year-old Linda Stanberry thinking about her worst fear: the loss of the home she’s lived in for 48 years.

Relying entirely on the $1,800 he receives in federal benefits each month, Stanberry said he barely saves anything after expenses like food, utilities, prescription drugs and supplemental cancer coverage.

The federal government could stop paying some of its bills as early as June 1, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned this week. If that shortfall disrupts Social Security, Stanberry would need emergency cash, she said.

“I would have nothing,” Stanberry, who lives in southwest Virginia, told ABC News. “There’s no way I can keep my home.”

Stanberry is one of the millions of low-income older Americans who depend on Social Security for nearly all of their funding. In total, about 1 in 7 Americans age 65 and older rely on federal benefits for 90% or more of their income, Social Security Administration data shows.

If the US misses Social Security payments next month, or even delays payments for a few days, low-income seniors will face dire circumstances, forgoing basic necessities like food and health care, experts and advocates to ABC News.

“For seniors living paycheck to paycheck, this debt ceiling process has been absolutely terrifying,” Ramsey Alwin, president and CEO of the nonprofit National Council on Aging, told ABC News. “Losing that check means they couldn’t put food on the table.”

Missing Social Security payments would hit some older Americans next week.

The federal government is scheduled to make payments June 1 to those enrolled in a supplemental social security program for low-income seniors with disabilities. The next day, a batch of Social Security payments totaling $25 billion is scheduled to go out to general recipients, targeting the most vulnerable, such as older enrollees.

Additional payments are scheduled for June 14, June 21 and June 28, each amounting to around $25 billion.

“This could be absolutely disastrous,” Peter Kempner, legal director of the New York City-based Peter Kempner Volunteers of Legal Service, which works closely with older adults living in poverty, told ABC News.

Many low-income seniors lack savings, making them especially vulnerable to a financial shock, he added.

“They live from government paycheck to government paycheck,” Kempner said. “They don’t have reserves to float for a couple of months in case benefits are cut off because of what’s going on in Washington.”

As a debt default looms, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters Friday that he remained confident negotiators would reach an agreement soon.

Negotiators “made progress” overnight, McCarthy said, declining to offer details about the potential deal.

McCarthy vows to give House members 72 hours to review the bill before bringing it to a vote, leaving little time for a deal to be ratified before a potential cash shortfall on June 1.

Even a few days’ delay in Social Security payments could put low-income seniors in an agonizing position of prioritizing their few remaining expenses between rent, food and transportation to medical appointments, experts and advocates said. to ABC News.

“Every day that passes makes a difference,” Cindy Cox-Roman, president and CEO of advocacy group HelpAge USA, told ABC News.

Charles Turner, 74, relies solely on about $1,000 in Social Security he receives each month, he said.

Because she has a disability that limits her mobility and use of public transportation, Turner relies on rideshare services that cost up to $25 each way to get to weekly medical appointments and Tai Chi classes at a senior center, said.

“It would be a challenge to just go grocery shopping and keep physical therapy appointments,” said Turner, who lives in Washington DC.

Policymakers involved in the debt ceiling negotiations, he added, overlook these direct consequences for older people.

“They don’t see us,” Turner said. “We are just lost in the toss.”

ABC News’ Katherine Faulders, Gabe Ferris, Allison Pecorin and Alexandra Hutzler contributed to this report.