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Social Security remains vital for rural seniors

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Even after breaking a hip that still has her laid up, 83-year-old Barbara Lovaasen of Vergas is irrepressibly cheerful.

At the physical-therapy center where she spent 18 days following emergency surgery, she organized movie night and persuaded administrators to allow patients to eat together, family-style, so they could chat. Until her accident, Barbara worked 20-plus hours a week as special-education aide in Perham; she expects to resume those duties once recovered.

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The cheer drains from her voice only when talk turns to lawmakers eyeing Social Security in the budget-reduction debate. Barbara and her husband, Luverne, live off her pay of $10 an hour and a combined $1,503 in monthly Social Security benefits.

The Lovaasens are profiled in a new report detailing the impact of Social Security on rural Minnesotans. The report was released last week without fanfare, but its findings shouldn't go without notice.

Three-quarters of all counties across Minnesota (66 of 87) are federally designated as "rural." In these areas, with their older and poorer populations, Social Security accounts for nearly double the percentage of total personal income as urban counties, and lifts more than half of all seniors out of poverty.

Beyond those numbers, it's hard to image how Social Security is on the table for cuts.

From its beginning Social Security was self-supporting and to this day relies on payroll taxes, not general revenue, to provide benefits. In all but 11 of its 76 years, Social Security took in more than it paid out, building up its trust fund.

The annual trustees' report released in May showed only a "mild deterioration" in the program's short- and long-term outlook, given falling wages and stagnant unemployment over the last several years. It should be noted that the projected 75-year shortfall described in the report virtually equals the cost of extending Bush-era tax cuts to the richest two percent. Given this, as researchers at the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities conclude, it seems impossible "members of Congress simultaneously claim that tax cuts for people at the top are affordable while the Social Security shortfall constitutes a dire fiscal threat."

Finally, Social Security cannot by law ever contribute to the national debt.

Those facts alone should take Social Security off the table when it comes to budget talks. But as the Minnesota report outlines, Social Security, as it currently stands, plays a vital role in the economic wellbeing of whole communities.

In tough economic times like these, deep in a major recession that wiped out trillions in household savings, cutting the program seems the least sensible thing to do.

Given Social Security is the only thing standing between half of all seniors and poverty, it also is the least moral.

As Barbara Lovaasen states: "Social Security is not an entitlement. This is money that came out of our paychecks to ensure we would have it when needed. That's true for everybody who ever worked for a living."

Cynthia Moothart interviewed families for the report on behalf of the League of Rural Voters, one of the report's coalition members. It is available for download at www.leagueofruralvoters.org.

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