What if you got less Social Security if you didn't need it as much?

A senior citizen holds a sign during a rally to protect federal health programs at the 8th Annual Healthy Living Festival on July 15, 2011 in Oakland, Calif.

It seems fair to say that Democrats aren't quite sure how they feel about the budget President Barack Obama released on Wednesday, especially the bits where he targets the growing costs of Medicare and Social Security. 

The proposal would shrink the growth of Social Security benefits for all but the most needy seniors.  It would also raise Medicare premiums on wealthier Americans.  

Once you get through the politicking and the posturing coming from both sides of the aisle over these approaches, there's a pretty fundamental question underlying the debate: Who should social safety net programs for the elderly protect — everybody, or just those in need?

Karen Campbell, a 68-year-old retiree who lives in Avon, Ohio, has mixed feelings about the question.   She doesn’t like the reductions the president is proposing in her Social Security benefits, even though she and her husband have enough personal retirement savings that they don’t rely on Social Security to make ends meet. 

Under Obama's proposal, which would go in to effect in 2015, the average person would get about $40 less per year in social security benefits, in the first year. Campbell says those reductions wouldn’t affect the quality of her life.

It's not so much the dollar amount of the reductions that bothers her. It’s the principle. 

“I don't think it's fair to take things away from people when they counted on it,” she says.  “To say ‘sorry, we changed the rules.’” 

John Reay, 68, from Minneapolis, sees things differently. While Social Security helps him cover his mortgage, he, like the Campbells, mostly relies on personal retirement savings, not Social Security, to get by. He says even if he got no Social Security checks at all, he'd be ok. 

“Social Security was put in place to help those who were in need,” Reah says.  “And there are some of us who aren’t in need.” 

What has traditionally made universal programs like Social Security and Medicare so popular is precisely the fact that they benefitted everyone, not just those in need, says Peter Beresford, professor of social policy at Brunel University in London. 

Beresford warns if those sorts of benefits start to shrink for those who don't really need it, “the number of people who have a vested interest in protecting it, who might have the strength and skill and ability to protect it, diminishes.” 

That could make programs like Social Security or Medicare more vulnerable, and more stigmatized. Of course, it could also make them less expensive. 

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

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