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When 'Fixed Income' Means Getting By On Social Security

Gilroy Hain's only source of income is the $1,500 a month he receives from Social Security.
Ina Jaffe
Gilroy Hain's only source of income is the $1,500 a month he receives from Social Security.

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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."
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