Citizens say: Leave Social Security, other benefits alone


DURHAM — Stanley Royster has had a hard life. At age 48, he’s spent years without a home, been addicted to drugs, lost his job and lost his health. But one thing that’s helping him today is his Social Security disability check, which he credits with putting — and keeping — a roof over his head and food in his stomach.

Royster was among about two dozen people who met Saturday at First Presbyterian Church on East Main Street to voice their opposition to cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid which Congress is considering to reduce the deficit. “Leave our Social Security alone!” is how the Rev. Melvin Whitley of Durham expressed his feelings about cuts in social programs.

He wasn’t alone.

Pat McCoy, a member of Action North Carolina, a citizens’ action organization that sponsored the meeting, said Congress should preserve the “social safety net” for people who depend on government programs “to lift them out of poverty and give them access to health care.”

“We feel very strongly that the benefits for these programs should not be cut, that there are other ways to reduce the deficit which are better. We think that the wealthy should pay more of their fair share of taxes.”

McCoy said his group works to “mobilize people at the grassroots level to make their voices heard. It’s clear that the vast majority of Americans don’t want anything done to Social Security or Medicare, and many people feel that same way about Medicaid.”

As the population ages, the fate of Medicaid is expected to become an increasinly critical concern. Medicaid is the program that covers health care for Americans who have exhausted their financial resources. While most people recieve long-term, in-home care from unpaid family members, about 1.5 million Americans live in nursing homes. Medicaid covers 46 percent of the $111 billion that’s spent on nursing care each year.

Spencer Bradford, a board member of Action North Carolina and director of Durham Congregations in Action, said many people don’t realize how many Durham residents rely exclusively on Social Security to live, and how important Medicare and Medicaid are to those coming out of homelessness or who are on the edge of homelessness.

“I’ve seen firsthand how important those benefits are, and how devastating reductions in those benefits are going to be for thousands of households in Durham if that comes about,” he said.

At the end of 2010, he said, there were 35,800 Social Security beneficiaries in Durham County. Of those, 24,400 were retirement beneficiaries, and 2,573 were children who received Social Security survivor or disability benefits.

“That’s a significant part of our community that is often invisible to the rest of us,” Bradford said. “And we just want to make sure that they don’t get forgotten.”

Another person at the meeting who wants to remind Durham citizens how important those benefits are was Fred Foster, president of the Durham branch of the NAACP.

“I want to get the community to understand how serious our situation is,” he said. Foster said he wants legislators “in Raleigh and Washington who understand.”

Stanley Royster, who spent years being homeless on Durham’s streets and 14 months at the Durham Urban Ministries shelter, needs no persuading.

He’s disabled now due to illness, and depends entirely on his Social Security disability check of $890 a month to keep him from slipping into homelessness again.

“I stay in a rooming house now, but it’s clean and safe,” he said. “Life is better than it used to be.”

Still, Royster’s goal is to find a job.

“I don’t want to live off of [Social Security permanently],” he said. “Social Security is there if people need it. It’s there to help me through temporarily until I can get my illness back on track, and get back in the workforce.”