With the odds of a U.S. debt default increasing, Social Security advocates warn beneficiaries they should be prepared in case their payments are interrupted.
Negotiations around whether the nation's ability to borrow money should be expanded have been ongoing, but Congress and the White House have yet to reach an agreement on the path forward.
The impasse has placed the U.S. in a precarious financial position, and leaves some of the most vulnerable Americans at risk.
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Dan Adcock, director of government relations and policy for the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, said there is a "good chance" that in the event of a default, millions of Americans' benefits would be disrupted.
"Seniors should be prepared if they're financially able," Adcock said, adding they should consider putting off discretionary purchases "so they have enough to tide them over."
But millions of beneficiaries have no financial room to maneuver, Adcock said, noting that about 40% of Social Security recipients, which include Americans who are disabled and those who are widowed, receive 90% of their income from the safety net program. That equates to nearly 27 million people.
"Even though we're a few weeks before a default, they won't have enough to squirrel away to cushion for not getting their payments," Adcock said.
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Not a foregone conclusion
Analysts suggest it isn't certain that the government will miss payments to Social Security recipients in the event of a default. The matter would likely depend on how much cash is on hand if or when the debt ceiling is breached.
The staggered schedule of Social Security payments, which relies on an individual’s birthdate to determine which part of the month they receive them, means not all beneficiaries would be equally affected in a missed or partial-payment scenario.
The White House and House Republicans remain at odds after meeting on Wednesday to discuss a resolution to the impasse. NBC News Capitol Hill correspondent Ali Vitali reported the meeting was “tense.” Led by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the GOP seeks spending cuts from President Joe Biden in exchange for an agreement to raise the debt ceiling and avoid a default.
On Thursday, the White House said a scheduled follow-up meeting had been postponed.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned a default could come as soon as June 1. When asked for comment, a department spokesperson pointed to Yellen's recent remarks in which she said the Treasury might not be able to pay bills that come due on the day of a default, including payments to Social Security recipients and Medicare providers.
"This would be really the first time in the history of America that we would fail to make payments that are due," Yellen said.
A McCarthy spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment submitted Thursday. Following Tuesday's meeting, he told reporters there was no "new movement” in negotiating positions.
“Everybody in this meeting reiterated the positions they were at,” before the meeting, McCarthy said outside the White House.
Mary Johnson, policy analyst with the Senior Citizens League, a nonpartisan advocacy group, said she is far more pessimistic about a resolution this time around compared with 2011, the last time a debt-ceiling crisis unfolded.
By law, Johnson said, the Social Security Administration cannot spend more money than it has on hand, which she said appears to pre-empt any other possible workaround, absent an agreement between Republicans and the Biden administration.
"We are so extremely divided, and there is such a big chance of a stalemate," Johnson said.
"And the longer we wait and get close to default, the greater the risk to Social Security benefits being held up and delayed, or not paid in full."