Most Arizona seniors rely heavily on Social Security for their income, an AARP report found.

David Mitchell, AARP Arizona state director, said that reliance among seniors not just here but around the country is a reason why Congress shouldn’t tinker with Social Security while addressing the budget deficit.

“Everything’s on the table, and when they say everything is on the table, there’s a vulnerability there for both Social Security and Medicare,” he said.

In a recent study, the organization’s Public Policy Institute found that more than 19 million seniors relied on Social Security for at least 50 percent of their family income.

In Arizona, the study found, Social Security accounts for at least half of the family income for 47 percent of those over 65 and 90 percent of income for nearly 20 percent.

“It’s really the backbone of financial security for people when they retire, and it’s something they can count on,” Mitchell said.

More than 750,000 people over 65 in Arizona were receiving Social Security benefits by end of 2010, according to the U.S. Social Security Administration.

Mitchell said this generation of retirees is very dependent on Social Security because many are from an era in which the wife relied on the husband’s income. Also, many companies that once offered pensions have either canceled them or gone bankrupt, he said.

“So Social Security is really their only safety net,” Mitchell said.

Tom Jenney, Arizona director of Americans for Prosperity, an organization that advocates for limited government and free markets, said depending on Social Security could be unreliable and the country needs to get into a system of mandatory private retirement savings accounts.

“The problem for individuals is that the government giveth and the government taketh away,” Jenney said. “Unless we have thorough reform on Social Security, the options are not good.”

Price Fishback, a professor of economics at University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management, said there is no immediate threat to Social Security, although it is becoming harder to sustain.

He said cuts would make the situation worse for seniors relying on it, but if the country is to maintain the system there has to be a way to pay for it. He noted that the program will become increasingly expensive with baby boomers approaching retirement.

“That’s what’s going to create the problem,” Fishback said. “That’s going to force higher tax rates or force lower benefits or force a higher rate of eligibility.”

Having many people so reliant on Social Security is a sign that individuals need to start saving more ahead of retirement, he said.

But Mitchell said Social Security is well and if untouched would take care of all eligible retirees until 2037, with only minor adjustments needed to make it sustainable beyond that year.

He said tampering with Social Security would lead to a slew of problems.

“What do you do when you don’t have income?” Mitchell said. “Either people don’t buy as much food as they need or don’t buy the medications that they need or don’t pay the rent and there’s implications in all those cases.”

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