Russell Martin, 62, decided the night shifts at the oil refinery were getting him down. He was going to take early retirement. His wife, Ruth, having spent her life pointing things out to her husband, mentioned the day's headline in the Santa Ana Register:
Social Security near collapse
"Dear," she said with a smile, "You picked a great day to retire."
"I go to work and all the younger guys say, 'What are you going to do, Russ?'"Martin said. "One other guy who's retiring, he says, 'Welcome to the sinking ship.'"
Up and down this California coast, full of retirement communities and people like the Martins, Social ysecurity has replaced the striking Los Angeles Dodgers in breakfast table conversation. But most of these people fear inflation, voted for Ronald Reagan, and seem willing to shave a few benefits if it saves the system.
Although Santa Monica, a little beach town on the western edge of Los Angeles, has a reputation as a haven for actors, artists and political liberals, it also has a substantial retired population: 16.4 percent are 65 and older compared to the national average of about 11 percent. They are not sympathetic to some of the uses which Social Security money has been put.
"I have a friend who died, and his son now gets $400 a month in Social Security to go to college. He's taking nutrition and surfboarding," said a lean, gray-haired former court clerk enjoying a day at a new shopping mall here. "Multimply that by thousands of kids and it's pathetic."
Ralph Binger, 86, living inside Seal Beach's huge Leisure World development, said he supports plans to reduce the cost-of-living raises given to Social Security recipients like himself. "I think what we're getting here is more than the real cost of living," he said.
As Binger and nearly all the retires interviewed here acknowledge, there are some Social Security recipients -- "mostly older women," Binger said -- who live very close to poverty on their meager incomes. Few older people here favor the administration plan to cut off the minimum $122 a month payment to such people.
But few of them know people who depend on the minimum payment. They have, by and large, come out here by plan, to enjoy the weather, to be closer to relatives, to join well-tended retirement communities. They have planned their financial affairs with equal care.
Alex Stillwater and his wife Frances draw $350 a month in Social Security, only about 20 percent of an income fed by investments from his days as a realtor. The cost-of-living reductions President Reagan has suggested, "aren't too bad. We could get along with that," said Stillwater. A lean, tanned man dressed in white cap, bright yellow sweater, plaid slacks and blue tennis shoes, he sat on a bench talking with a passerby and pursued his morning habit of watching the tide come in.
Even in front of Santa Monica's senior recreation center, where members gathering for writing and dancing classes are not notably affluent, the sentiment for Reagan is high. "I think we are all more concerned about inflation than the Social Security cuts," said Gilbert Kay, a New York taxi driver who retired here to be near relatives. "I lost any confidence in the Democrats, from the president on down. I though any change was for the better."
Kay and his wife receive about $850 a month from Social Security, 85 percent of their total income. He rides buses, has a rent-controlled apartment in west Los Angeles and thinks reduction of cost-of-living raises will not be too bad.
Harry Kahn lives at the Georgian Hotel on Santa Monica's Ocean Ave. He is 78 ("I'm 50 years old on this side and 28 years old on the other, and I live on the 28-year-old side.") Social Security provides about half his income. A family clothing business, now suffering hard times, provides the rest, but he favors some limits on Social Security. "We've got too much inflation," he said. "The government spends too much money."
Loveda Newport, 75, wering her lavender pants suit and walking slowly up to the recreation center for her writing class, said "I do very well" with $450 in Social Security. She also has an annity after years as a high school mathematics teacher on Long Island. She likes the college tutition support other retirees are so contemptuous of. Her husband, Lloyd, also a school teacher, died at age 61 when their youngest son Gerald was still attending the University of Michigan. Social Security contributed $100 a month to his support. "I would have exhausted "some bank accounts that I am drawing interest from."
Russell and Ruth Martin are both 62. Under the Social Security rules, Martin may retire from his job as a head operator at the Atlantic Richfield refinery in Carson, Calif., if he will accept only 85 percent of his Social Security allotment. After years of changing shifts each week, he is willing to make the sacrifice.
Martin's Social Security, plus his wife's smaller entitlement from off-and-on work with the Orange County government and some private businesses, will total $750 a month. He will get $600 a month from his company pension and some more in interest. He can stand some reduction in the rate of growth of Social Security, but the abuses in the system still annoy him.
"The smallest thing they have is the burial allowance, $250," he said. "When a man gets to be my age, and can't supply $250, he has done something wrong all his life. The Republicans say when a man gets to be 65 he ought to have a million dollars. I can't go along with that, but he ought to at least have $250."
Martin voted for Reagan. "I've been a Democrat all my life," he said, "and that's why the country is in such bad shape because of the Democrats."
"They screwed up Social Security," said Ruth Martin, "making too many benefits for everybody.
"I have faith in the country," Martin said. "It's the greatest place in the world and they're not going to let the people down, let the system collapse. If they did, there would be a revolution here."