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Living With Social Security: Small Dreams and Safety Nets

By John Leland and Jodi Wilgoren, 06/19/2005, New York Times

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - Barbara Amberg used her Social Security checks to fly to New York and see Christo's "Gates" in Central Park. Shirley Malone lives on hers in subsidized public housing, sometimes washing her clothes in dish detergent to save money.

For Joseph Cohen, a businessman who lost his business, Social Security is the safety net he never thought he would need. "We're talking about a fortunate guy who had assets to put away," Mr. Cohen said. "But without Social Security I would be in bad shape."

As Congressional Republicans struggle to break a partisan impasse over President Bush's plan to reinvent Social Security and shore up its finances, 32 million older Americans are living the realities of the nation's biggest social program.

Any changes will not affect people like Mrs. Amberg, Ms. Malone or Mr. Cohen, who are already collecting their benefits. But in the details of their daily lives, set out in in-depth interviews, these Grand Rapids residents afford a nuanced working model of Social Security - the bumps it cushions and those it does not, the dreams it fosters or leaves out of reach. For many, it is the bedrock of their existence.

Americans appear to overestimate how much money they will be able to put aside for retirement. A New York Times/CBS News Poll found that only 20 percent of Americans who are not yet retired expect Social Security to be their major source of income when they stop working. But 39 percent of retirees in the same survey said that Social Security was their major source of income.

Nearly all Americans over 65 collect benefits. The Social Security Administration says that about a third depend on Social Security for more than 90 percent of their income; another third get half to 90 percent of their money from the program; and a third rely on it for less than half. About 13 million would fall below the poverty line without Social Security unless they found other sources.

Each of these situations plays out in Grand Rapids, a riverfront city of 197,000, where mansions built by the city's Dutch industrial elite gaze across town at concrete grids of public housing.

In different neighborhoods, Social Security is an antipoverty program, a middle-class pension, a widow's survivor benefit, a disability check. For some, retirement has brought trophy homes and donations to charity; for others, bathroom sinks mended with adhesive tape and prescriptions unfilled for lack of money.

Two brothers, the Wards, capture the range in benefits. Norman, a former heroin addict who shuffled among low-paying jobs, gets $502 a month, while Luther and his wife, who had steady careers at the local school district, collect a combined $2,400.

Reeling from layoffs and plant closings and with a strong evangelical Christian strain, Grand Rapids is tossup political territory, and opinions are varied about Mr. Bush's efforts to give Americans more say in how some of their Social Security payments are invested - with the possibility of higher rewards and higher risk.

Some people, like Bill Post, who helped invent the Pop-Tart and saved dutifully, support Mr. Bush's proposals to create individual investment accounts within Social Security. "That's not a big risk," Mr. Post said, "that's a good opportunity."

But others, like James Townsend, who worked as a forklift operator, defend the traditional program. "If they hadn't had Social Security, I wouldn't have saved that money," he said. "If I'd had extra money, I'd have spent it. I wouldn't have anything at all."

Here as elsewhere, Social Security has paid back some more generously than others. Created to protect the most vulnerable, it redistributes money from rich people to poor people, and from men to women, who often have no pension or assets.

But as family structures have evolved from the one-earner nuclear model of the 1930's, the program has not always kept up. It rewards married couples more than single people, and couples with one stay-at-home spouse more than those in which both spouses worked. Groups with shorter life expectancies, like African-Americans, receive fewer benefits than those who live longer. Economists describe retirement as a three-legged stool supported by savings, pension and Social Security. But as companies have moved away from traditional pensions, and more Americans approach retirement with inadequate savings, many, like Mr. Townsend, are adding a fourth leg: work.

Just four decades ago, 3 in 10 Americans over age 65 lived in poverty; after changes in Social Security benefits, that figure is now less than 1 in 10, below the poverty rate for the general population. The Urban Institute, a policy research group, recently found that working couples earning average incomes, if they retired today, would have benefits worth the equivalent of $439,000 in a 401(k) plan, more than double what they would have had in 1960, accounting for inflation.

But retirees here do not measure their benefits by such calculations. Social Security is a car payment, cable television, a tithe, the freedom to volunteer in town, the dignity of a first-ever savings account.

Budgeting Down to the Penny

Nearly a third of Americans collecting Social Security benefits are single women. Many, like Shirley Malone, who is divorced and lives in subsidized housing behind a shopping center here, would fall into poverty without them.

A thickset woman who moves painfully from a car accident two decades ago, Ms. Malone, 69, gets $700 a month from Social Security and a $212 stipend from a volunteer program for low-income seniors helping out in the schools. She has no savings.

"When I was young, I heard all these stories about the golden years," she said. "What happened to them?"

Each month Ms. Malone gathers her bills before the Social Security check comes. She pays $40 a month for car insurance, more than $100 for prescription drugs, $52 for basic cable television, $122 for supplemental health insurance, plus her rent, which is set at 30 percent of her income.

When she is finished writing checks, she said, there is no money left. She has had to put off dental work and getting hearing aids because she cannot afford them.

"I'm contemplating every month getting rid of my cable, but what else do I have?" she said. "There's no such thing as splurging. I even don't give my grandchildren presents."

None of this was planned.

"My head was younger than the rest of me," she said. "I always thought I'd be able to work."

Ms. Malone married before she turned 18 and did not work until her children were teenagers. When her marriage ended, she said, she came away with nothing but the children. She had a high school education and no work experience. She took a job as a cashier at a car wash, on her feet sometimes for 10 hours at a time. When she retired at 62, after 11 years, she felt lost.

"The worst part was that I wasn't busy enough," she said. "All the sudden, here I am all alone. My grandkids were all grown up; they didn't need me anymore."

She added, "I never thought I'd feel completely worthless."

Though she still has "blue" days, working with children has made her feel useful.

Social Security has been a bureaucratic maze as well as a lifeline for Ms. Malone. For years she did not realize that she could collect before turning 65, or that she could collect on her former husband's benefits.

She deals with a variety of health problems, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and recurring pain throughout her body, for which she can tolerate only Tylenol, which gives her no relief. Osteoporosis, she said, is shrinking her to nothing.

Still, she is happier now than she has been since her children were young. The income from Social Security and the volunteer stipend are secure, if small. She feels she has earned the benefit.

"We're not getting anything we didn't work for all our lives," she said. "There's a lot of us like this."

But mainly, it is the children of Knapp Charter Academy, the ones who call her Grandma Shirley, that fill her life. At her hallway desk, she smiled as she dispensed stickers or helped a student with her reading exercises.

"I didn't have a lot of money to start with, so I don't feel I came down," Ms. Malone said.

At the school, she wore a bulky sweatshirt promoting the volunteer program. She has resisted entreaties from her son to live with him.

"The check is a lifesaver," she said of the stipend that allows her to live independently. But if the program lost financing and could not pay her, she said, she would work in the school anyway. "They're my therapy," she said. "There's nothing like feeling useful."

A Full Schedule, in Comfort

Barbara Amberg, who was born into privilege and married pedigree, represents the other edge of Social Security. Like 1 in 10 of the program's recipients, she relies on it for less than a fifth of her income, which is $50,000 to $100,000 a year.

Hers is a retirement of comfort and choices without concern for costs, shown in scrapbooks that brim with the photographs and memorabilia of a busy traveler.

There is her annual summer pilgrimage to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, and yearly visits to her children in San Antonio, Pennsylvania and Los Angeles. Group trips to art museums in Chicago and Detroit. A four-day, $1,850 package tour to see "The Gates" in February.

All courtesy of Social Security.

"It pays for extras," Mrs. Amberg, a widow who just turned 80, said of the $924 monthly check. "Mostly I use it for trips."

If Mrs. Amberg does not exactly need Social Security, Social Security has always needed people like her. The original architects of the Depression-era program enlisted the crucial backing of the better-off by selling it as a broad-based insurance program rather than a poor people's stipend.

Indeed, when asked about shrinking benefits to richer recipients to preserve payments to the poor, Mrs. Amberg was ambivalent, saying, "Somehow I have that feeling you have put in your amount, you should get back what you are owed."

She is open to the idea of raising the $90,000 cap on income subject to payroll taxes, or the age of eligibility. But despite her own windfall from booming stocks like Wal-Mart and Eli Lilly, she remains skeptical of Mr. Bush's desire to divert some of Social Security to individual accounts.

"I know it has to be tinkered with, I just don't think you should change the concept," she said. "Who knows if they can get any extra money out of the market? I just think that's such a foolish idea."

Mrs. Amberg, who had a $7-an-hour part-time job at the Pooh's Corner children's bookstore for 15 years, has always used dividends from her family trust funds to pay for routine expenses, like a weekly $20 blow-dry at the beauty shop and $45 monthly dues at the health club.

While she does not spend extravagantly - "I sort of have it in my head that I'm not going to buy a $500 dress" - neither does she worry about the price of her season tickets to Grand Rapids' symphony, opera and two major theaters. She owns a spacious condominium here and a four-bedroom cottage on Lake Michigan. She has given nearly half a million dollars in pretax bequests to her four grandchildren since 1991, and signs over at least $5,000 in stock each year to a church.

And she maintains her $342-a-month membership in the Kent Country Club, where she and her daughter had wedding receptions, though three hip replacements have halted her golf game. "I think I would feel lost without that," she said.

Mrs. Amberg and her late husband, David, a lawyer, both descended from old Grand Rapids families whose homes are among the jewels of the Heritage Hill historic district, an enclave built between 1848 and 1920 by the city's lumber barons and furniture moguls. Their nest egg was layered by inheritance, which also sent their children to Princeton, Tufts and Boston University. They never felt pressure to save.

Hair coiffed, lipstick fresh, ears adorned with gold, Mrs. Amberg is a genteel visage sipping chardonnay before dinner one weeknight at the Victorian mansion of the Women's City Club, where her mother and grandmother were members before her.

She grew up on a family compound - "like the Kennedys" - with an Italianate building at its center housing a squash court and a 50-foot lap pool. Her late husband's family helped settle Grand Rapids in 1834.

Mrs. Amberg's days overflow with activity: two book groups, three bridge foursomes, lectures, reading on a radio station for the blind, serving as treasurer of the local Smith College alumnae club. One week in April, she was out every night.

"I think you have to work at it when you're a woman alone," she said. "You just don't expect people to call you or to make up things to do, you have to make things happen." Several widows are among her closest friends, but Mrs. Amberg is careful to keep up with couples. "So if you want to entertain, you can still find a few men to come to your party," she said. "But if you have a cocktail party, they're the ones who can't stand up. The men have to sit down."

Not Mrs. Amberg. She is at the gym every Wednesday morning for senior aerobics, strutting to a Sinatra soundtrack, though she ducks out when stretching starts. "I can't get down on the floor and then get back up again, so I leave," she said.

If she goes a little slower these days, she still goes. In May, she visited Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece in western Pennsylvania. To celebrate her 80th birthday, her family joined her for a weekend in New York.

There are Social Security checks to spend, scrapbooks yet to fill.

Back on the Job at 74

Between Social Security and a small pension, James Townsend thought he had enough to retire.

But 10 years after he began collecting his checks, he greeted a recent sunny spring afternoon with a familiar ritual: he put on his uniform and went to work. From 4 p.m. to midnight eight nights a month, Mr. Townsend, 74, works as a security guard at a retirement community at the edge of town.

As he made his rounds that evening, Mr. Townsend poked behind the furnace and paced a solitary, hourlong circuit of the carpeted hallways, empty except for a woman leaving the exercise area. "I've been lucky, I've never seen any strange people," he said.

Mr. Townsend had not expected to be working at this age. When he retired at 64 from his job as a forklift operator in an auto parts plant, he believed he could live on his pension of about $200 a month and his and his wife's Social Security checks, which added up to almost $1,100.

The Townsends' home here, a neat ranch house in a neighborhood that he calls "the inner city, but not the ghetto," was paid off, and Mr. Townsend thought he could cut back on a few activities or entertainment. "I just wanted to stop working in a factory, waking up every morning at the crack of dawn," he said. "I had put in a lot of hard time at the factory. It was a relief to stop working."

But for the Townsends, two small changes were enough to upset his plans.

Mr. Townsend's old car gave out, and he bought a new 1999 Dodge Intrepid, with payments of $327.55 a month. At the same time, his doctor found he had high levels of cholesterol. Medication ran to $99 a month.

"That's when things really tightened on me," he said. "I had to cut back on everything, even my tithes and offerings at church."

So Mr. Townsend went looking for a job again. Almost five million Americans over age 65 worked last year, up from fewer than three million two decades ago. The rise counters a half-century trend toward earlier retirement. In 1950, nearly half of men over 65 were still working. By 2000, only 17 percent were.

Some retirees miss the purposefulness of work; some need the money. Mr. Townsend straddled both categories. He could use the money, but he also had no hobbies to occupy his time; work, he said, has kept him active.

A native of Carbondale, Ill., Mr. Townsend moved to Grand Rapids to work in the factories here, and his finances have followed the unsteady rhythms of production: good in boom years, fragile when the demand for auto parts or office furniture slowed. In his first seven years here, he was laid off for part of every year.

His house, where he has lived for 40 years, sits on a block of weathered homes in a largely African-American section southeast of downtown. When he goes out at night, it is to a sports bar in a mixed neighborhood to the north. "But my preacher don't know it," he said.

When his car payments put the crunch on him, he called his network of friends, who told him about a part-time opening at the retirement community. The added income of about $340 every two weeks covered his car payments and cholesterol medicine.

With his part-time job and his pension, the Townsends earn more than $2,000 a month, about as much as they did before his retirement, and without the threat of having all their income wiped out by layoff or strike. Social Security, which supplies the biggest share of their income, provides both stability and freedom.

"I enjoy the way I work now," he said. "I work 4 days and then I'm off for 10. What kind of job is that? It's not like the other work I did. I hustled when I was in the factory."

With his job, he said, he has enough money to take his wife to dinner. He is looking into supplemental health insurance, which would cost $200 or more a month to protect him against medical catastrophe.

He hopes that Social Security will continue as is. He doubts he could have done as well on his own managing for retirement. "I feel it's scare tactics now," he added. "If the government would stop using that money for other things like this war, the thing would go on and on and on."

From the Pop-Tart, a Good Life

With a $75,000 pension, Social Security, ample savings and a series of real estate investments, Bill Post could be the model for retirement planning in the pre-401(k) era.

A son of immigrants from the Netherlands whom poor people called poor, Mr. Post went to work at the local Keebler plant on his 16th birthday, putting pans in ovens for 38 cents an hour, and left the company 41 years later as a senior vice president with a $92,000 salary. He then embarked on a second career as a $30,000-a-year consultant for Kellogg, the company for which he had helped develop the Pop-Tart.

Now, he carves wooden Santa Claus statues in a basement workshop under an old sign that says "Nooitgedacht" - Dutch for, as Mr. Post put it, "Never woulda thought."

He never would have thought a cranberry Jaguar convertible would sit in his garage. Hardly could have imagined retiring at 57 to a custom-built dream home, never mind selling it later for $1.1 million. "I would never have ever thought that we would have such a good life," Mr. Post, 77, said.

He also never considered depending on Social Security.

He and his wife of 57 years, Florence, avoided debt by spending frugally with the future in mind. When his company provided executives with a financial consultant as a perk, Mr. Post recalled, "he came back and said, 'I never met a guy like you: you're living within your income.' "

The Posts are among 7.5 million of today's retirees, 29 percent, who collect private pensions, a middle-class staple that is fast disappearing. They also have income from bonds and interest payments on two private loans, but the only stocks they own are Kellogg shares he received as bonuses.

"No gambling," Mr. Post explained. "I can't see the principal shrink; worked too hard for our money."

It is people like Mr. Post who in future generations, under Mr. Bush's proposals, could see their guaranteed benefits become much less generous than currently promised. "I would be for less benefits," Mr. Post said, if that would promote the health of the program. Likewise, he supports Mr. Bush's vision of individual accounts, saying, "I know there are better investments than what's happening."

Mr. Post, who dropped out of college to become personnel manager of Keebler's bakery in Grand Rapids at 21, was running the plant in 1963 when Kellogg came looking for a partner to develop a toaster pastry. He quickly green-lighted the idea despite the challenge of hoisting a huge piece of machinery to create the top layer and adapting an air clutch to squirt dollops of filling.

"I was just the guy who said we'd do it," said Mr. Post, who still stocks his pantry with his favorite flavor, frosted strawberry.

As he climbed the ladder from cookie baker to corporate officer, Mr. Post's biggest boon was real estate.

In 1971, the Posts bought a 100-foot parcel on Glen Lake in northern Michigan for $16,000, building an A-frame bungalow for weekend getaways. They traded up twice to bigger lake properties, and after 18 years in their dream house, sold it to buy a 5,000-square foot, $415,000 home in a Grand Rapids suburb Mr. Post grew up thinking of as "where the big shots lived."

It is at once an homage to their affluence and their humble roots. They added a large master suite and furnished it with an antique wooden night table, bed and dresser they bought years ago for $10. Mrs. Post weaves patchwork rugs out of remnants; the couple eats off dinnerware with a French pattern by Quimper Fa•ence that dates from 1690 and sells for $95 a plate.

"What's enough?" Mr. Post asked one afternoon relaxing on the expansive deck. "You know what enough is? A little more than you got."

Rather than revel in their bounty, though, the Posts, who read Scripture aloud after breakfast, glory in giving their money away: $1,400 a month to Thornapple Covenant Church (plus an extra $1,000 on Thanksgiving and Easter); $2,500 a year to Gideon's, the Bible distributors; a recent $5,000 to a school for disabled adults; $2,000 here and $2,000 there for missionaries to Thailand or India. "He's opened up the floodgates for us," Mr. Post said, referring to God's New Testament promise to reward those who tithe. "We give, and he opens up floodgates, and we give more."

Without a calculator, Mrs. Post balances their three checkbooks - one for their $2,000-a-month Social Security checks, which includes her spousal benefits; the others for the pension and interest. One afternoon, she spent hours stuck on a $2,000 mistake in her favor.

The next morning, a fund-raiser for an evangelical broadcaster came to pitch the Posts for contributions of as much as $10,000.

Mr. Post chuckled at the numbers, noting, "I was a cookie baker all my life." He and his wife had agreed the night before to give $500, and upped it before breakfast to $1,000. When Mrs. Post pulled out the checkbook, though, she whispered, "How about two?" and that is what she wrote.

"The mistake I had made," she explained later. "I just felt that was the Lord telling me, you have extra money in here, you should give it."

A Significant Savings Depleted

Joseph Cohen, 89, was a millionaire once, with a stake in a family clothing business and the intention of working forever. When the company collapsed in 1980, Mr. Cohen, then 64, had a few outside investments, a house and an asset he never expected to need: Social Security.

On a crisp Michigan morning, Mr. Cohen was having coffee and doughnuts with other retirees in the apartment complex where he now lives alone, near a cordon of strip malls and big-box retailers by the airport. He has a crown of white hair, a metallic Chicago accent and a manner that is both genial and cranky. When he had his business, he said, he never thought about Social Security or retirement. "I assumed we'd be taking a month off and going to Florida. We used to do that."

Mr. Cohen belongs to the uncounted but substantial population of Americans who reach retirement age with less money than they planned, reliant on Social Security in ways they do not expect.

"People who end up with less assets than they thought - that's almost all of us," said Alicia H. Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, who served in the Treasury Department during the Clinton administration.

"People have business reversals, or they lose money in the stock market, or they have medical expenses they can't afford. Anyone who ever worked for Enron or WorldCom knows how it feels to look in their retirement account and see there's nothing left."

Mr. Cohen now lives mostly on the $1,800 he receives each month from Social Security, plus income from bonds he bought after he sold his house - about $1,000 to $1,200 a month. He does not own stock, a home or life insurance.

Compared with most retirees, Mr. Cohen is doing well. He flies first class to see his children in New Jersey and Seattle, still has valuable art in his living room and has contributed money toward his grandchildren's education. Because he did not have to work, he volunteered extensively in his synagogue, the public schools and the local civil rights movement. By his lights he did not retire until last year, when a small stroke forced him to stop volunteering.

But last year, when one of Mr. Cohen's bonds matured, and he replaced it with one that pays dividends of about $100 less a month, he felt the loss. "I got clobbered," he said. "It doesn't sound like much, but it means you have $25 a week less to spend."

Mr. Cohen opposes individual investment accounts, because of the volatility of the stock market and the cost of managing the accounts.

"We're living in a society with an age group that haven't been through the Depression and aren't cognizant of what can happen," he said. "How do you know that won't happen tomorrow? I often wonder what happened to all the people who used to work for me."

Mr. Cohen said he had spent a lot of his retirement savings on care for his wife, who died in 1993, and son Robert, who died of an inoperable brain lesion in 2001. His wife went from doctor to doctor - "all stupid S.O.B.'s," Mr. Cohen said - before amyloidosis, a plasma cell disorder, was diagnosed. She died after three years of treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

Insurance paid for some of this care but not all. "I've never gone back and seen how much it cost at Mayo's," he said. "Word of honor, you never go over expenses and think about whether to get this treatment or this. You just do it."

Lately his own health has been giving him problems. In April, while spending Passover with his daughter in New Jersey, he underwent an M.R.I. for pain in his back, and a ruptured disk was diagnosed. He has not been back to Grand Rapids.

Mr. Cohen can remember when he was like many young workers now, who do not think Social Security will be around when they retire. When the program was enacted, the same year he finished high school, he put little faith in it.

"It was introduced without a lot of people knowing what it was going to do," he said. "If someone had said, 'Here's this program that's going to take care of you,' I'd say, 'Yeah, wait and see.' "

Now it is the anchor of a retirement that Mr. Cohen has come to accept. "It's not as much as I'd like to have," he said, "but I'm not worried."

Brothers, Side by Side Again

Social Security was never intended as a family reunification initiative, but Luther and Norman Ward show how far its safety net can stretch.

For years, Luther, a school janitor and truant officer, hardly spoke to his brother Norman, a heroin addict, because "when he came to see me it was with a hand out." Now they sit side by side every Sunday in church.

The Social Security check that lets Norman, for the first time in his life, keep a small savings account, also allows Luther to offer hand-me-down furniture and the occasional covered dish without worry that his brother's needs will overwhelm his own.

Just as Social Security frees baby boomers from the financial - and emotional - burden of dependent parents, it has built a bridge between these formerly estranged brothers, who passed a recent afternoon feeding ducks at the Grand River like boys.

"I save every month; I refuse to get broke," Norman, 77, said. "I love my brother and I wouldn't want to hurt him."

The Wards, two of six sons of a steelworker and a laundress, embody Social Security's dual identity, as a return on an investment for people like Luther, 71, who play by the rules, and as an insurance policy that keeps even those who led largely unproductive lives from suffering on the street.

For Luther and his wife, Diane, a retired teacher, Social Security is one component of a relaxed retirement - their monthly checks totaling about $2,400 provide 36 percent of their income, the rest coming from their solid school district pensions. Without it, Luther said, "I'd probably have a part-time job."

For Norman, who gets $502 plus $96 in state and federal supplements for the poorest recipients, Social Security is a savior - his only other income is the occasional bounty when one of his six numbers hits in the Michigan Daily Pick Three. Without it, Norman said, "I'd probably be dead now."

Luther did decades of double duty as a janitor and truant officer, raising five children over two marriages.

He took the second school district job to cover child support for the four children from his first marriage, and ended up with combined wages of $60,000. After selling off his mutual funds a few years ago, he keeps his savings, about $14,000, in the credit union earning 2 percent, and strongly opposes Mr. Bush's proposal to turn part of Social Security into individual accounts.

"At my age, I'm not thinking about 10 years it coming back," he said of the stock market.

Norman, who never made it past 10th grade, got hooked on heroin while in the Army. Back home, slurping cough syrup when he could not afford heroin, he got and lost jobs at General Motors, Steelcase, a forklift factory, a meat warehouse and, his favorite, as a bellhop at the old Rowe Hotel downtown, for $12 a week plus tips. He did time twice, in 1961 and 1991, after pleading guilty to drug possession, and checked himself into rehab half a dozen times.

He cared for his parents in their final years and inherited their house, but the $56,000 it sold for quickly disappeared into drugs.

"When I blew that money, I got scared," Norman recalled. "I used to take the cover and pull it over my head because I hate to see daylight come."

Nowadays, in his one-bedroom at the Ransom Towers downtown, Norman is showered and with his bed made by 7 a.m., though he spends most days watching hours of back-to-back courtroom reality shows from a raggedy lounge chair.

He pays his $170 rent, $45 cable, $25 telephone, $20 church dues and $13 for air-conditioning in summer weeks in advance. Food stamps, $112 a month, fill his cupboards with canned vegetables and Special K. The nine pills he swallows daily for diabetes and high blood pressure cost him $3 for brand names, $1 for generics, under Medicaid. Magic Shaving Powder, $1.25 a can, keeps his head bald.

Still he has enough extra that at times he is like an A.T.M., handing out two $20's and a $10 to various neighbors one Sunday before leaving for church. "I don't want your reason, I just want it back," he said of his no-interest, no-information approach. "If they ask for it, they need it."

Across town, Luther said he and Diane "never take out a loan we can't pay back in a year's time," so they are setting aside $1,000 a month to cover the $11,000 home equity line of credit that pays for remodeling the kitchen this summer. They travel every other year to see her relatives in the Netherlands or his son, an Air Force officer stationed in Belgium, and the basement is lined with posters from the musicals they frequent here and in Toronto. For Luther's 70th birthday, Diane booked a suite at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

Seven or eight years ago, Norman asked Luther to pick him up on the way to Grace Christian Reformed Church. He called for a ride again the next Saturday. "Then he said, 'I don't want to call you anymore, just pick me up every Sunday,' " recalled Luther, who is a deacon. "He already knew the minister because he had borrowed money from the minister."

On Tuesdays, too, Luther swings by Norman's building for their weekly run to a food warehouse to stock the church pantry.

"First time in my life I ever enjoyed it," Norman said as he piled up potatoes and set aside a box of chocolate cookies for himself, never mind the diabetes. "Doing something and not looking for nothing."