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Ellen P. , North Carolina

Struggling to pay my bills

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My name is Ellen Pleasant, and I am a grassroots ambassador with North Carolina Fair Share CDC. I am 72 years old. Since I retired 7 years ago, I have been able to stay afloat thanks to a small pension, Medicare and primarily Social Security.

When I was in my late 20s, I decided that I wanted to go to college, so I signed myself up and went to a community college in my hometown in New Jersey. I went to school for 2 years. During that time, I had to take out a loan for $2,000 to help me make it through.

Every month since January of this year, my Social Security check has been $150 short. This is a huge gap in my budget.
When I contacted the Social Security Administration to find out why I was getting such a huge cut, they told me that the funds were being garnished to upset a loan debt from the NJ Higher Education Loan Program. Imagine my surprise! I thought I had paid that debt back in the late 1980’s.

There was a period of time when I was out of work because I was caring for my ailing mother who had terminal cancer in the 1980s. After her passing, when I went back to work, the IRS started garnishing my tax returns to upset the same loan debt that is now in question.

It was a transitional time of my life. I lost my mother and I had to move around quite a bit. I wasn’t keeping track of this debt. To be honest, until a couple of months ago, I had completely forgotten about it. It was over 40 years ago.

Now I am struggling to pay my bills. After decades of always being on time, I can’t pay my mortgage and my homeowners’ association is getting nervous about my ability to make my payments in the coming month. This is not fair.

Why am I being punished in my retirement for pursuing an education in my youth? I know that my story is not unique to me alone. I know there are other seniors who are going through this unfair situation. We need to be educated – all of us – the youth taking out loans to get through college right now and the seniors who have lived the experience. This issue is an opportunity to bring us all together for broader economic justice that includes support for our youth and expansion of Social Security.