Cumberland County, Tenn., leads the state and ranks 18th among 3,105 counties in the nation when it comes to the percentage of residents' total income that comes from Social Security.
A new study shows that about 15.9 percent of Cumberland residents' income came from Social Security payments.
The national average for Social Security payments as a percentage of all total personal income is 5.5 percent. In Tennessee overall, it's 6.9 percent, and in Georgia it's 5.3 percent, records show.
Social Security payments come in three forms: old-age pensions, survivor benefits and disability benefits.
Rural economies in general depend far more on Social Security payments as a percentage of a county's total personal income than metropolitan areas do, according to a study done by the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University and online rural news publication The Daily Yonder.
Nationally, 9.3 percent of total personal income in rural counties came from Social Security payments in 2009, almost twice the rate found in urban counties. In counties with cities of fewer than 50,000 residents, 8.2 percent of total personal income came from Social Security.
Social Security payments in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia made up 10 percent or more of most counties' total personal income in 2009, according to the study, published by the Center for Rural Strategies and conducted for the National Academy of Social Insurance.
It's no surprise that Cumberland County's economy depends heavily on retiree income and Social Security, said Crossville, Tenn., Mayor J.H. Graham. In 2009, Social Security payments totaled $251.2 million in Cumberland County while the county's total income was almost $1.6 billion, records show.
The county markets itself to retirees who want a low cost of living, low taxes and a beautiful setting, Graham said.
"Retiree recruitment in Crossville and Cumberland County has been our mainstay for over 50 years," he said. More than 30,000 acres in Cumberland County have been dedicated to retirement developments, he said.
Roberto Gallardo, a researcher in the study, said the initial analysis provides figures that the public and lawmakers should consider in discussing proposed cuts and changes to Social Security.
The study shows Social Security payments are particularly important to rural counties and small cities because most of the money is spent in the community. Retirees "are a key reason why some communities are still viable. If this money dried up, there wouldn't be a lot of these small towns," Ohio State University rural economist Mark Partridge told the study's authors.
For places like Cumberland County, where 35.3 percent of the population receives some type of Social Security payment, cuts would affect the local economy dramatically, Gallardo said.
University of Missouri economist Judith Stallmann also noted in the study that Social Security income "can be the difference between success and failure for some local businesses."
In Crossville, Graham said retirees and their income are vital to the county's economy.
"We have developed resort retirement areas here since 1958, including Lake Tanzi Village, Fairfield Glade, Cumberland Cove and many others," he said.
But just as more than 50 million Americans are about to get their first benefit increase in three years, Social Security could feel Congress' budget ax.
The Associated Press reported this week that lawmakers are studying a measure that could lessen future Social Security increases, raise taxes for most families and allow policymakers gradually to cut benefits. The changes could save about $200 billion over the first decade and more afterward, according to the AP.
Fannin County, Ga.'s, human resources director, Susan Hayes, said congressional changes to Social Security could hurt retired residents and visitors alike in rural counties.
"We have a lot of tourism that comes in, and it certainly would affect the people who put a lot of money into our economy here in Fannin County," Hayes said. Many retired residents keep summer homes in Fannin County, she said, and many of the county's annual events attract retired visitors.
Cumberland County Mayor Kenneth Carey said Congress should maintain Social Security where it is.
"We have built our community on retirees," Carey said. Retirees already are feeling a pinch from the poor economy in their investments, he said, and changes to Social Security could make the situation worse.