NO SOCIAL SECURITY INCREASE: GOVERNMENT SAYS IT’S NOT NEEDED
Each year, Juanita Pitts looks forward to an increase in Social Security benefits and the extra $50 or so it adds to her monthly check.
So, Friday’s announcement that the federal government will not increase benefits for a second year in a row has left her upset and worried about how she will stretch a check that is her sole means of income.
“It will make it harder for us because of the economy,” Pitts, 76, said. “You walk into a grocery story this year and compare prices with last year and you’re trying to live off the same thing? It dips in the pocket. No, I do not like it.”
The Social Security Administration said that consumer prices haven’t risen enough to merit a raise in benefits for 2011. It’s only the second year without an increase in benefits since automatic adjustments for inflation were adopted in 1975. This year was the first.
The absence of a cost of living adjustment represents another setback in what is proving to be a trying economic climate for senior citizens, many of whom lost money when the stock market collapsed two years ago and are paying more for prescription drugs and health insurance.
Friday’s news will particularly affect seniors on fixed incomes, said officials who work with senior citizens.
“This is going to be very difficult for individuals who have to make a choice between paying for prescription bills and food or gasoline,” said Bob Jackson, the director for AARP North Carolina. “For those people on fixed incomes, having no increase is going to make it tough. No doubt about it.”
About 1.7 million people in North Carolina receive an average monthly benefit of $1,059. For 30 percent of them, their monthly check makes up 90 percent of their income, according to figures from AARP North Carolina.
Beverly and Ernest Greaves are among them. They moved here from Florida a few years ago but are now considering selling or renting their condominium to pay for a new and more expensive Medicare supplement plan that will cost them each about $150 a month, a significant increase from the monthly $21 premium they each had been paying.
“I can’t afford to lose more money,” Beverly Greaves, 73, said. “At this point, we’re between a rock and a hard place.”
Ernest Greaves, like Pitts, doesn’t buy into the government’s claim that consumer prices didn’t rise.
“They sure did. Look at the price of iced tea. Look at the price of milk. Some of it’s almost doubled in price,” he said. “They’re ripping the public off something terrible.”
Officials at area agencies say more seniors are requesting help, particularly with financial counseling.
Peter Laroche, the president of Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Forsyth County, said the demand from senior citizens for financial advice has risen 25 percent from last year. In September alone, 60 new senior citizens requested help. Usually, the service adds between 200 and 300 new clients a year. It offers financial counseling on such things as how to manage bills and debt.
“More and more seniors are filing for bankruptcy now because they are on a fixed income, have too much debt and have high medical bills,” Laroche said.
“We are going to have baby boomers retiring who are not prepared and they are going to have to look at supplementing their income through work, and the job market is not very good. That is not how many of them envisioned their retirement.”
Andi Reese, an aging-resources counselor at Senior Services, said her agency is also experiencing a higher volume of calls from senior citizens looking for Medicare counseling and help to buy food and pay utility bills.
“We’ve been steadily getting busier over the last few years,” she said. “I think across the board, every agency that does some sort of service for older adults is seeing an increase.”
Meals on Wheels, a program of Senior Services, serves meals to about 1,100 seniors each weekday, which is about 150 more seniors than it served two years ago.
Richard Gottlieb, the president of Senior Services, said the increase can be attributed to the financial hardships many seniors are experiencing and a growing senior population.
To make ends meet, some seniors are making hard choices, said Dianne Wimmer, the adult division director for the Forsyth County Department of Social Services.
Some will get by with less food and less heat this winter. She knows of some older people who will use rags to save on adult diapers.
“Bottom line: Some will do without,” Wimmer said.
Next year could be a little better. According to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on health issues, Social Security benefits are projected to increase by 1.4 percent in 2012.
Until she gets a bump in her monthly benefits, Pitts will continue to find ways to scrimp.
She will go longer without new shoes and buy generic medicine and cheaper food.
“I’ve learned to economize. I do live within my budget,” Pitts, a former janitorial supervisor, said. “I’m not ashamed to say I’ve been to thrift stores and bought something. You learn to live with what you have.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.