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Elderly fret about freeze in Social Security benefits

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Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2009

Faced with the prospect of having her Social Security check frozen for the next two years, Joan Clinton says she might ask her children for help with her grocery bill.

"I should be getting enough Social Security to take care of myself without having to rely on my kids to pick up the slack," said Clinton, 69, a resident of Goodwill Plaza in Sheraden. She is one of about 233,000 people in Allegheny County 62 and older and among about 475,000 in the region.

Clinton and others like her are angered that the trustees who oversee the retirement program are projecting there will not be a cost-of-living increase in their checks for the next two years because inflation has been negative. It would be the first time that has happened since the increases were made automatic in 1975.

Senior citizens getting Medicare prescription benefits may notice smaller Social Security checks because their premiums are deducted from Social Security.

"This idea that there's no cost-of-living increase is bull," said Eddie O'Neill, 62, of Franklin Park. "I'm the one that goes out and shops every day, and I see the inflation rate. Clothes have gone up. Food has gone up."

O'Neill began getting Social Security in May and lives with his wife Pattie 41, and their 8-year-old son, Ryan. O'Neill's 85-year-old mother lives on Social Security in Sewickley.

"If she doesn't get an increase every year, then we'll have to foot the bill for her," he said.

O'Neill said he may have to look at ways to cut expenses.

"You can't go out once a week or once a month to dinner," he said. "You'll have to cut everything."

Wes Lyons, 51, of Sheraden receives Social Security disability checks. He contends it's not fair to freeze Social Security without freezing the pay of government workers.

"If you're going to single me and not everybody else," he said, "then I got a problem."

Retirees may not be the only ones hurt by the benefits freeze, said Chris Briem, a regional economist at the University Center for Social and Urban Research at the University of Pittsburgh.

"Elderly spending in the region is a big chunk of the local economy," he said.

Total government and retirement and disability benefits -- mostly Social Security -- in the region totaled more than $6.7 billion in 2007, according to Pitt's University Center for Social and Urban Research.

Briem said retirees spend roughly 95 percent of their income, compared to 79 percent for non-retirees. Locally, he said, retirees help strengthen hiring and spending in the region's medical sector.

If Social Security checks are frozen or shrink, local agencies that serve the elderly could be strained.

"The safety net would get stretched," said Don Grant, aging care management supervisor for Allegheny County's Area Agency on Aging. "You'll have more people in need."

LindaDoman, executive director of Vintage Inc. in East Liberty, said the elderly would be less able to make voluntary contributions for services such as lunch at her agency.

Frozen or shrinking Social Security checks could foster unintended benefits for some residents, said Tony Turo, executive director of Ursuline Senior Services in Oakland. He noted that some services such as the state prescription drug program and rent rebates are tied to income.

"If our seniors have a slight drop in income," he said, "there won't be any danger of them losing eligibility for benefits."



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