Seniors on COLA hike: 'It's better than nothing'
That's how a lunch crowd at the Carl Gipson Senior Center of Everett reacted to news that in 2012 they'll see a 3.6 percent increase in Social Security benefits.
For the first time since 2009, a cost-of-living increase was announced Wednesday by the Social Security Administration. That's a relief, a small one, for more than 54 million Americans -- retirees, disabled people, and surviving spouses and children -- who receive Social Security.
At the senior center Thursday, I didn't hear any cheering. The specter of Medicare premium increases cooled enthusiasm over raises that, according to The Associated Press, will average about $39 a month for Social Security recipients.
"It will help the economy. When you get a little more, you spend more," said Janith Jacobson, 70. "But I wonder if they're going to raise the (Medicare) Part B," the Everett woman said.
Nancy Fischer, 68, said she's glad about the raise, "even if it's a wash" with a potential Medicare hike. "At least no one will do with any less," said Fischer, of Everett. "For people our age, it's all about housing, food and medical."
"It's better than nothing," 80-year-old Gene Schmaltz, of Everett, said about the benefits boost.
A federal announcement of 2012 premiums for Medicare Part B, which helps pay doctor bills, is due later this fall. For Social Security recipients, those premiums also have been frozen at the 2009 level.
An inflation measure, which triggered the cost-of-living hike, was too low for Social Security increases for either 2011 or 2010. Not much inflation? That has been baffling to seniors with modest incomes, for whom rising gas and food costs have meant real hardships.
"We've waited two years," said Nancy Nicolet, 60, of Lake Stevens. "It's a matter of the grocery bill, medications and sometimes your rent."
"Groceries have gone up, it seems every week. Everything has gone up -- everything but our income," said 82-year-old Dorothy Couture, of Everett.
At Senior Services of Snohomish County, assistance requests are up, too. "More and more, we're getting folks calling for help with economic issues -- paying their rent, or people in trouble with their mortgage," said Bob Quirk, social services director with the nonprofit agency.
A 3.6 percent increase "isn't a lot if you make $1,000 a month," Quirk said. According to the AP, the average Social Security payment is $1,082, or about $13,000 a year.
Although Medicare premium increases may be coming, "it's never usually a wash. People usually get some increase," Quirk said.
Retirees make up the greatest number of Social Security recipients -- more than 34 million of them nationwide and 727,956 in Washington. Yet as Social Security is tossed around as a political football, Americans shouldn't forget who else has skin in the game.
There are disabled workers, their spouses and children; widows and widowers; parents who have lost spouses, and children who have lost a parent.
Quick, describe a typical Social Security recipient. You'll likely say an elderly person. How about a middle school kid whose father died before he was born? That's who I see.
My boy, almost 13, is one of 2,960 children in Snohomish County receiving a monthly Social Security payment because a parent died. That benefit will continue until he is 18. I work full-time, so I don't receive widow survivor benefits as his mom.
That cost-of-living increase is a boon for seniors, but will also help a broad cross-section of Americans. For my family, Social Security has made a huge difference. It has helped pay for education, basic needs, even summer camp.
For decades, I have contributed to a 401(k) retirement savings account. I also have an IRA, an Individual Retirement Arrangement. With those investments, my fortunes rise and fall with the stock market. Recently, I made the mistake of checking on those accounts. Over the past few months, on paper anyway, I have lost almost $40,000 from my retirement nest egg.
I'm not retired -- not yet -- but boy, do I understand how critical Social Security is for so many.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Help for seniors
Senior Services of Snohomish County helps people determine if they qualify for medical savings programs, which help pay Medicare premiums, or for utility discounts and other assistance. Information: 425-513-1900.
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