Boca Raton, Fla. (AP) - Seniors prepared to cut back on everything from food to charitable donations to whiskey as word spread Monday that they will have to wait until at least 2012 to see their Social Security checks increase.
The government is expected to announce this week that more than 58 million Social Security recipients will go through a second straight year without an increase in monthly benefits. This year was the first without an increase since automatic adjustments for inflation started in 1975.
"I think it's disgusting," said Paul McNeil, 69, a retired state worker from
"They've got this idea that they've got to save money and basically they want to take it out of the people that will give them the least resistance," he said.
Cost-of-living adjustments are automatically set by a measure adopted by Congress in the 1970s that orders raises based on the Consumer Price Index, which measures inflation. Social Security benefits will remain unchanged as long as consumer prices remain below the level they were at in 2008, the last time a COLA was awarded.
Still, seniors like McNeil said they'll be thinking about the issue when they go to vote, and experts said the news comes at a bad time for Democrats already facing potentially big losses in November. Seniors are the most loyal of voters, and their support is especially important during midterm elections, when turnout is generally lower.
"If you're the ruling party, this is not the sort of thing you want to have happening two weeks before an election," said Andrew Biggs, a former deputy commissioner at the Social Security Administration and now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
At St. Andrews Estates North, a
Bette Baldwin won't be able to travel or help her children as much. Dorcas Eppright will give less to charity. Jack Dawson will buy cheap whiskey instead of his beloved Canadian Club.
"For people who have worked their whole life and tried to scrimp and save and try to provide for themselves," said
Baldwin and her husband mapped out their retirements, carefully calculating their income based on their pensions and Social Security checks. Trouble is, they expected an annual cost-of-living increase.
"When we cut back, we're cutting back on niceties,"
"I'm kind of glad in a way," Stella Wehrly, an 86-year-old retired secretary, said of the freeze. "One thing depends on the other and when people aren't working there's not enough people feeding into the Social Security system."
Wehrly and her husband, Hank, said curtailing government spending is necessary to maintain the Social Security system.
"We have a generation now that we're not going to leave a very good legacy for," she said.
Jack Dawson, 77, said the freeze is the right move considering the state of the government and the American economy.
"Who would be surprised what's happened?" he asked. "I feel this is the right decision in light of the malaise."
More than 58.7 million people rely on Social Security checks that average $1,072 monthly. It was the primary source of income for 64 percent of retirees who got benefits in 2008; one-third relied on Social Security for at least 90 percent of their income.
At the Phoenix Knits yarn shop in
"If I have any major expense, I don't know what I'll do," McCartney said while helping customers with their knitting. "I live on Social Security."
"There isn't nothing I can do about it but live with it," she said. "Whatever they give us is what we have to take. I'm thankful we get that little bit."
Advocates for seniors argue the Consumer Price Index doesn't adequately weigh the costs that most affect older adults, particularly medical care and housing.
"The existing COLA formula does not account for the economic reality of the true costs that most seniors faced," said Fernando Torres-Gil, director of UCLA's Center for Policy Research on Aging and the first person appointed to the governmental post of assistant secretary for aging, during the
Still, Torres-Gil said the political reality is different, and many feel seniors are lucky to have their checks determined by the CPI, instead of some new formula that might make it even harder to secure a raise.
"We may be just lucky to keep the current index," he said.
Associated Press writers Michelle Smith in Providence, R.I., Terry Tang in Phoenix, Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Mo., and Stephen Ohlemacher in Washington contributed to this report.