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Seniors adjust to Social Security change
Cost-of-living increases may halt over next 2 years
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Frances Sheppard, 78, of Gainesville talks about her reaction to hearing that there will not be a cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security for the next two years. Sheppard worked as a teacher for 32 years. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

For local seniors, every little bit counts.

Though most say the cost-of-living adjustments to their Social Security checks each year weren’t much, it still helped them make ends meet.

The trustees who oversee Social Security are projecting there won’t be a COLA for the next two years. That hasn’t happened since automatic increases were adopted in 1975.

By law, Social Security benefits cannot go down, but monthly payments could drop for millions of people in the Medicare prescription drug program because the premiums are scheduled to go up slightly. Premiums often are deducted from Social Security payments.

Cost-of-living adjustments are pegged to inflation, which has been negative this year, largely because energy prices are below 2008 levels.

"It will affect me, but I’m not going to let it worry me," said Jessie Hunter, 76, of Gainesville. "I don’t see where it helped me that much."

Hunter, who relies on Social Security as her sole income, said she saw an increase of around $10 to $15 a month from COLAs each year.

Others, like Frances Sheppard, 78, are upset to hear that Social Security benefits will not go up this year.

"We need the cost-of-living adjustment," Sheppard said. "It wasn’t much but every bit helps."

Sheppard said many of her expenses have gone up over the last year.

"The price of groceries go up, the insurance on my car goes up," said Sheppard, a retired teacher. "My income is getting less because I have to spend on things that are necessary."

Sheppard said it is becoming more difficult to live off of her Social Security benefits and her retirement check.

"My youngest son said I should move in with them," Sheppard said.

Evelyn Jackson, 80, of Gainesville said she won’t mind not receiving a COLA as long as her costs don’t increase over the next two years.

She worries that her rent will go up and also that the price of food will not go down.

"I just wish food wasn’t so high," Jackson said.

Advocates say older people still face higher prices because they spend a disproportionate amount of their income on health care, where costs rise faster than inflation. Many also have suffered from declining home values and shrinking stock portfolios just as they are relying on those assets for income.

About 50 million retired and disabled Americans receive Social Security benefits. The average monthly benefit for retirees is $1,153 this year. All beneficiaries received a 5.8 percent increase in January, the largest since 1982.

More than 32 million people are in the Medicare prescription drug program. Average monthly premiums are set to go from $28 this year to $30 next year, though they vary by plan. About 6 million people in the program have premiums deducted from their monthly Social Security payments, according to the Social Security Administration.

Bonnie Hewell, 72, of East Hall said she will likely not be affected by the stagnant benefits because her health costs don’t come out of her Social Security check.

"For me personally I will continue to get what I’m getting because my ... prescription coverage is not through Medicare," Hewell said.

Hewell said that though she won’t feel the effects, she knows many people who will. For many seniors, major expenses such as medications or car payments are nearly out of reach on a fixed income.

"Part of my salvation is that I have another little check that comes from retirement," Hewell said.

Social Security is also facing long-term financial problems. The retirement program is projected to start paying out more money than it receives in 2016. Without changes, the retirement fund will be depleted in 2037, according to the Social Security trustees’ annual report this year.

President Barack Obama has said he would like to tackle Social Security next year, after Congress finishes work on health care, climate change and new financial regulations.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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