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Seniors won't see Social Security cost-of-living increase in 2016
Area retirees plan for no adjustment in benefits after federal decision
1019SENIORS
Joseph Dobos shoots pool as Calvin Mangum watches Friday morning at the Senior Life Center in Gainesville. The two men are worried about not receiving a cost-of-living increase next year as part of their Social Security checks.

When it comes to playing pool, Calvin Mangum doesn’t like to joke around.

“Go ahead and shoot, Joe,” Mangum said. “You can shoot while you talk.”

When Mangum’s turn finally comes, he calls “three-ball, side pocket.”

It’s just another typical day here at the Senior Life Center in Gainesville, except something other than game strategy is preying on the minds of Mangum and his friend, Joseph Dobos.

As another round of pool balls is racked, the two Social Security recipients talk about their frustration with the fact that the federal government will not give them a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, in 2016.

“And guess what? The Congress and the president gonna get themselves a raise whenever they want,” Mangum said. “I don’t think it’s fair.”

It’s just the third time since 1975 that no annual COLA increase has come, with each instance occurring this decade.

COLAs are tied to inflation and have averaged an increase of about 2.2 percent annually over the last 15 years for Social Security recipients.

Primarily because fuel prices have remained low for many months, offsetting increases in other living costs, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the cost of living for Americans actually fell slightly in 2015.

But it may be hard to convince Mangum, Dobos and more than 65 million seniors across the country that this is true.

Agencies and advocates for seniors warn that the biggest expenses for Social Security recipients and the elderly — which tend to be housing, food and health care — continue to rise annually.

The BLS even acknowledges that these specific costs slightly increased this year.

So while gasoline prices have remained lower than in recent years, it’s not a cost that many seniors living in Gainesville have to manage anyway.

“That’s a slice of the population that probably doesn’t (drive),” said Pat Freeman, CEO of the Legacy Link Area Agency on Aging, a nonprofit advocacy and service organization for seniors and the disabled serving 13 counties in Northeast Georgia, including Hall. “At that particular (senior life) center, those people depend more on public transportation.”

An experimental federal calculation shows that when adjusted for seniors’ biggest living costs, a slight COLA increase would have been warranted next year.

Increases in food costs have been seen in Gainesville, Hall County and Northeast Georgia in recent months, with seniors feeling hurt.

For example, more and more retirees have been showing up at the South Hall Community Food Pantry in Oakwood recently looking for extra canned foods, baked goods and other essentials, according to the pantry’s operators.

And Freeman said that 717 vouchers, each worth $20, were handed out to seniors across Northeast Georgia during a farmers market event this summer so that they could purchase healthy fruits and vegetables.

“A lot of people in that (senior) age group have looked for food assistance,” Freeman said, adding that 10 years ago this wasn’t the case.

With no COLA increase next year, about 70 percent of those on Medicare rolls will not have to pay more into their plans. That may be the lone bright spot.

The remaining 30 percent, or about 17 million Americans, however, are staring down potential increases in premiums and deductibles for their Part B plans. This includes higher-income Medicare recipients, for example.

Mangum said his COLA this year amounted to about $24. It’s not a substantial figure, sure, but it makes a difference for those living on a fixed income, he said.

And the fact that no COLA increase is coming next year has seniors like Mangum and Dobos worried about the health of the nation’s economy. It also breeds a loss of trust in Washington lawmakers, they added.

“One day they give you something, the other day they take away,” Mangum said.

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