By AMANDA SEITZ, TRISHA AHMED, CLAIRE SAVAGE and HANNAH SCHOENBAUM | Associated Press
ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — In a year when inflation has made Americans' eyes pop when they fill up their gas or walk down aisles at the grocery store, many Social Security recipients worry whether the biggest cost-of-living increase in four decades will be enough to cover their needs.
The Social Security Administration announced Thursday that Social Security benefits will rise 8.7% in 2023. That amounts to about $140 a month on average.
Some recipients are still worried about how they'll make rent or utility payments. Others fear persistent inflation will just eat into any of the new cash flow. And some are just thankful a few extra dollars might be just enough to cover a new dress or a steak dinner.
Around the country, some of the 70 million people who receive Social Security payments are running the numbers to calculate what they can — and can't — afford once the new paychecks hit their bank accounts.
Barbara Steingaszner, 83, is in a serious mood as she sits down at the card table for her weekly game of competitive bridge at the Hollin Hall Senior Center in this Washington suburb.
But she smiles big when asked about Thursday’s news.
“I got really excited,” Steingaszner said. “I was delighted. Whatever they’re going to give me, I’ll be thrilled.”
Steingaszner lost her husband last year, and she’s had to balance her checkbook carefully with the loss of his income..
She’s been most sticker shocked by the rising costs at grocery stores, especially for meat. She says she mostly sticks to fish these days, but maybe she’ll buy a bit of meat for dinner once those new Social Security payments roll in.
“You do what you have to do,” Steingaszner said. “I’ll do my best, I grew up during the war.”
A blue insulin pen in his pocket, a green debit card loaded with $1,199 on the third of each month in his wallet, and a rental application for a low-income apartment in his hands, Lavell Leonard sighed outside the Social Security office in Minneapolis.
“This increase — it helps. But it don’t help a lot,” Leonard said. He plans to put the COLA increase toward his utility and phone bills.
The 39-year-old said he has received Social Security payments for his disability, severe type 1 diabetes, since he was 7 years old.
Prone to seizures and collapsing from low blood sugar, Leonard said his disability makes it difficult to work but he's taken on temporary jobs — washing cars, working at warehouses, and selling cans and metals – to earn $400 to $600 monthly.
The side jobs and the Social Security payments aren't enough to cover inflation or manage the crisis he experienced when his rent jumped from $750 to $950 this year. Leonard said he started working double to come up with the extra $200 each month, but he ended up in the hospital for four days when his blood sugar dropped.
The father of three said he has been homeless “quite a few times” — including last year when he got sick, couldn’t work, couldn’t pay rent and got evicted — and relies on Social Security to survive.
“The government might feel like giving us $100 is a big help, but no, it’s not,” Leonard said. “Increase payments four or five hundred dollars, and I bet you, we’ll see a lot of happy faces — even if it’s just three or four hundred dollars extra, that’s a lot for some people.”
From the third floor of a subsidized apartment about 45 miles north of Chicago, 68-year-old Earnestine Smith dreams of being able to shop for a new outfit.
“I’m so far back in clothes — I think I’m wearing my Grandma’s dresses," said Smith, a retiree.
Smith plans to put the extra money she'll get each month into an emergency fund for unforeseen costs. And maybe she'll be able to do something other than window shopping at the storefronts of clothing stores, too.
“You know how you walk out and you would love to just ... to buy something new? To be able to, besides just looking at it? Yeah, it would mean a whole lot to me,” she said. “A lot.”
GARNER, NORTH CAROLINA
Margaret Toman's house is still filled with the flower pots, paintings and bird statutes that her mother sprinkled throughout their shared dwelling before she passed away.
While her memory looms large in this two-bedroom home, eight miles outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, money has gotten so tight that Toman now rents the empty bedroom where her mother lived out her final years with Alzheimer’s disease.
The 78-year-old has been living off the retirement checks since she stepped in to be her mother's caretaker full time nearly 13 years ago.
Her most recent retirement checks are about $1,400 a month, which she said does not begin to cover her health care costs and rising food and gas prices, expenses that “eat you alive on a low income." Occasionally she picks up groceries from the With Love From Jesus food bank in Raleigh, where she's seen fights break out over the limited supply of produce.
She described Thursday's announcement of an 8.7% cost-of-living adjustment as “quite stingy” and said she worried that a few extra dollars might disqualify some low-income seniors from other essential government programs, like food stamps.
“We’re not profligate spenders, we’re just not making enough to get by, period,” she said.
Seitz reported from Alexandria, Virginia, Ahmed from St. Paul, Minnesota, Savage from Waukegan, Illinois, and Schoenbaum from Raleigh, North Carolina.
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