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W.Va. officials say Social Security increase not enough

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After the Social Security Administration announced recipients will receive a 1.7 percent increase in their benefits next year, the state director of AARP said the way the cost-of-living adjustment is determined needs to be re-evaluated.

"We think even this modest increase is going to help," said Gaylene Miller. "But much of it is going to be consumed by health care and prescription costs."

Those costs aren't considered when determining the cost-of-living increase for Social Security, according to Miller.

"The kinds of thing they include ... aren't necessarily the kinds of things folks over the age of 65 are consuming on a regular basis. For example, the cost of prescription drugs is not included. The cost of utilities is not included," Miller said.

According to the Social Security Administration website, the cost-of-living adjustment is calculated by using part of the Consumer Price Index.

Including things like the price of food and gasoline when determining what would be an adequate increase would strengthen Social Security, according to Miller.

She said West Virginia has about 444,000 Social Security beneficiaries, and about one in four rely on those benefits for 90 percent of their income.

Social Security payments for retired workers average $1,237 a month, or about $14,800 a year. A 1.7 percent increase will amount to about $21 a month, or $252 a year, on average, according to The Associated Press.

Janie Hamilton, executive director of Kanawha Valley Senior Services, believes the increase will be spent before seniors even notice they've received it.

"I think it's going to be devastating for a lot of seniors, because the cost of everything continues to go up and that 1.7 percent isn't going to touch it," Hamilton said. "It's so appalling because they paid into it, that money is theirs, it's not an entitlement."

Nonprofit organizations devoted to seniors will ultimately be burdened by such a small increase, Hamilton said.

"All nonprofits that support seniors and the poor will be pressed further than they already are. Already, food pantries can't keep up, all the organizations are having trouble keeping up," she said.

The size of the increase should make state lawmakers examine whether programs for seniors are sufficient, said Delegate Larry Williams, D-Preston, chairman of the House Committee on Senior Citizen Issues.

 "It seems like an awful little amount since I'm in business and I know how much prices have increased on various things," said Williams of the 1.7 percent increase. "It seems like it's not near enough to keep up with inflation.

"We're going to have to review what is already offered and make sure people are aware of what's being offered. We also need to see if anything additional needs to be offered."

That's the real issue, according to Phil Schenk, director of the West Virginia Partnership for Elder Living. He believes seniors need to be made aware of other programs they can rely on in addition to Social Security.

"Social Security alone can't be counted on to keep those folks in the living situations of their choice," Schenk said. "There's a very high percentage of people relying entirely on Social Security and it's clear that's not enough to keep them living."

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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