Social security is bulk of income for many

June 30, 1997


Staff Writer

Neva Woods says she never expected to live to the age of 84.

She depends on Social Security benefits she collects based on her husband's work record to pay for everything - taxes, insurance, food, utilities and medical bills.

She's not alone.

Thousands of Tri-State area senior citizens depend on Social Security to make ends meet, according to senior center directors.

The average monthly retirement check is $746, according to the Social Security Administration. The amount depends on factors such as work history, age at retirement and marital status.

Woods didn't want to reveal the size of her Social Security check, but she said it is a struggle to make ends meet, living in the house where she was born about six miles from Berkeley Springs, W.Va.


"Sometimes you wonder," she said. "So far I've made out. It's hard to get along. You can't splurge any with it."

Woods spent her working years at the family business, a tomato cannery along Sleepy Creek that produced the Duckwall brand of tomatoes until the late 1960s.

The tomatoes were grown on their farm. Woods was paid 6 cents per 16-quart bucket to peel the tomatoes and one penny for labeling each 24-can case.

She remembers working there when Social Security cards were issued.

Woods says she can't afford house repairs, but a community organization has promised to fix her porch next month.

She would like to spend the rest of her life in the company of the friends she visits nearly every day at the Senior Life Center of Morgan County.

"I don't know what I'd do without it," she said of the center.

In the seven-county Tri-State area, 54,705 people were receiving Social Security, according to the Social Security Administration's latest available information from December 1995.

For one-third of recipients nationwide, Social Security represents 90 percent or more of their income. For 15 percent of recipients, it is the only source of income, said administration spokesman Rich Hensley.

About two-thirds of older Americans rely on Social Security for half or more of their income, he said.

Without Social Security, about half of older Americans would live in poverty. As it is, about 10 percent of older Americans live below the poverty line, he said.

In Samuel Payne's day, few people had pensions.

Payne, 74, did farm work for many years before he went to work at Prowler's Travel Trailers in Hancock. After 17 years there, he retired with a small pension, he said.

But that is gone now and he depends on his $907-a-month Social Security check. His wife, Thelma, 71, worked at London Fog in Hancock for 30 years. She collects $688 a month in Social Security.

That might seem like a comfortable amount for two people living in a house that's paid for in Berkeley Springs. But they pay $400 a month for medicine alone and their income quickly shrinks.

But the Paynes, who met at the senior center and have been married for about two years, have few complaints.

"We don't plan on hoarding and saving because we don't figure we'll be around long," Thelma Payne said.

Thelma's sister, Edna Alderton 78, also owns her home in Berkeley Springs, and gets by on $850 a month.

The first check she writes every month is $112.25 for health insurance.

Then she must pay for five kinds of medicine, the telephone bill, television cable, water, sewer, electric heat and food.

"God help me if anything breaks down. As long as everything goes smooth, I'm fine," Alderton said. "I stop to think a lot of people are worse off."

In Washington County, about 6,489 people lived on Social Security alone in 1990. That represented 30 percent of people age 60 and older, said Fred Otto, director of the Washington County Commission on Aging.

Social Security is more important to women than men. Of women age 60 and older, 40.4 percent received most of their income through Social Security, Otto said.

"I have the sense that more and more people are becoming more and more dependent on Social Security," he said.

There are three main sources of retirement income - Social Security, pension and savings.

About half of retired workers get pensions, a figure that has held steady. More women than in the past are receiving pensions, because more women have entered the workforce, Hensley said.

Savings income is still relatively low, but it's climbing, he said.

Many senior citizens have used up their savings or are holding onto a small amount for emergencies, said Eileen Dooley, director of the Berkeley County Commission on Aging.

"People have to make choices between buying food, paying for medication and struggling to pay utility bills in the winter," Dooley said.

Some are living on just $5,000 a year. That makes them eligible for other services like food stamps, subsidized housing and Medicaid. Some, however, are too proud to accept the help.

"They don't want anybody to know (their financial hardships) because they've supported themselves all their lives," she said.

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