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Retirees get tiny COLA increase

January 05, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

More than 67,000 senior citizens across the Tri-State area this month began getting a few dollars more in their Social Security checks - the smallest cost of living increase in more than a decade.

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The cost of living adjustment, or COLA, is 1.3 percent for 1999. For the average retired American worker, that translates to about $10 per month.

For Mildred Witter, a Chambersburg, Pa., retiree, the pay boost was even smaller: $6.

"I don't know how anybody can live on a $6 increase per month," said Witter, 78. "If they can pay Ken Starr millions and millions to screw up this country, which is what he's done, and they can't spend money to increase Social Security for seniors, I feel sorry for the people of this country."

The last time Social Security COLAs were as low as 1.3 percent was in 1987, according to the Social Security Administration. The small increase reflects an inflation rate that is relatively flat.

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Advocates for senior citizens said the inflation rate does not adequately express the cost to older Americans.

Fred Otto, executive director of the Washington County Commission on Aging, said the overall inflation rate is low because costs of items like computers and televisions has remained the same or declined.

But retirees often do not buy those kinds of things, Otto said.

"It becomes difficult for people who are on fixed incomes," he said. "The things that seniors buy, like medicine and health care and food - these things have increased at a higher rate than 1.3 percent."

Betty Benner, 67, who lives in a senior housing complex in Boonsboro, said she has neighbors who have had to make choices between buying food or medicine.

"If it wouldn't be for my daughter buying me groceries, I don't know what I'd do," she said.

But Benner, who worked first at the Hagerstown Shoe Factory and then retired from Mack Trucks, said she does not want to burden her children.

"I just think it's ridiculous We worked all our lives to pay into this thing," she said. "To me, they're not doing senior citizens justice."

The average monthly benefit is now $780 a month for all Americans. But Eileen Dooley, executive director of Berkeley Senior Services, in Martinsburg, W.Va., said it is lower for many seniors who live in the Eastern Panhandle.

Benefits, which are determined by incomes during retirees' working years, are lower for people who worked in the Eastern Panhandle 20 years ago. Salaries lagged behind other parts of the country, Dooley said.

Recent growth, however, has transformed the area. Seniors have been hit hard by property taxes because of rapidly rising land prices, she said.

"The real issue is not just the smallness of the percentage (benefit increase), but what's happening in the area you live," Dooley said. "Seniors suffer from the area's prosperity."

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