How social-security debate plays in St. Pete

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Although this retirement enclave continues to bustle under the hot summer sun , many of this community's residents feel a chilly shadow of uncertainty over proposed cuts in social-security benefits.

While the program's basic benefits - the sole income for one-fourth of the nation's elderly - have been left untouched, senior citizens here have already felt the impact of actual social-program cutbacks from last year.

For example, medicare deductibles have been increased. Other cuts filter down to the local level in different ways, such as the city's recent decision to eliminate a senior citizens transportation program.

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Proposals for further reductions have included everything from outright cuts in benefits to cost-of-living adjustment freezes and cutbacks in component programs like medicare.

Legislators are waiting for a year-end report from the newly formed National Commission on Social Security Reform, and amid the political pressures of an election year, it is likely the unpopular idea of social-security changes will be allowed to lie quietly until after November.

The mere fact that cuts have been proposed has been enough to get senior citizens here to scrimp on already tight budgets.

''Every penny counts,'' an elderly man admonishes as he takes a moment to step over a hedge and tell a visitor she can save a dime by parking just around the corner.

Of two dozen senior citizens interviewed between exercise classes and bridge games at the city-run Sunshine Center, most expressed suspicion of the Reagan administration. While this group appears largely Democratic, several said they voted for Reagan in 1980. But most expressed doubts that Mr. Reagan, a senior citizen himself who has suggested medicare and social-security cuts, identifies with struggling senior citizens on social security. Recipients will receive an average $406 a month when the scheduled 7.4 percent cost-of-living increase takes effect July 1.

Confusion over the political wrangling in the budget process is aggravated by media reporting, suggests Lester Crystler, a retired Michigan truck driver.

Talk of cuts ''has got the old people scared. I know a lot of people who won't even take a vacation, won't spend a few dollars because they're afraid a check won't be there tomorrow,'' says Mr. Crystler.

To Buddy Lawlei, a retired and disabled social-security recipient from Maine, social-security cuts or freezes would mean hardship. ''I get $284 (a month) in social security and disability. And $25 in food stamps. But I pay $50 for food and $150 for rent.''

Georgia Root, a retired New York nurse, says she depends on social security for 80 to 90 percent of her income. But even with this year's promised 7.4 percent cost-of-living increase (keyed to the consumer price index, and less than last year's 11 percent upward adjustment), she says she will forgo new clothes and vacation in antipication of budget cuts.

''If there were cuts in social security, they would be missing meals,'' says Jay Morgan, supervisor of the Sunshine Center.

''They're already making decisions between food or medicine,'' confirms Gerald Buchert, director of the center. He says that many older people make ends meet by utilizing free meal programs. But even then, he adds, the elimination of a senior-citizens transportation program has made it harder to get the elderly to the free-meal locations.

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