Elderly on no-frills budgets say there's no room for income cuts

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Living on a social security check and a $32-a-month pension keeps Margaret Saul above the poverty line, but not by much. Miss Saul, a retired secretary who lives in Sunnyside, Queens, gets around $8,000 a year. The problem is making the monthly payments stretch.

``I'm lucky I have a neighbor who has money,'' says Miss Saul. ``I often have to borrow $20 from her at the end of the month.''

Her friend, Rose Kryzak, agrees.

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``A lot of my friends say the months last too long,'' says Mrs. Kryzak. Both Miss Saul and Mrs. Kryzak testified at a hearing of the congressional Select Committee on Aging held in Astoria yesterday. The topic was the potential impact of a proposed cap on cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for social security benefits.

The recent Reagan administration and Senate Republican proposal to reduce the annual social security COLAs just doesn't make a lot of sense to Miss Saul. There is very little room for frills in her life.

``After the rent is paid, and the utility and telephone bills are paid, I have to make up my budget for food, medical bills ... and any extras, such as shoes and clothing,'' she said at the hearing. ``It becomes a game of put and take -- if I need one item, I have to forgo another.''

``When I go into [Manhattan] with a friend, it means I don't buy hamburger for a week,'' she said in an interview the day before the hearing.

Several hundred senior citizens attended the hearing in Queens, chaired by Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D) of California, chairman of the committee on aging, and freshman Rep. Thomas J. Manton, in whose district it was held.

Mr. Manton's district has the 12th-largest population of senior citizens of the 435 congressional districts. More than 11 percent of the people over 65 in the district live at or below the poverty level, according to 1980 Census Bureau statistics, says an aide to Manton.

``It's rough,'' says Joseph Sheean, adding that spiraling costs of everyday things means he has to do with less and less. His purchasing power is now limited, and he expects it would be worse under any proposed cap. Certain foods like orange juice are a luxury, Mr. Sheean says.

Mrs. Kryzak says she is more fortunate than most. Both she and her husband worked all their lives, and they have comfortable pensions in addition to social security. But she has many friends who are struggling.

``This situation is particularly harsh on women, who are the majority of the elderly and make up the fastest-growing poverty group in the population,'' says Mrs. Kryzak, legislative director of the Queens Council for Senior Citizens.

Not all of the elderly agree that the Reagan-Senate compromise would be so damaging. One woman at the hearing, who did not want her named used, said that some people ``are getting away with a lot.''

``I'm doing all right,'' said the Queens widow, adding that the President is right is trying to cut the deficit. ``There are people who are poor -- but anytime anybody hears the word sacrifice, they run. If everybody were honest and tried to do things right, things would be much better.''

But she was in the minority. August Kahn, a retired businessman, says he was able to put away enough money to have a comfortable retirement. But he says Mr. Reagan ``should not touch old people.''

Reagan has said that the compromise proposal, which would limit the annual COLA to the increase in the consumer price index minus 2 percent, would still be an increase in benefits. Regardless of the inflation rate, recipients would be entitled to at least a 2 percent increase. The COLA could exceed that if the inflation rate rises above 4 percent.

At the hearing, politicians, people who work with the elderly, and social security recipients noted that the plan could likely mean a reduction, since even the White House projects about 4 percent inflation.

A Congressional Budget Office report Wednesday said that up to 650,000 people could fall below the poverty level if the limits are adopted. The average monthly benefit would rise to $483.43 in 1988 under the proposal. The current average payment is $452. If there was no change in the law, the amount would rise to $510.88. That would amount to a 5.4 percent decline in purchasing power for the elderly.

William R. Hutton, executive director of the National Council of Senior Citizens, also spoke at the hearing. He said the proposal ``in one fell swoop abandons the most important feature of social security: that it is inflation proof.'' A study his group has done indicates that 41 percent of elderly black women are in poverty, as are 23 percent of elderly Hispanic women. Fully 50 percent of all women live within $800 of the $4,775 poverty line.

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