Watching every nickel -- a story of COLAs and courage

When Adolph Reisner retired in 1962 after 17 years with a manufacturing company in Chicago, he could count three sources of income: $116 a month in social security, $25 a month from his pension, and about $15 in quarterly dividends from stock in a steel company. Now, 23 years later, social security (``$470-some a month'') remains his only income. His pension option, good for 10 years, ended 13 years ago, and his modest stock dividends have shrunk to $1.88 every quarter.

For Mr. Reisner, as for many retired people living on a slim economic margin, recent Senate proposals to freeze the social security cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for one year triggered major concern. Now, with news of House support for the increase (``Democrats won't touch COLAs,'' a local headline promises), many of them can reflect more calmly on the importance of social security in their lives.

Among residents of the luxury condominiums rising majestically out of the white sand along Gulf Boulevard here, the question of COLAs hardly merits consideration. ``The only COLA they talk about here is the new Coca-Cola -- they don't like the taste,'' says K. P. Bell, manager of a Winn-Dixie supermarket in an upper-middle-class section of the city.

But travel a few miles away from the beaches to modest mobile home parks and faded retirement hotels and the picture changes dramatically. For these people, the prospect of a COLA remains their best hope for continuing independence in the face of rising prices. Many have no clear idea of the specific additional amount they would receive each month (often $14 to $18), but the difference in the quality of their life would be clear enough -- the difference between a telephone or no telephone, the difference between a meal with meat or without it a couple of times a week.

Here in St. Petersburg, the retirement capital of the world, only 1,100 to 1,200 of the city's 60,000 social security recipients are officially classified as poor, according to Gerald J. Buchert, director of the Sunshine Senior Center, run by the city's Office of Aging. But just above them on the retirement ladder is another, much larger group -- Mr. Reisner's group -- clinging with hope and quiet determination to a wobbly rung that threatens to weaken with each new increase in the cost of food or rent.

Sitting on an aluminum bench in Williams Park, a block-square patch of greenery in the heart of downtown, with squirrels and pigeons at his feet and the afternoon sun filtering through live-oak trees, Mr. Reisner talks about a lifetime of hard work and thrift -- a lifetime of trying to plan adequately for his later years.

``I never had a high-paying job,'' he explains, ``but I always did try to put a few dollars away for a rainy day. But some of what I've put away I've lost.''

He recounts a poignant story of failed investments, of pension plans gone awry, and of real estate losses on his house in Chicago as neighborhoods changed. He now pays $165 for the two-room apartment that has been his home since he moved here 16 years ago. Like many others in this group, he has no telephone (cost: $14.74 a month).

Yet Mr. Reisner speaks without self-pity or rancor, adopting a philosophical attitude common to many who came of age during the depression. It is what Mr. Buchert calls ``the spirit of this generation -- you make do with what you've got.''

``It's just a neat generation we're working with now because of their grit and their values,'' he says. ``I hope a lot of this can be passed along, but I worry that it's not.''

This make-do spirit and grit become evident again and again during a week of conversations with social security recipients here. As they describe their simple needs and modest wants, it becomes clear that many seek only to maintain the status quo, asking for nothing but the right to live in dignity, with a modicum of comfort and security. If there is disappointment, it is often hidden behind an air of courage and a measure of cheerfulness.

``I'm living fine, if they would just hold the cost of food down,'' says Ruth Stott, a former restaurant owner who depends on a $399 social security check and a $55 Veterans Administration pension. ``I'd be satisfied with just what I'm getting now if food and rent just wouldn't go up.''

Food and rent, rent and food -- the two necessities remain at the heart of any conversation about the specifics of life on a limited income.

``What they do to the little people who pay rent . . . ,'' a companion of Mrs. Stott's interjects, her voice trailing off. ``I've got the smallest apartment -- the smallest -- and it's $150. Now a new owner is jazzing the place up, and he's raising the rents.''

By 1985 standards $150 must count as a modest rent. But for this woman, a volunteer at the Sunshine Center who shakes her head no when asked if she can be quoted by name, the COLA will have no effect. She receives supplemental social security (SSI), plus $10 a month in food stamps. ``The more social security goes up, the SSI goes down,'' she explains. ``I'm just thankful I get those stamps.''

Sitting at a table in the Sunshine Center's snack bar, the two women describe years of scrimping and saving. ``Oh yes, honey, I worked hard all my life,'' says Mrs. Stott, a widow (``22 years ago yesterday . . .''). ``It's tough. But I've pulled through pretty good.''

Then her voice drops as she continues. ``I was beat out of five years of social security. The company withheld it but didn't pay in. My daughter will help me if I need it, but I never ask her because I'm independent,'' she says, a note of triumph in her voice.

Still, for all the brave talk of making-do, some cannot mask a sense of frustration and helplessness.

``They've got the little guy over a barrel,'' says George Drew, who moved here two months ago to escape the cold winters in Hot Springs, S.D. ``Everything is money today. If you don't have money you're out of luck.''

Mr. Drew, a retired musician and ranch hand (``I'm an old cowboy''), lives on social security ($247) and a VA pension ($214).

``Whatever they raise the COLA, they take off VA benefits,'' he says. ``It's not helping a bit. When you get a raise at one end they cut it off at the other end.'' But, he adds, ``I get enough to get by if I watch every nickel.''

Even among those who are not dependent on social security, a COLA often becomes an important symbol of security and support, a buffer against real or imagined fears of indigence.

``The older people get, [the more] they worry about the poorhouse -- `Will I have enough money so I won't have to worry about the poorhouse?' '' says John Dann, a former General Motors employee who retired here from Buffalo, N.Y. ``People are just afraid. When you talk the COLA freeze, they're afraid, no matter what they have.''

Some of those fears, the Sunshine Center's Mr. Buchert finds, stem from the same generational pride and independence that lie at the heart of their strength. Retirees become especially anxious, he says, ``if they don't feel they have enough money to handle medical bills. It would be intolerable for them to incur a bill they couldn't pay.''

To hear these stories of what happens when people outlive their resources -- their savings, their pensions, their spouses -- is to put in perspective the increasingly popular myth of the ``wealthy elderly.'' It is also to realize that there are other, equally important needs of older Americans -- needs that social security and medicare cannot meet.

``The major problem is loneliness,'' says Mr. Buchert. ``That has absolutely nothing to do with income.'' Some retirees speak wistfully of adult children in distant cities, busy with their own lives or indifferent to their aging parents. Others while away long hours alone in parks, senior centers, and shopping malls, periodically checking their watches or talking with anyone willing to share a seat or a table.

For now, though, the prevailing mood on those park benches and front porches and shuffleboard courts remains one of cautious optimism, coupled with quiet appreciation for social security -- appreciation that sometimes gets lost in the political debate over proposed changes in the system.

On the whole this is a generation still ill at ease with the welfare state, a generation still thinking in old-fashioned, disapproving terms like ``handout'' and ``something for nothing'' -- a generation still living by stern, proud values acquired in the depression.

``I am well satisfied with social security,'' Mr. Reisner says, echoing the sentiments of many recipients, ``if they would only keep the prices from going up.''

Long after the next increase has been voted in, or voted down, the debate over COLAs will continue. But even among those who don't need extra money there is general agreement that any freeze would cast long shadows over many lives in the Sunshine State -- and everywhere else across the country.

``There are just too many people who have nothing but social security,'' says Mr. Dann, summing up.

``How are you going to live on $300 to $400 a month?'' Where is COLA now?

As the House and Senate meet this week to resolve differences on the 1986 federal budget, social security remains one of the most divisive issues. The Senate plan eliminates the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for one year, then allows full cost-of-living increases for the following two years. The House version gives full cost-of-living increases. After conferees arrive at a compromise measure on COLA and other issues, the revised budget goes back to both houses for approval. 30{et

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