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Millions on Social Security are hurt by low gasoline prices

When the price of gasoline goes down, Donald and Fran Shoemaker take a hit in their pocketbook, too.

They say that’s not fair. He’s 90, and she’s 88, and neither drives much anymore. They own a 1991 Toyota Corolla with 111,000 miles on it, and live on the $2,029 they receive every month from Social Security, money they say doesn’t go too far.

The Shoemakers, who married in 1948 and live in Lacey, Washington, are among the more than 65 million retirees, veterans and Americans with disabilities who will receive an average raise of $5 a month in their Social Security checks – or 0.3 percent – in 2017. It’s a bump from this year, when they got no raise at all.

“This $5 increase is a joke,” said Donald Shoemaker, a World War II veteran and retired property manager. “I just don’t understand it.”

There’s one big reason: Energy prices have declined in recent years, holding down the consumer price index, which determines the annual cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security recipients.

Retirees and their allies in Congress, including Democratic Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Charles Schumer of New York, say the cost of gasoline and energy is too heavily weighted in the index, especially since seniors drive relatively little.

“I don’t think it should be tied to gas prices at all,” said Linda Barker, a retired accountant from Olympia, who gets $1,268 a month in Social Security and doesn’t drive her 2007 Toyota much these days.

She called the $5 raise “ridiculous” and said it doesn’t reflect reality, with the monthly rent on her two-bedroom apartment increasing $300 in the past five years to $923, not including utilities.

The issue promises to become increasingly difficult for Congress, faced with a federal debt rapidly approaching $20 trillion and many seniors who are living longer and struggling to get by.

Barker now qualifies for low-income housing and plans to move next year. In the meantime, she said, she baby-sits 10 to 15 hours a week to earn extra spending money.

“It gives me the opportunity to get my hair done if I want to,” Barker said.

So far, members of Congress have rejected calls to make any changes in the formulas that determine the annual cost-of-living raises for retirees.

That’s a disappointment to Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., who has pushed for a separate cost-of-living index for the elderly that would lead to bigger annual raises for Social Security recipients. She said the formula for cost-of-living adjustments for seniors should give more weight to the cost of prescription drugs and housing.

“Their costs are going up and they’re falling further behind in terms of being able to pay their bills,” DelBene said. “Especially in a region like ours, where housing costs are going up very, very quickly, the cost-of-living adjustment isn’t reflecting what’s happening.”

As a temporary fix, Murray and Schumer proposed a one-time $581 emergency payment for those collecting Social Security. A similar proposal last year went nowhere.

The 2017 cost-of-living adjustment will increase the average monthly payment for retirees from $1,355 to $1,360 per month.

“It’s almost ridiculous – I mean why bother?” Barker said. “I don’t have the answer, but it needs to be fixed. Something needs to be done. People are living longer and prices are always going up – they’re not going down.”

Barker said her total monthly income is just under $2,000, thanks to her status as a “military wife,” with her Social Security supplemented by a survivor’s benefit she received when her husband died. But with more than half of her income going to pay for rent and utilities, she’s worried that she won’t be able to pay for a 75,000-mile checkup for her car. She said she’s planning to keep the vehicle for the rest of her life but is walking more.

“If I don’t have to drive, I don’t,” Barker said.

Fran Shoemaker is happy their three-bedroom house is paid for, saying the couple would be “in deep doo-doo” if they had to make mortgage payments. But she frets over what will happen if she outlives her husband Donald – he gets $1,227 a month in Social Security, while she receives $802.

“If he dies, I’m in deep trouble,” she said.

Donald Shoemaker said he’s hoping that members of Congress figure out how to increase Social Security payments and stop calling them “entitlements.”

“Every time I hear that, I think, you know, we’ve been paying into this Social Security thing forever,” he said. “I’ve always felt that that money belonged to us.”

For now, he said, he’s got a good mechanic to help keep the couple’s 25-year-old Toyota running.

“The only ones that I see driving newer vehicles are the younger people who work,” he said.


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