The recent decision to forgo a national cost-of-living increase for recipients of Social Security ignores life’s realities for local recipients.
“It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Phyllis Reynolds tells me. The 73-year-old Central District resident doesn’t mince words.
I am speaking with her about — of all things — cheap gas. Why? Because that’s the main reason that there will be no cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for Social Security recipients next year. The COLA is tied to inflation, and rock-bottom prices at the pump mean that consumer costs have gone down from last year — at least according to the way the government measures them.
But gas prices don’t matter much to Reynolds, who is among the more than 200,000 retired workers in King County who receive Social Security. “Even if I could afford a car, I wouldn’t have one. A lot of seniors don’t drive much,” she says. Reynolds relies on Seattle Senior Service’s Hyde Shuttles for transportation.
Data back up her claim. According to Nielsen Scarborough market research, Seattle-area seniors average 41 percent fewer road miles traveled per week than adults under 65. Seniors here are also less likely to own or lease a vehicle than any other age group.
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And don’t even try to tell Reynolds there’s been no inflation. “I know my costs have gone up,” she says. Rent on her apartment, which eats up half her income, increased this year. So have her grocery bills. And she expects her utilities to go up next year.
Reynolds is hardly the only senior who is ticked off about the COLA announcement.
“Yes, we’ve been hearing from our members,” says Jason Erskine, the communications director for AARP Washington. “Social Security recipients spend more of their monthly budget on health care, food and housing than do younger workers, and all three of those categories have experienced meaningful price increases over the past year.”
The average Washington beneficiary receives $1,298 a month from Social Security.
According to census data, nearly one in four households in the Seattle-Tacoma area receives Social Security income. That’s a lot, but it’s still the lowest percentage for any area in the state. In Port Angeles, 46.5 percent receive benefits — that ranks as the 19th highest for any metro area in the U.S.
Analysis of census-tract data shows there is one area of King County where more than half of households receive Social Security — two “adult-living” communities are located in this part of unincorporated Union Hill-Novelty Hill, east of Redmond. That’s an affluent area, where most residents probably don’t depend entirely on Social Security to make ends meet. But in one Auburn census tract where 49 percent of households receive benefits, the median household income is just $22,000 per year.
As for Phyllis Reynolds, she considers herself fortunate. She worked for the federal government and now receives a pension. Although she has a tight budget, Social Security is still supplemental. “I may have to cut back, but I can always find a way to live within my means,” she says.
But for a lot of her friends and neighbors — and her sister, Mary Jo, who also lives in the neighborhood — Social Security is all they’ve got.
“No COLA — that makes a big difference. It’s going to hurt a lot of people,” she says. “Folks still gotta live.”