Like nearly one out of five California retirees, Gerri Goncalves relies almost exclusively on Social Security to buy her groceries, pay her bills and provide for the necessities of life.
She worries about her Social Security benefits keeping pace with inflation, especially after receiving no cost-of-living adjustments in 2009 and 2010.
"It hurts when they don't have the usual increases," said the 70-year-old grandmother of three. "You adjust by just not spending as much, and if I happen to have a little less money toward the end of the month, my daughters help out."
California has the most people of any state receiving Social Security (nearly 5 million) and Medicare (about 4.5 million). The average Medicare beneficiary spends $6,400 — one-fifth of his or her income — on out-of-pocket health care costs.
Many of these recipients and people nearing retirement fear financial uncertainty because of projected funding shortfalls in both programs. With Congress expected to address the issue after the election, AARP California is asking its 3 million members for their views on how to strengthen Social Security and Medicare at a series of You've Earned a Say events.
In addition to using traditional town hall meetings, where participants gather in person to voice their views, and tele-town halls, in which thousands can participate via telephone, AARP has posted a You've Earned a Say online questionnaire to ensure the widest possible participation. The information compiled will be shared, not just with members, but with elected officials, candidates for office and decision makers.
"This is a new approach compared with what we've done in the past," said David Pacheco, AARP California state president. "The You've Earned a Say initiative is about listening to our members, then amplifying their voices to the candidates as the election approaches. With the future of Social Security and Medicare at stake, 50-plus Americans must have a voice in the national discussion, and AARP intends to make sure their voices are heard loud and clear."
If nothing is done, Medicare's hospital trust fund is expected to be exhausted in 2024. Social Security can pay promised benefits through 2033 with no changes to the system. After that, it could pay just 75 percent of promised benefits.
Congressional and presidential candidates have suggested numerous changes, including increasing the amount of income that is taxed for Social Security, raising the eligibility age and changing the annual cost-of-living adjustments.
Cuts have consequences
For recipients like Goncalves, any reduction or loss of cost-of-living increases poses significant challenges. After she had a heart attack in 1995, Goncalves was forced to take early retirement from her job as a health insurance claims agent, which left her less time to save for retirement.
Other unexpected expenses eventually depleted her retirement savings, she said, leaving her dependent on Social Security and her family. Out of her monthly Social Security benefit, she pays $34 per month for a Medicare Advantage plan. She said she can't live alone because of her health problems. So she lives with one of her two daughters in Elk Grove and spends weekends at the other's home in Sacramento.
Goncalves knows that many other older people aren't as fortunate.
"I cannot tell you how many seniors are scared they are going to lose their Social Security, and they definitely rely on it," Goncalves said. "They are saying they don't know how they are going to make it. They are afraid they will end up on the street."
Also of interest: AARP CEO A. Barry Rand says you deserve a voice in the debate.
Laura Mecoy is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.