First in line for the Monday morning rush, Gelacio Rillera, sits in his lawn chair at the top of the stairs of the Mission District’s Social Security office, waiting for the doors to open at 9:00 a.m. He’s there on a summons; the state supplement to his social security check is going to be cut. Again.
Like 1.5 million Californians, Rillera’s state supplement has been cut twice this year, and another is on the way.Rillera, still sitting in front of the grey stone social security office at Valencia and 22nd streets, said he’d be
disappointed if his check is reduced. “I only have a little over $750 dollars to survive each month,” he added.
Long known for its generosity, California’s contribution to the federal social security program will have fallen anywhere from 18 to 33 percent by the end of the year. In the last six months, alone, cuts came in May and July and a third will hit in November.
The state checks, known as State Supplementary Payments, or SSP, have been around since 1976 and augment the federal supplemental security program. The national program was instated in 1935, and now gives the disabled, elderly, or blind a monthly base income—$674 for individuals and $1,011 for couples. It is different than social security because recipients have not paid into a fund.
All but five states offer a supplement.
In California, the purchasing power of the state grants “has been declining for the last 20 years,” said Scott Graves, a senior policy analyst at the California Budget Project. This year “the loss of purchasing power is accelerating and will further undermine recipients’ ability to make ends meet.”
For those waiting outside on Valencia Street, the state checks keep getting smaller—a year ago some individuals got $233, now their check is $176 or 25 percent less. For a couple that once received $568, the check is down to $396.20—30 percent less.
Even before these cuts, the purchasing power of state supplemental security checks had already dropped by nearly 25 percent since 1990.
Cuts to the state supplement aren’t the only bad budgetary news for the elderly, blind or disabled. In July of this year, the state slashed $1.4 billion from its Medicaid program, Medi-Cal.
As the recession continues, and budgets dwindle, more and more individuals are looking to state Medicaid programs for care. Enrollment spiked to 5.4 percent in the 2009 fiscal year—surpassing the last six year’s conscription rates to the program, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s annual report on Medicaid and the Uninsured. 2010 is no different, with rates expected to rise some 6.6 percent. What does all this mean? More people enrolled in a service that is already hurting.
Over at the social security building, Rillera, said he’s already felt the impact, and self-medicates instead of going to the doctor.
“I take aspirin. I’m afraid, now, the doctor’s bill will be too much,” said Rillera, whose Medi-Cal was cut in July.
And, at Mission’s Capp Street Senior Center, Zoila Rodriguez, an 85-year-old who moved to the states from El Salvador in 1997, said the smaller checks mean she notices things like the batteries in her hearing aid running out.
“They run out quickly,” she said. “And then there’s the milk, cereal, and medicines, some things I just can’t buy anymore.”
Rodriguez visits the Capp Senior Center Monday through Friday, along with nearly 50 other seniors in search of an affordable meal.
On a recent Thursday, the $1.50 fee bought a glass of milk, fried fish, coleslaw, rice and a side of grapes.
Elena Raygosa, 71, said she manages on her husband’s pension from the janitor’s union, but her friends are suffering. “When their check gets cut they have to go back to work to survive,” she said.
Seventy-year- old Feme Hernandez is one of those who had to return to work —hard hit by recent cuts to his state supplement and Medi-Cal.
“Two months ago I had to go back to work, because with the cuts, I couldn’t afford my medicine.” Hernandez now works part time as a mechanic.
The $1.4 billion in cuts left many of his cohort without services such as dental, optometry, and hearing services.
Already, California spends less than any other state per Medi-Cal recipient, totaling $5,695 compared to a
U.S. average of $7,534, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“My kids can’t help me, they’re struggling too,” said Hernandez who lives in a boarding house on South Van Ness and still manages to send home money to his 100-year-old mother in Nicaragua. “I don’t want to die of hunger.”
“I’ll work as long as I have to but with my heart the way it is, I’m going to go earlier,” he said, unbuttoning his shirt to reveal a jagged glossy scar.
“It’s logical,” chimed in a chorus of lunching seniors, “now things are more expensive, and they are cutting people’s checks, of course they have to try to find work.”
Over his plate of fried fish, Fidel Andrade, 85, explained that he rents rooms in his apartment to cover his own rent. His supplement check has been cut by $50. “If they cut it any more they’ll give me a lot of trouble,” he said, “I depend on that supplement.”
“There are so many expenses, gas, electricity—without renters I wouldn’t be able to survive.”
Still sitting on the steps of the Social Security Building, Rillera stared out at Valencia Street, waiting for the jingling keys of the security guard to open the door. “God will provide,” he said.
“I have to have faith that my wife and I will survive.”