DeLauro, seniors talk social security

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NAUGATUCK — When Kathryn Green started collecting signatures on a “Hands Off Our Social Security” petition, she hoped to publicize the concerns she held, along with so many others, about the health of Social Security.

600 signatures later, Green’s efforts paid off when the petition managed to catch the eye of Congresswoman Rosa. L. DeLauro, third-district Democratic representative for Connecticut.

DeLauro spoke to Social Security concerns and on other national matters at the Naugatuck Senior Center on Friday, and dozens, including Mayor Bob Mezzo and Second Deputy Mayor Tamath Rossi, turned out to pick her brain on the issues.

DeLauro thanked seniors for their willingness to “exercise democracy” and their success on “making a difference.”

“I hear you,” she said emphatically. “You’re not doing this in a vacuum where no one is listening.”

Seniors’ concerns about Social Security ranged from fears that the system would fail entirely and not exist for future generations to complaints that the agency doesn’t pay out enough to anxiety over the arduous process of applying for benefits.

“Medicare … is about providing people dignity and respect … it makes me sad to know this is being lost,” DeLauro said.

She quoted her 95-year-old mother, who said, “These are supposed to be the golden years, but they feel like the lead years.”

One recently-retired woman in her mid-60s, who did not want to be named for privacy reasons, said she injured a lumbar disc several years before retirement and could not work—but she had to apply three times over a four to five years for disability benefits, and eventually had to hire a lawyer.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” she said of the system. “The [Social Security Administration] leaves us up the creek without a paddle” when we don’t get an increase in benefits, she said, as the cost of living indexes always seem to nip at the heels of inflation.

The retiree now lives on about $890 a month in benefits, adding up to $10,680 a year.

The 2009 poverty threshold for a single person is $10,830 a year.

A bill proposed on Apr. 19, 2007 called the Consumer Price Index for Elderly Consumers Act (H.R. 1953) would compute a separate monthly consumer price index (CPI) for seniors that would then be used to calculate specific cost-of-living and adjust Social Security and Medicare benefits accordingly. The bill has seen no action since July 9, 2007, when it was referred to the Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Communities, but DeLauro said she’d dedicate “100 percent of [her] time-effort over the next several months” to a cost of living adjustment.

In addition, the 2010 fiscal year saw a ten percent increase from the 2009 fiscal year in federal funding to the Social Security Administration. The $11.4 billion allotment allowed the hiring of some 1,600 new SSA employees, which would in theory increase productivity and speed up turnaround—“so [the SSA] can better handle claims,” DeLauro said.

DeLauro voiced her support for the health care reform plans propagated mostly by President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress, saying that the strategies proposed would “strengthen Medicare” and eliminate co-pays on preventative care.

She said good health care reform should “shift power from pharmaceutical and insurance companies and put it back in the hands of the people.

But once DeLauro mentioned big business, the seniors in attendance shifted gears.

Many complained about the lack of accountability in the Senate Banking Committee, government bailouts enjoyed by companies like AIG over the last year, and outsourcing.

DeLauro assured everyone present that she “spends a lot of time trying to curb executive pay and outrageous bonuses,” especially in companies that received federal money.

Referring to the $165 million in bonuses the company announced in March, she said, “What we’ve seen at AIG and some of these places is disgusting … most of those executives didn’t lose a dime.”

One senior countered with the pointed question, “Did [Connecticut Senator] Chris Dodd lose a dime?”

Dodd reportedly collected $160,000 in donations from employees of the AIG Financial Products Division in Wilton. Conn. in 2006 and 2007 after AIG executive Joseph Cassano advised them to donate to Dodd, as he was “next in line” to chair the Senate Banking Committee. Dodd also had a hand in inserting the loophole into stimulus legislation which allowed for the AIG bonuses.

DeLauro chalked up problems in big business to deregulation in the Bush, Jr. era, which “brought us to our financial knees … when you allow self-regulation, you do so at great peril.”

“But you just can’t blame everything on the last guy,” one senior said angrily.

DeLauro tried to spread responsibility over many administrations and across parties, saying the problem was “years in the making.”

Speaking to concerns over outsourcing, DeLauro said she is working to “close loopholes in the tax code that allow companies to go offshore and take their jobs with them,” adding that outsourcing is a problem for Social Security and Medicare as well, as U.S. contractors working offshore or overseas avoid payroll taxes—thus avoiding payments into Social Security and Medicare accounts.

Naugatuck Mayor Bob Mezzo said DeLauro was addressing “important issues,” saying “behind that nice, humble demeanor is one of our most effective lawmakers.”

At the Senior Center, life went on as usual as DeLauro departed. Bingo cards were distributed, and seniors turned back to their respective card games and conversations.