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Benefits: Elderly Manage, Children Hurt : Senior Citizens Hold Their Own as Aid Remains Largely Unscathed

February 03, 1986|MAURA DOLAN and ROBERT A. ROSENBLATT | Times Staff Writers

NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — For Vernon and Lenora Anderson, Tuesday prayer meetings and Wednesday Bible classes help break the monotony, the long days of television and naps and visits to the doctor.

Lenora, 79, does the cooking and cleaning in spite of painful arthritis. And at times when Vernon, 83, a stroke victim who can walk only a few steps without help, needs extra medical treatments, their budget will go through the kind of temporary crisis that means the grocery bill may not be paid on time.

"We ain't hungry or anything like that," Lenora said. "Of course, there's a lot of things we could use that we don't have. But as far as suffering, no, we're not."

For that they can thank their combined Social Security income of $759 a month, coupled with their federally subsidized rental apartment. For the retired butcher and his wife, as for millions of other elderly Americans, the monthly checks from Washington provide the foundation for a decent--if straitened--standard of living.

Although the "Reagan revolution" has slowed the growth of government spending, the big social insurance programs for the elderly--Social Security and Medicare--have survived relatively unscathed.

Lenora, a retired inspector at a wine bottling plant, says President Reagan has not made much difference to her and her husband. "I don't see that we're any worse or any better," she said. "We're holding our own."

Yet if that sounds like a meager accomplishment, the Andersons and the elderly as a group have fared better than most other financially vulnerable segments of the population--especially the nation's impoverished children, whose aid programs have been cut substantially during the Reagan years.

In 1980, the year before President Reagan took office, Washington spent $153.5 billion, or 27% of its budget, for the two mammoth programs, which benefit virtually all Americans 65 and older regardless of income. For this fiscal year, expenditures should hit $269.4 billion, or 28% of total outlays, and the fiscal 1987 budget that Reagan will propose to Congress Wednesday is expected to continue the trend.

'Right to Be Protected'

"People pay in and earn the right to be protected," said John Rother, legislative director for the 20-million-member American Assn. of Retired Persons.

Life still isn't easy for millions of elderly persons struggling with limited incomes and rising medical bills. But automatic annual raises in Social Security benefits enable the 36 million recipients to keep pace with inflation. For the first time in American history, the poverty rate for the elderly--12.4%--is less than the rate for the general population.

Without Social Security, the Andersons of North Little Rock would be destitute. Lenora pointed to a drawer in her coffee table where she keeps her Social Security checks. "This is all I have, honey," she said. "That's every penny I have coming in."

Lenora receives $286 a month from Social Security and Vernon gets $473--that is their entire income. He was "a very good butcher" for 40 years, his wife boasted, but receives no private pension. The Andersons have neither a savings nor a checking account. When there are bills to pay, Lenora buys money orders.

"By the time I pay my bills, I don't have anything left," said Lenora, a plump woman with short, reddish-brown hair and round, pink glasses. "I don't see any reason to go out and trouble with a bank."

40 Years as Butcher

On a recent Saturday, Lenora wore slacks and a neat, striped blouse tied at the neck, and Vernon, a tall, lean, white-haired man with piercing blue eyes, wore slacks and a tie. In his shirt pocket were several pens and pencils. He doesn't use them anymore but got accustomed to having them in his pocket during 40 years of writing meat orders.

Lenora said Vernon has lost his memory, and the doctor has warned her not to leave him alone much because he might fall and hurt himself. "The doctor didn't know whether he could give us anything (for) him," she said. "But you see, they don't know all that much. I've still got him."

Lenora usually cooks vegetables and a meat loaf--or sometimes pork chops or sausages--for dinner. "We have some kind of meat every day," she said, nodding to her husband, "because he likes his meat. If he doesn't get it, he doesn't eat."

The household expenses every month include, according to Lenora's best guess, $199 for the apartment, $165 for groceries, $55 for medicine, $18 for the telephone, $5 for a newspaper subscription and $22.58 for an insurance policy that will pay for their burial in Bald Knob, a rural community 150 miles away where Vernon was born.

Lenora said she doesn't allow herself to think about what life would be like if her Social Security benefits were cut.

That nearly happened in 1982, when the Social Security trust fund was rapidly running out of money. Benefits, rising with double-digit inflation, were growing faster than the tax revenues generated by a sluggish economy.

Rescue Package

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