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Decades-Old Rule Caps Senior Citizens' Stipend

Lifestyle: Change is sought in $20 personal spending allotment for 6,000 retirement home residents in the state.

July 22, 2002|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

All Esther Gold says she wants to do is to live out her life with dignity.

"I'd like to be able to go out for an occasional lunch. But I've got to buy toothpaste, Kleenex, hearing-aid batteries. I haven't been shopping for clothes in two years. I've been wearing the same shoes for four years."

Gold, a 98-year-old retirement home resident, is among 6,000 Californians caught up in a bureaucratic fight over cost-of-living allowances for senior citizens.

Under a decades-old formula that establishes the "poverty level" for retirees, Gold and other low-income retirement home residents receive $20 a month to spend on "personal items," such as their own telephones, clothing, taxi rides, movie tickets and haircuts. Other senior citizens are allocated $103 a month for such incidentals.

The personal spending allowance is paid with federal Supplemental Security Income funding administered through the state. But the amount depends on which side of the poverty level line the recipient is on. Currently the line is set at $939. Those whose monthly income from Social Security or other sources is below that receive the full $103 allocation. Those with higher incomes get $20.

At the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda where Gold and 100 others live, that means many seniors have come to view periodic Social Security payment increases with dread.

"My roommate will go over the $939 mark by a few dollars the next time Social Security increases, and she will lose $83," said Norma Linn, 81, who has already crossed the line and is among those struggling to get by on $20 a month. "I've never felt so poor in my life."

Most of those living at the home never see their Social Security money--it goes directly to offset the cost of their residential care. But they are in tears when they find out that their monthly spending money is being cut by 80%, said Molly Forrest, the home's chief executive officer.

Forrest said the home forwarded the full allotment to all low-income residents until about two years ago, when state officials told her such payments violated the law.

State legislation in 1972 set the $20 limit. At the time, Forrest said, that was considered a sufficient monthly personal spending allowance for Medi-Cal recipients.

These days, the withheld money goes to help pay recipients' housing costs. Since the cash cutoff, the 70 Reseda retirees affected by it have steadily lobbied Sacramento officials to update the 30-year-old stipend rule so it better reflects the current cost of living.

"It's a struggle living on $20 a month. I don't go out where I have to spend a lot of money. My niece and nephew in Woodland Hills are nice--they'll invite me over for a meal or a movie and I always accept," said 90-year-old Jules Berlinsky, who has lived at the home for seven years. "But there are people here in deep trouble who have no family around to help them. They just sit here day after day."

Resident Sivian Zaiden wrote state Assembly leaders last year to argue for a larger stipend. She found she could not use a prescription for $10.55 medicine because she paid her $13.21 phone bill and had only $6.79 left for the month.

"I watch my telephone bill like a hawk--I fought one time to get a 96-cent overcharge refunded," said Zaiden, who described herself as "way over 65" and her monthly Social Security income from a career as a bookkeeper as less than $1,000. "I'm spending my years now in agony, counting my pennies. I worked hard all my life to increase my Social Security benefits. I never expected this."

Forrest tries to keep residents' spirits up and encourages them to write lawmakers in Washington. In February, Sacramento legislators approved an amendment to California's Medi-Cal rules that would allow for $103 payments.

"Now it's in Washington's hands," Forrest said. "I think we have a 50-50 chance at best. But having to choose between going to the movies or getting a haircut is a very tragic choice to have to make."

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