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Whitehouse Urges Extra Help for Seniors

As Prepared for Delivery

Mr. President, as I travel throughout my state, I have heard from countless Rhode Islanders about the sacrifices they've made during these difficult economic times. Many have adjusted to the economic climate by cutting back on extras and finding savings where they can.

For seniors living on a limited budget, however, simply cutting back is a harsh option. In 2008, Rhode Islanders on Social Security received an average monthly payment of about $1,130. I've heard from seniors who worry about keeping the heat on in their homes because oil prices are so high. I've heard from others who are splitting pills and skipping doses because they cannot afford to refill a prescription. These are seniors who have worked hard their whole lives, paid into the system, and believed that they would be able to grow old comfortably. Instead, many are barely scraping by on Social Security benefits that no longer cover their daily living expenses. For these seniors, every penny counts.

This past year, for the first time since 1975, Social Security recipients did not receive a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA. It appears that they will not receive a COLA in 2011 either. Now, I know that these yearly adjustments are dictated by a specific formula tied to inflation. And I know that, because of the slow economy, inflation has been stagnant over the past two years. But I also know that this rigid mathematical formula cannot possibly take into account the human impact of a Social Security check that doesn't go as far as it once did.

This formula can't take into account the hardship placed on people like Chuck, a 67 year old retiree from North Providence, Rhode Island. Chuck wrote to me recently to express his concern that his monthly Social Security income may be frozen at its current level for yet another year. He told me that, regardless of what the COLA formula has concluded, his cost of living continues to rise. Chuck says, "Prices have risen at the supermarkets... Medications have also increased in co-payments... Today, I'm paying more and getting less for the dollar."

Mr. President, I believe Chuck speaks for many American seniors when he expresses concern about the lack of an increase in Social Security payments. So today, I rise in support of the Emergency Senior Citizens Relief Act, introduced by my colleague Senator Sanders of Vermont. This bill would help ease the strain on the budgets of our seniors by providing a special, one-time payment in 2011 of $250 to all Social Security recipients.

Although a $250 payment may not sound like much to some, for those on a limited budget, the extra financial assistance provides a little peace of mind amid skyrocketing health care and prescription drug costs. And for seniors in New England, the payment can help keep the heat on through the approaching winter.

And this assistance would not be unprecedented. While this was the first year in decades that seniors did not receive a COLA, we have taken steps in recent years to provide special help to seniors and disabled Americans struggling through the recession. In 2008 I worked with my colleagues to secure a $300 rebate for seniors and SSDI recipients in that year's Economic Stimulus Act. In 2009 we again worked to make sure that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included a one-time $250 payment to seniors and SSDI recipients. We now have the chance to once again lend a helping hand to our seniors.

Passing this bill would be the right thing to do for our seniors, but it's also the right thing for our struggling economy. In Rhode Island, for example, the payments would inject more than $51 million into our economy - money that would quickly be spent on essential items like food and medicine.

Mr. President, my state is hurting: unemployment stands at 11.4 percent; gas is now more than $3 per gallon; and our seniors face yet another year of frozen Social Security payments. By passing the Emergency Senior Citizens Relief Act, we can show our seniors that they are not forgotten, and, in turn, provide a valuable boost to the grocery stores, pharmacies, and shopping centers that remain such an integral part of our economy.

I urge my colleagues to join me in standing by our nation's seniors, and to support the Emergency Senior Citizens Relief Act. I thank the chair and I yield the floor.