WASHINGTON (AP) — Cassandra Gentry, 70, is looking forward to a hefty increase in the cost of living on her Social Security benefits — not for herself, but to pay for her two grandchildren’s haircuts and put food on the table.
The three live in a Washington apartment building that houses 50 “extended families” — where grandparents look after children whose parents aren’t home.
Gentry, who has taken in her grandchildren to keep them in a safe environment, says the increase in benefits will help her make ends meet. “When I was working, I never thought about making contributions to social security, but now I depend on it,” said the communications pensioner. “I depend on my Social Security to take care of these kids.”
The Social Security cost-of-living adjustment, also known as COLA, for 2023 is expected to be around 9% or even higher, the highest in 40 years, analysts estimate. That will be announced on Thursday morning.
Not only old people will benefit from this. About 4 million children receive benefits, and countless others are also helped because they are cared for by Social Security recipients, sometimes their grandparents.
The impact will be immense, especially for low-income retirees like Gentry, who is feeling the painful sting of high food and energy costs while caring for an adolescent 12-year-old granddaughter and 16-year-old grandson. “They eat everything,” she joked.
She said the financial boost “is going to help us, and it’s going to be an advantage because the cost of everything has gone up.”
High inflation remains a drag on the broader economy, prompting the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates in hopes of cooling high prices.
But in many ways, inflation is hitting older Americans harder than the rest of the population. Medical costs make up a large part of the burden.
Coupled with a reduction in the Medicare Part B premium, Social Security COLA will put more money into the hands of the 70 million Americans who receive benefits, including the growing number of extended families like Gentry’s. According to the 2020 US Census, approximately 2.4 million grandparents were responsible for their grandchildren.
That number has grown exponentially since the government introduced a “relative caregiver” approach to child care, which focuses on keeping children in families with their next of kin, as opposed to foster families.
And while Social Security is generally viewed as a program for older Americans, it is, in turn, the nation’s largest child support program.
Since the pandemic, social security for children has become even more important as “COVID has taken a toll on many parents,” said Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings Metro, which is part of the Brookings Institution, and CEO of Global Policy Solutions, a social change strategy company.
The National Institutes of Health reported last October that at least 140,000 US children under the age of 18 have lost a parent or legal guardian to COVID.
Cummings says she estimates the actual number is much higher. “We should understand that increasing COLA will have net positive benefits for the entire household – not just for older family members,” she said.
Gentry advocates for grandparents raising their grandchildren and the building where her family lives is stretched to capacity. She said many of the grandparents, who are African American and support each other in their close-knit community, rely solely on Social Security for their income.
A study by Global Policy Solutions shows that African American children are the most in need of the extra help from Social Security benefits.
According to the US Office of Personnel Management, grandparents who live in poverty are 60% more likely than grandparents who do not raise grandchildren.
The Child Tax Credit program, expanded during the pandemic, has helped tens of millions of children and their families and contributed to a 46% drop in child poverty since 2020, according to a September census report.
But that program has ended and there are already signs that child poverty is increasing.
Nancy Altman, co-director of Social Security Works, an advocacy group, said, “The benefits in many other federal programs are eroding — but COLA makes Social Security unique.”
“And for the children who receive Social Security benefits,” both directly and indirectly, “low-income children benefit the most,” she said.
William Arnone, executive director of the National Academy of Social Insurance, a social security advocacy group, said while the expected COLA “is generous, it’s just a catch-up” for many older Americans, who are often more affected by the price increases caused by inflation, especially grandparents looking after grandchildren.
“All generations benefit from social security,” said Arnone.
Gentry said she hopes more extended family communities like hers will pop up across the country so residents can support one another when resources aren’t readily available.
She said she would also like to see more federal programs consider grandparents like her in policy decisions.
“I always say our grandparents are heroes because we intervened when nobody else would have,” she said. “And we did the job.”
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