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Elderly New Yorkers Angry as Crisis Hits Poorest

by Claudia Parsons

NEW YORK - From housebound grandmothers who relay on charity meal deliveries, to ailing retirees who cannot pay rising costs for medications, older Americans feeling the pinch of the financial crisis are getting angry and forming groups with names like "Senior Outrage."

Sylvia Merlin, 93, who lives near Philadelphia, is among those who have been unable to sell and move to retirement communities. (Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times) In New York, with city and state tax revenues tumbling, benefits and services to the elderly are being cut, and many older residents are furiously drawing comparisons to the billions of dollars spent to bail out banks -- and pay Wall Street bonuses.

Dolores Green, 68, retired as a home help worker and lives on a government Social Security check of $740 a month. She pays $719 a month in rent, leaving just $21 for everything else.

To eat, she relies on the federal food stamp assistance program, and worries that her cost for some medication she needs for her diabetes has gone up to $8 from $3.

To get by, she said: "I run errands for seniors. They may hand me $2 or $3 or something."

Green says she sees more people seeking government assistance, such as her daughter, who lost her job after 25 years.

"She's just applied for food stamps, she's got two kids," Green told Reuters at a community center where some 25 elderly New Yorkers were eating a lunch of sandwiches, a gelatin dessert, milk and tomato juice. "That's why she can't help me, because she's got to help her children."

"Maybe I'll move in with you," she jokes to her friend Alice Jordan, 80, a retired teacher who suffers from osteoporosis and high blood pressure.

Jordan said her food stamp allocation had gradually eroded to $54 a month from $180.

When she reads about the well-heeled victims of financier Bernard Madoff's suspected $50 billion Ponzi scheme, she says she wishes they would spare a thought for those who never had such wealth.

"Just like this guy Madoff ripped them off, how did they feel when they lost their money and had to change their style of living? Think of us. ... How do you think we feel?" she asked.

BIG BUDGET GAPS

New York City's Department for the Aging, which runs more than 300 community centers for aging residents and provides services such as food delivery to the homebound, affordable housing and heating subsidies, has cut its 2009 budget by $4 million to $285 million and faces another proposed cut, of $9.5 million, in 2010.

The cuts are part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's bid to close a $4 billion city budget gap caused by the collapse of corporate tax revenues, especially from Wall Street, which normally pumps a fortune into local coffers.

New York state, which typically gets 20 percent of its revenues from Wall Street taxes, also is proposing cuts in health care and services for the elderly as part of a drive to close a $13 billion 2009 budget gap.

Among the proposals is a cut in the state contribution to the Federal Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, for elderly, blind or disabled people with little or no other income.

Parvati Devi, 62, says that would cut her SSI check by $24. "I can't afford to have anything cut," she said. "We collect cans on the street, we do anything to survive."

A couple of hundred retirees attended a forum with New York city and state officials this month to express their anger at cuts they say are hitting the most vulnerable people hardest.

"We are outraged that the government, which has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out financial institutions -- and they in turn have given $18 billion as bonuses to their top executives -- has no funds to support vital services for their senior citizens," said Muriel Beach, New York City head of the State Wide Senior Action Council.

State Wide and other groups formed the "Senior Outrage Coalition" this month to mobilize protest among the city's 1.3 million citizens aged 65 and over.

"We are of a generation that fought in the sixties," she said. "We're out there doing it again."

City figures show that in 2006, one-fifth of New Yorkers age 65 and older lived in poverty, twice the national average. Advocacy groups say by now it is closer to one-third, and New York is second only to Detroit among major U.S. cities in its rate of poverty among the elderly.

Moreover, the federal poverty guidelines for 2008, $10,400 for a single person and $14,000 for a couple, are so low that many who are in need do not qualify for most public benefits.

Minorities tend to fare worst, with 30 percent of Hispanic, 29 percent of Asian and 20 percent of elderly blacks in poverty compared with 13 percent of elderly whites in New York City.

A formidable crowd despite walkers, canes and wheelchairs, many at the forum vented rage at lavish bonuses being paid on Wall Street.

Richard Gottfried, a state assemblyman, said while they might have been pleased to hear that six top executives at investment bank Goldman Sachs gave up their bonuses last year, the tax on their bonuses alone put $12 million into the state budget in 2007.

"I, like many of you, could do a lot with $12 million," Gottfried said.

(Editing by Patricia Zengerle)

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