No raise for Californias poorest

STOCKTON, Calif. — Prize-winning poet and author Sotere Torregian, author of 14 books of poetry, has been disabled and unable to earn a living since 1989. His only income is Supplemental Security Income (SSI) — $812 a month in 2005 — and the occasional honorarium from giving a university lecture once or twice a year.

To afford a place to live, he shares a rented condominium here with his former wife, who is also disabled and dependent on SSI, and his daughter Tatyana, who has a part-time job with Sears and takes care of her wheel-chaired mother.

“The grocery bill gets larger but the income gets smaller,” Torregian told the World.

SSI is a federal benefit meant to provide a poverty-level living for blind, aged or disabled people with no other income. California, along with 44 other states, pays an additional amount called State Supplementary Payment (SSP), which is included in the monthly SSI check.

In January each year a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) is supposed to bring the benefit up to poverty level again. This year, the federal COLA is 4.1 percent.

But in California, January brought the Torregians only a letter saying that they would not get the scheduled raise.

This is because Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that not only freezes the state SSP contribution at its 2005 level, but for the first quarter lowers the state payment by exactly the amount of the federal COLA. This is part of Schwarzenegger’s attempt to balance the state budget by depriving the poorest Californians while rejecting any tax increase for the rich.

In April, the Torregians will get their 4.1 percent federal SSI increase, but there will be no increase in the state SSP amount as there has been every year to date. And in 2007, the situation will be the same.

A vegetarian, Torregian said he is “eternally grateful for soy.” Without soy, “my physical condition would be more run down than it is.”

“This country is killing its artists,” said Torregian. “It is very happy to receive the artist’s products, but he is not able to make a living in this country.”