Rev. Harris to represent area at White House Aging Conference

By Jeffery Whitfield

James Harris is elated about assisting elderly residents -- the focus of an upcoming White House conference he will attend next month in Washington D.C.

“I have a love for the elderly,” said Harris, the pastor of Dixon Grove Baptist Church in Jonesboro. “The last few years of life are the best years.”

Dixon was named by Congressman David Scott, D-Jonesboro, this month to attend the 2005 White House Conference on Aging. Harris will be the delegate representing the 13th congressional district, an 11-county area including Clayton, at the event. It will be held Dec. 11 to 14.

The conference is held once every 10 years to make aging policy recommendations to the president and Congress. Harris likely will participate in talks about issues such as planning for the expenses of long-term care; promoting increased personal savings and investments for retirement; health promotion and disease prevention; and creating incentives for retaining older workers.

Scott said discussing issues for older Americans was particularly important because of the aging baby boomer population, which makes up a large segment of the U.S. population.

“The conference will help give us a perspective of what people in the community feel. People are living longer than ever before,” he said.

Helping determine which way future policy is developed will rely on information gathered from the upcoming conference, he said.

Some issues to consider may be establishing a new retirement age and determining if Medicare prescription drug benefits need to be improved to help residents in middle income brackets, Scott said.

Scott said he chose Harris to attend the conference because of the reverend's service to residents of the county and members of the Dixon Grove Baptist Church congregation.

“He's very involved with the church and highly respected as a leader,” Scott said, adding that Harris has come from a “diverse county” which enables him to “reach across racial lines.”

Harris said, “In my church there are [elderly] that live in low income housing and those with more wealth.”

Harris said his church has initiatives such as a food ministry to aid residents consisting of elderly people.

The percentage of Clayton County residents over the age of 55, 60, 65, 75 and 85 grew nearly 30 percent from 1990 to 2000, according to statistics from the Atlanta Regional Commission's Web site, www.atlreg.com. The largest growth rate, about 47 percent, occurred in residents ages 75-84.

As of 2004, the county's population was an estimated 258,900 residents.

Residents age 60 and older will double their share in the ARC's 10-county area in metro Atlanta from 10 percent of the population in 2000 to slightly more than 20 percent in 2030, the Web site said. The increase will occur despite continuing economic growth that will draw younger people to metro Atlanta, the Web site added.

Elderly residents in Clayton County say they have a number of concerns over how issues impacting older Americans are handled by the federal government in future years.

“There are people here older than 50 years old,” said Beverly Harbin, a 78-year-old Morrow resident. She added that politicians often seem to overlook the elderly. “Medicare is not going to save people money.”

The government reported this year that Medicare premiums that pay for items such as doctor's visits will increase $10.30 for elderly residents in 2006. The increase likely will adversely impact many senior citizens, Harbin said.

“They raise the premium more than cost of living adjustments,” she said, referring to an increase in Social Security that recipients will also receive in 2006.

More than 48 million Americans will get a 4.1 percent increase in their monthly Social Security checks next year, the largest increase in more than a decade. For the average retiree, it will mean an increase of $39 a month.

The cost of living adjustment, or COLA, was announced in October by the Social Security Administration. It will be the biggest increase since a 5.4 percent gain in 1991. The increase last January was 2.7 percent.

The average Social Security benefit recipient will see his or her monthly check increase from $963 this year to $1,002 next year.

But about one-fourth of the monthly cost of living increase will be eaten up by a rise in Medicare premiums. The government earlier announced that the monthly Medicare premium that goes to pay for doctor's visits and other services will increase by $10.30 a month starting next year.

And retirees and all Americans will be facing sharply higher energy bills this winter. The government is estimating that the average household will pay 48 percent more this year to heat with natural gas and 32 percent more for heating oil.

“With gas prices up, we're not going to be able to afford to heat our places,” Harbin said.

Seventy-four-year old Martha Woodall said she believed Social Security should be changed to help the elderly afford cost of living increases.

“Overhaul it and improve it,” the Stockbridge resident said.

Critics of the Social Security program say it could face financial strains as millions of baby boomers retire in the next few years and more money is paid out to retirees than is collected.

The associated press contributed to this report.