New London - Nancy Paetzell worked her whole life and thought she would be able to live off Social Security in her retirement years.
But in tears Tuesday afternoon, she told U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., that she is barely surviving on her $1,230 monthly Social Security check. She pays $825 in rent and tries to save $50 a week. But by month's end, she has cleaned out her savings account to pay bills. She is eligible for $15 a month in food stamps and receives help with heating costs through the federally funded Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
"When I was growing up, you were told you'd have Social Security to take care of you," said the 77-year-old Norwich resident, who is receiving on-the-job training at Thames Valley Council for Community Action in the hopes of landing an office job to make ends meet. "How come I'm so poor? I'm poorer than I've every been in my life. I can't pay my bills. I never wanted to be so poor."
Paetzell was one of four people directly affected by the automatic federal spending cuts known as sequestration who told their stories to Murphy during a visit to the TVCCA office.
She told Murphy that cuts made in Washington are felt the hardest by the poor and the working poor.
"My parents told me stories of what they had to do to survive during the Depression," she said. "It's nice to use the word recession, but I think this is similar to the Great Depression."
Murphy was in town gathering information on the affects on Connecticut residents of cuts made in Washington. He said he will bring the stories of struggling residents back to the Capitol, where members of the House and Senate will begin reviewing the budget.
Murphy said he will lobby to stop more cuts, especially to LIHEAP, which was cut by 5 percent last year and will be cut by 5 percent in each of the next 9 years. The $5 billion program will be reduced to about $2.5 billion.
Two years ago, Connecticut received $125 million in energy assistance. In 10 years, the amount will be about $76 million, Murphy said.
"It's not enough," he said. "Americans won't allow people to freeze to death in their own homes."
As the funding goes down, the need for heating assistance is going up, according to TVCCA. Two years ago, the local TVCCA, which serves communities in southeastern Connecticut, had 8,500 applications for energy assistance. Last year, the number was 9,500.
Lee Carenza, who is in charge of the program for TVCCA, said he expects to get more than 10,000 applications this year. The program awards grants of up to $585 to help pay for heating bills for income-eligible families. Two years ago, the highest grant was $900, he said.
Deborah Monahan, executive director of TVCCA, said people who are working full time come into the office in tears looking for help and saying they have nowhere else to go.
Wayne Lee, a retired Minneapolis police officer who works for the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and Sound Community Services, told Murphy he needs the energy assistance. He is recovering from a stroke, is still paying off student loans from 20 years ago and sleeps in a sleeping bag in the winter because it's warmer. His grant for energy assistance has been cut from $700 to $300.
Sue Hostnik, who works full-time for United Community & Family Services, said she is living paycheck to paycheck raising her three children, ages 8, 15 and 16. She said she counts on the energy grant, which dropped from $700 to $300, to pay her winter heating bills.
"My heat won't get shut off, but in May, I have to pay what I owe," she said. "I tell the kids, 'Get out the sweatshirts and the extra blankets.'"
Murphy said his counterparts in Washington "need to understand that even working full time, people can't pay their bills in Connecticut."
"We will win this fight eventually," Murphy assured the group.