20111019 socialsecuritycheck
Christelle Woods places Social Security checks into bins in the vault for storage before they are mailed at the U.S. Treasury printing facility February 11, 2005 in Philadelphia, Penn. - 

Kai Ryssdal: What I'm about to say is a little bit like debating how many economists can fit on the head of a pin, but work with me here -- we'll see how it goes.

The Federal Reserve has been saying for years now that there's basically no inflation in this economy. The Consumer Price Index number that came out today would tend to support that. Core inflation rose just a tenth of a percent last month.

But the catch is, you can't live on the core alone. People have to eat, and they have to buy gas. So that headline number, as it's called, is what most people really care about; up three-tenths of a percent last month. And it helps explain today's news that Social Security payments will rise 3.6 percent next year. Marketplace's Nancy Marshall Genzer reports.

Nancy Marshall Genzer: We're not talking about a lot of money here. The Social Security increase works out to about $40 a month extra for the average senior. You might be thinking, that's barely enough for dinner and a movie.

But for 77-year-old Bette Reed of Seattle, the extra cash is a godsend. Social Security is her sole source of income.

Bette Reed: I have stopped eating meat as often as I used to. Meat is a rarity on my diet, and beef is completely eliminated.

Reed didn't cut out meat for health reasons -- she just can't afford it. Now she might splurge on some chicken.

Sixty-seven-year-old Thomas Ronayne has a small pension, which helps a little. His extra Social Security cash will pay for gas, so he can go see his doctor 200 miles from his home in rural Alcona Township, Mich. He recently put off a routine doctor's appointment.

Thomas Ronayne: I called him and said, 'hey, I'm fine, you're fine, I can't afford to drive down there and back.'

Rising gas and food prices have hit older Americans on fixed incomes especially hard. David Rosnick is an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He says the little bit extra seniors are going to get is just supposed to help them keep up.

David Rosnick: We're trying to have them keep pace with inflation. It's not that they're going to be much better off. I mean, this is a treading water kind of adjustment here.

But if you haven't been able to eat meat or get to the doctor, treading water sounds pretty good.

In Washington, I'm Nancy Marshall Genzer for Marketplace.