Time to Change how Social Security Calculates ‘COLA’

Published in Woonsocket Call on October 23, 2016

On Tuesday, September 18, the U.S. Social Security Administration announced that the nation’s 65 million Social Security beneficiaries will be automatically be paid a minuscule 0.3 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to their monthly checks in 2017. The average monthly Social Security benefit next year will be $1,360, $5 more than now.

According to AARP, 153,349 Rhode Islanders received Social Security checks as of the end of 2014. Also, 22 percent of Rhode Island retirees depend on their Social Security check for 90 percent or more of their income. That’s chump change, not a lot of money for Rhode Island retirees to buy groceries, gas, or even catch up on their bills.

The federal agency detailed other changes that we can expect, too. Beginning in 2017, the amount of your earnings subject to the Social Security tax increases from $118,500 to $127,200. It’s estimated that this tax change impacts about 12 million of the 173 million people who pay into the retirement system.

Next year’s Social Security COLA increase is the smallest in a decade and comes after no increase in 2016 (zero increases also occurred in 2010 and 2011). Seventy percent of Medicare beneficiaries are protected by a hold-harmless rule, which keeps Social Security benefit payments from decreasing because of increased Medicare Part B premiums. However, 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries (including high wage earners, those enrolled in Medicare and not yet receiving Social Security, and newly enrolled in Medicare) could see cost increases in their Medicare Part B premiums that cover their visits to doctors and hospitals. The increased premium costs will be deducted directly from their Social Security check.

Chump Change COLA Won’t Pay Bills

Responding to the federal government’s disappointing COLA announcement, AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, whose Washington, DC aging group represents 37 million members, charges in a statement that one major domestic issue ignored by presidential debate moderators and one that demands attention from candidates is the future of Social Security.

“Over the last five years, Social Security COLA’s have remained small or nonexistent at 1,7 percent or lower, even though every cent can matter to beneficiaries and their families. After last year’s zero COLA, this year’s announcement doesn’t offer much help to the millions of families who depend on their Social Security benefits. As prescription prices skyrocket and Medicare premiums and other health costs increase, many older Americans have understandable concerns. Along with many groups, AARP has also asked Congress to ensure that Medicare premiums and deductibles don’t skyrocket next year,” says Jenkins.

Adds Max Richtman, President/CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), “No one can say with a straight face that providing the average senior with an additional four dollars a month will come even close to covering the true cost of living that retirees face. The average senior spends more than $5,000 a year on healthcare costs alone. A $4 Social Security COLA doesn’t even make a dent in covering rising costs for seniors.”

Richtman asserts that next year’s tiny COLA increase only continues the trend of historically low cost-of-living adjustments for retirees. “Over the past eight years, the current COLA formula has led to average increases of just over 1%, with three of those years seeing no increase at all. For the average senior, the 2017 COLA will mean an extra $4.00 per month which would barely cover the average cost of one Lipitor pill, a prescription drug frequently prescribed to seniors,” he says.

Richtman notes, “I’ve asked seniors at town hall meetings around the country how many of them think the COLA represents their true cost of living — laughter is always the response. We should move to a COLA formula that takes a more accurate measure of seniors’ expenses, which is a CPI for the elderly. The CPI-E has been in the experimental phase since 1982. It’s time to finish the job by fully funding the development of a more accurate COLA formula.”

Congress Must Legislatively Fix COLA Formula

In media releases, Rhode Island lawmakers call for tweaking how Social Security calculates Social Security COLAs.

Democratic U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who sits on the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, calls next year’s Social Security COLA increase an “insult.” He says, “For the fifth year in a row, Washington’s outdated formula has resulted in zero or next to zero cost of living adjustment for Social Security benefits. For the fifth year in a row, Rhode Island seniors will have to stretch their budgets to cover the rising cost of the basics, like food, housing, bills, and prescriptions. They didn’t bargain for this when they paid into Social Security over a lifetime of hard work. Congress needs to change the way we calculate Social Security COLAs.”

Adds, Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), “This is completely unacceptable. The method for calculating cost of living adjustments is completely broken and fails to reflect the costs of gods and services seniors buy in Rhode Island and across the country.”
The Rhode Island Congressman calls for the Republican House Leadership to seriously consider pending legislation that will ensure that cost of living adjustments reflect the goods and services Rhode Island seniors actually buy. “Speaker Ryan should immediately bring the Protecting and Preserving Social Security Act to the floor so we can replace this outdated method for calculating cost of living adjustments with a model that actually meets the needs of Rhode Island seniors,” said Cicilline.

During the last Congress, the Senate and House controlled GOP have consistently kept legislative proposals from being considered that were crafted to bring needed reforms to the nation’s Social Security and Medicare programs. A newly elected Democratic President and a Congress controlled by Democrats might just be the political fix necessary to finally do the job that is ensuring the financial long-term solvency of these two domestic entitlement programs

Critics of Chained CPI Call It a “Flawed Policy”

 Published in the Pawtucket Times, July 5, 2013

            With President Barack Obama’s fiscal blueprint unveiled almost three months ago, on April 10, 2013, that included a chained consumer price index (CPI) for the purpose of calculating Social Security cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), Rhode Island aging advocates go on the offensive opposing the suggested way as to how the federal government would calculate inflation.

             In June 12, 2013, Rhode Island AARP State Director, Kathleen S. Connell, a former secretary of state and one-time teacher, and State President Alan Neville, of Cumberland, along with AARP staff and volunteers from every other state in the nation, traveled to Inside the Beltway to Capitol Hill, on June 12, 2013, to urge Congress to just say “No” to a tying a chained CPI to Social Security.

             Continuing to protest, early this week Connell, Senator Whitehouse and Congressman Langevin and Cicilline, joined over 150 people who voiced strong concerns over Congress’s consideration of a chained CPI.  The Rhode Island Alliance of Retired Americans, the organizer of Tuesday’s protest, called it a “flawed policy,” charged that “switching to a chained CPI would compound benefit reductions dramatically over time, resulting in an annual benefit cuts.” 

            AARP Rhode Island is also planning to host “You’ve Earned a Say” discussions at seniors centers across the state this summer and into the fall to get its membership to rally against changing how Social Security cost of living adjustments are calculated.

 

Critics Take Aim at Chained CPIs

             President Obama’s push in his proposed budget request to rein in Social Security costs (a concession to GOP leadership), through the use of the chained CPI, pushed liberal Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. David Cicilline, representing Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, to strongly oppose President Obama or any Congressional efforts to put Social Security on the chopping block to lower the nation’s federal deficit, through changing the way COLAs are calculated.

            Rather than tinkering with the CPI linked to Social Security to rein in the nation’s huge federal deficient, Rep. Cicilline called for reforming the nation’s tax code by ending subsidies for “Big Oil,” along with “making responsible target spending cuts,” to slash the nation’s huge federal deficit

 

            Referring to the Social Security’s 2012 Annual Report in April (see my June 1, 2012 Commentary in the Pawtucket Times) , Sen. Whitehouse stated that Social Security is fully solvent for the next 20 years and has not contributed to the nation’s budget deficit and has no place in the debate over federal spending. 

             Senator Whitehouse called it “a [Social Security] benefit cut disguised behind technical jargon.”  The Senator and other critics argue that the current CPI shortchanges older persons by placing too much emphasis on products that these individuals are less likely to buy, like “smart phones” and “computers.”  He noted that in 2010 and 2011, Social Security beneficiaries did not receive a COLA, even though prices for food and beverages, medical care, gasoline and fuel oil increased.

             According to the Washington, D.C.-based, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), the Obama Administration sees this [chained CPI] switch as just “a technical adjustment.” Aging group warn that using the chained CPI will substantially reduce the Social Security benefits of current and future beneficiaries.  “If it is adopted, a typical 65 year-old would see an immediate decrease of about $130 per year in Social Security benefits.  At age 95, the same senior would face a 9.2 percent reduction—almost $1,400 per year,” notes NCPSSM.

             While all beneficiaries will feel the impact of this change, its effect will be greatest on those who draw benefits at earlier ages (e.g., military retirees, disabled veterans and workers) and those who live the longest, says NCPSSM, especially “women who have outlived their other sources of income, have depleted their assets, and rely on Social Security as their only lifeline to financial stability.”

 What’s the Impact???

             Washington-DC-based, AARP, representing 40 million members, has rolled out an educational campaign, to put the face who loses most if changes are made in how COLAs are calculated. 

 

              Fact Sheets, placed on AARP’s heavily traveled website (http://www.aarp.org/politics-society/advocacy/info-04-2012/youve-earned-a-say.html), tells how a federal policy shift would impact specific demographic groups in their pocketbook.

             Retired women can least afford using the chained CPI calculation because they earn less on average than men (that is $4,000), are more likely to have a part-time job and have gaps in their employment due to leaving the workforce to take care of their children.  With women living longer the chained CPI would slash their benefits more with every year they live.  Older women also rely on their Social Security Pension checks because they are less likely to have other sources of retirement income, this check even keeping 38 percent of them out of poverty compared to 32 percent of older men, the says the AARP fact sheets.

             AARP’s fact sheets, also details the impact on older disabled Americans, noting that 37 percent are dependent on Social Security benefits for nearly all their family income, that is around $13,560 annually.  Many begin getting Social Security checks at a young age.  For instance, a 35-year-old disabled worker who receives average disability benefits would see his or her benefits reduced each year by $886 at 65 and $1,301 at 80.   Finally, Social Security keeps about 40 percent of people with disabilities age 18 and over and their families out of poverty.  Cutbacks in benefits due to tying the chained CPI to the Social Security program would force the persons already living on a very tight budget impacted by rising drug costs, increased utilities and health care expenses to cut back on vital needs.

             Finally, one of AARP’s fact sheets charge that older veterans would be financially slammed, sort of a double whammy.  With almost 1.5 million veterans living below the poverty level, each dollar cut, like older person’s who are disabled, will get hit hard in their pocket book as the years roll by.  Because a chained CPI would cut both Social Security and Veterans’ benefits, this group gets the budget ax thrown at them twice. “A veteran who’s 65 today would have veterans benefits reduced annually by $1,029 and Social Security benefits by $1,422 at 95, when benefits are needed the most,” states the fact sheet.

 Congressional Fight Looming

             Rhode Island’s Senator’s Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse have signed on as co-sponsors of SR 15, with over a dozen Senators, a Resolution Rejecting the chained CPI expressing “the sense of Congress that the chained CPI should not be used to calculate cost of living adjustments for Social Security and Veterans benefits.”

             Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, a resolution, HR 34, was introduced by Rep. Cicilline, cosponsored by Rep. James Langevin along with 111 other Democrats, also opposing President Obama and GOP attempts to rein in the Social Security budget through the use of a chained CPI calculation.

             With nonbinding resolutions expressing opposition to the use of a chained CPI index now introduced in both chambers of Congress, union and aging groups are urging rallying support for passage.

            AARP’s Kathleen S. Connell and her colleagues around the nation are gearing up to send a message loud and clear, once and for all to Congress.  Simply put, Connell says:  “Chained CPI is not only harmful and illogical; it is also out-of-place in the discussion of deficit reduction.  As a self-financed program providing earned benefits, Social Security has not caused the deficit—and it should not be turned into an ATM for politicians trying to address it.  We deserve a separate national conversation about how to protect Social Security for today’s seniors and responsibly strengthen it for our children and grandchildren.”

            Congress might well choose to tread lightly on giving the thumbs up to using a chained CPI in calculating Social Security Colas. The anticipated fiscal impact (detailed by AARP and aging group critics, along with the Rhode Island Congressional delegation) resulting from this federal policy change will hit the nation’s elderly right where it hurts, the most, in their wallets.  Increased bipartisan efforts can find better solutions to trimming the nation’s huge federal deficit and improving the fiscal viability of the nation’s Social Security Program.

             Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com