Seniors Can Expect Small Increase in Their 2020 Social Security COLA

Published in the Woonsocket Call on Oct. 27, 2019

The Social Security Administration (SSA) announces Oct. 10 that Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for nearly 69 million Americans will increase 1.6 percent in 2020 (Some recipients receive both Social Security and SSI benefits).

Social Security and SSI recipients will be notified about their new benefit amount by mail in early December. This COLA notice can also be viewed online through their my Social Security account. People may create or access their my Social Security account online at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount.

According to SSA, the 1.6 percent COLA increase will begin with benefits payable to more than 63 million Social Security beneficiaries in January 2020. Increased payments to more than 8 million SSI beneficiaries will begin December 31, 2019. The Social Security Act ties the annual COLA to the increase in the Consumer Price Index as calculated by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The maximum amount of earnings subject to the Social Security tax (taxable maximum) will increase from $132,900 to $137,700, says SSA.

The earnings limit for workers who are younger than “full” retirement age (age 66 for people born in 1943 through 1954) will increase to $18,240. SSA will deduct $1 from benefits for each $2 earned over $18,240.

The earnings limit for people turning age 66 in 2020 will increase to $48,600. SSA will deduct $1 from benefits for each $3 earned over $48,600 until the month the worker turns age 66.)

There is no limit on earnings for workers who are “full” retirement age or older for the entire year.

COLA Not Keeping Up with Rising Cost of Living

Over the years, Social Security’s COLA has not provided financial protection against rising costs, charge aging advocacy groups.

Social Security checks in 2019 are as much as 18 percent lower due to the impact of extremely low COLAs over the past 10 years, says an analysis recently released by the Arlington, Virginia-based The Senior Citizens League (TSCL). TSCL’s Social Security policy analyst, Mary Johnson authored this analysis.

Johnson’s analysis noted that from 2000 to 2010, COLAs routinely averaged 3 percent
annually. People who have been receiving Social Security checks since 2019, have only seen a COLA higher than 2,8 percent one time (in 2012), she said, noting that Social Security benefits have lost 33 percent of buying power since 2000.

Johnson’s findings reported that in 2010, 2011, and 2016 there was no COLA payable at all and, in 2017, the COLA was just 0.03 percent. However, in 2018, the COLA was 2 percent, but rising Part B premiums consumed the entire increase for roughly half of all beneficiaries.

Calls for Strengthening the COLA

According to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), the upcoming COLA change will give a whopping $24 per month increase for the average beneficiary. With Medicare Part B premiums expected to rise around $8 next year, the net cost-of-living adjustment for most seniors will be only $16 per month. The new COLA brings the average monthly retirement benefit up to $1,503 — it’s just a $288 yearly raise for seniors living on fixed incomes.

NCPSSM notes that roughly half of America’s seniors rely on Social Security for at least 50 percent of their income, and 1 in 4 depending on the program for at least 90 percent of their income, the 2020 COLA increase does not go very far in helping these recipients pay their bills. A $16 per month probably won’t cover typical expenses, such as the cost of a single prescription copay, a month’s medical supplies, or transportation to a doctor’s appointment, adds the Washington, DC- advocacy group whose goal is to protect Social Security and Medicare.

“It’s ironic that as billionaires and big corporations continue to profit from the $1.5 trillion in Trump/GOP tax cuts, America’s seniors are to get by with a meager $24 monthly raise,” says Max Richtman in a statement after SSA announced the 2020 COLA increase. NCPSSM’s President and CEO. “The negligible 2020 COLA illustrates why seniors need a more accurate formula for calculating the impact of inflation on their Social Security benefits. For years, we have urged the government to adopt the CPI-E (Consumer Price Index for the Elderly), which reflects the spending priorities of seniors, including health care, as opposed to the current formula based on younger urban wage earners’ expenses,” says Richtman.

If the CPI-E were adopted, beneficiaries would see a 6 percent overall increase in benefits over 20 years compared to the current formula used, which yielded a zero cost-of-living adjustment three times during the past decade — and a mere 0.3 percent in 2017, says Richtman, noting that health care costs have increased about 6 percent in 2019 alone.

“The prices of the most commonly prescribed drugs for seniors on Medicare rose ten times the rate of inflation from 2013-2018. The cost of senior living facilities is growing at 3 percent annually – which adds up quickly over time,” adds Richtman.

Adds Webster Phillips, NCPSSM’s Senior Legislative Representative, “COLAs are out of sync with seniors’ actual expenses. Retirees have been living on very tight cost-of-living adjustments for a number of years now, which forces them to make hard decisions about their monthly budgets.”

In a statement, AARP chief executive officer Jo Ann Jenkins said, “Social Security’s annual COLA amount typically does not keep pace with all the increases in living expenses that most seniors face, including the costs of housing, food, transportation and, especially, health care and prescription drugs. AARP’s recent Rx Price Watch report found that retail drug prices increased by twice the rate of inflation during 2017, and have exceeded the inflation rate for at least 12 consecutive years,” she says.

“AARP will continue our advocacy for bipartisan solutions to help ensure the long-term solvency of the Social Security program, as well as adequate benefits for recipients. We will also continue to fight for lower health care and prescription drug costs, which are eating up a growing share of Social Security benefits,” adds Jenkins.

TSCL’s Mary Johnson says that her group calls on Congress to require a minimum COLA of no less than 3 percent every year, even in years when inflation falls below that amount. “Strengthening the COLA,” she says, “would help slow the drain of retirement savings and help keep older Americans out of poverty.”

For information about Social Security benefits and claiming strategies, those approaching retirement age may visit AARP’s Social Security Resource Center, at https://www.aarp.org/retirement/social-security/.

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House Subcommittee Panel Makes Call for Expanding, Strengthening Social Security

Published in the Woonsocket Call on March 23, 2019

So it goes, to the victor goes the spoils. Over a week ago, House Democratic leadership, now controlling the legislative agenda, pushed to strengthen and expand benefits for the nation’s Social Security program.

With the 116th Congress kicking off on Jan. 2, 2019, as the majority party, the Democrats took over the legislative reins of the House of Representatives from the Republicans, who had held the majority and legislative control of the lower chamber since 2011. Now being in power allows Democratic leadership to control which bills reach the floor for a vote. In this new Congress, legislation reflecting the GOP’s philosophy as to how to fix Social Security (by privatizing the retirement program, cutting benefits, raising the retirement age, even reducing cost-of-living adjustments or lowering earned benefits) would be blocked by Democratic leadership.

Congress Puts Spotlight on Social Security

Last week, Social Security got a full and fair hearing before the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee.

Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.), chairing the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, held a series of panel hearings, calling for the strengthening and protecting the nation’s Social Security program.

“What we’re addressing in these hearings is that Congress hasn’t paid enough attention to Social Security to make sure it’s actuarially sound,” he said, in his opening statement for the March 12th hearing, entitled “Protecting and Improving Social Security: Enhancing Social Security to Strengthen the Middle Class.”

According to Larson, more than 62 million Americans are already receiving Social Security benefits.

“We have a responsibility to act to strengthen this program for them,” he added. “Not to act will amount to a 25 percent benefit cut come 2034. In other words, for the person who was making $50,000 a year throughout their working career, they would actually be living at a poverty level in terms of a benefit that they would receive after these cuts,” he said.

“Not only do we need to work to protect the program, but we need a solution to make the program, as the actuaries say, “sustainably solvent,” or in other words, making sure Social Security remains strong throughout this century, not just for seniors, but for millennials too,” added Larson.

Joan Ruff, AARP’s chair of the Board, testified, saying, “Social Security is the only lifetime, inflation-protected, guaranteed source of retirement income that most Americans will have. It is the foundation of retirement security that keeps millions of older Americans out of poverty and allows them to live independently. But Social Security also provides some measure of economic security for families who face a loss of income because of the disability or the death of a wage earner. We often do not think of Social Security as a family income protection plan—yet that is exactly what it is.”

Other witnesses testified on the importance of Social Security benefits and how it provides the middle class with economic security, especially women and minorities.

One day later, Larson convened a second hearing entitled, “Protecting and Improving Social Security: Benefit Enhancements.” The purpose of holding the hearings, said Larson, was to “shine a bright light on all of the proposals to secure Social Security that will help the American people.”

Democrats Unveil Fix for Social Security

Larson also used the subcommittee panel hearing as a bully pulpit to promote his legislation, H.R. 860, “The Social Security 2100 Act.” Specifically, the bill’s eight provisions expand benefits for 62 million Social Security beneficiaries. Larson’s bill would provide an across-the-board benefit increase for current and new beneficiaries that is the equivalent of 2 percent of the average benefit. It also calls for an improved cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), through adopting a CPI-E formula, that takes into account the true costs (include health care expenses) incurred by seniors and a stronger minimum benefit set at 25 percent above the poverty line, tied to their wage levels to ensure that the minimum benefit does not fall behind. Finally, the bill would ensure that any increase in benefits from the bill do not result in a reduction in SSI benefits or loss of eligibility for Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program. Finally, 12 million Social Security recipients would receive a tax cut through the eliminating the tax on their benefits.

At this time, H.R. 860 has 203 House Democrats cosponsors (including Rhode Island Representatives David N. Cicilline and James R. Langevin). Passage of the legislation requires only a simple majority vote of 218 lawmakers. With 235 Democratic lawmakers sitting in this chamber, it is expected to pass.

But, with the Senate-controlled by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his GOP caucus, it will be difficult for Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) to see their companion measure make it reach the Senate floor for consideration.

Larson’s first two hearings are the first in a series of hearings on Protecting and Improving Social Security. One more hearing will be scheduled with the date to be determined. After these hearings, H.R. 860 will most likely be marked up by the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee and full Committee before it heads to the House floor for a vote.

Enhancing Social Security Benefits

Lead-off witness Max Richtman, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), restated his aging advocacy group’s support for Larson’s Social Security bill, H.R. 860, which enhances the retirement programs benefits and ensures its long-term solvency.

“Since the program’s creation 84-years ago, Social Security has been – and is- and enormously successful program which is essential to the retirement of the vast majority of Americans. While [the] benefits are modest, Social Security is still the single largest source of income for retired American’s. To ensure the program’s continued success, it is vitally important that long-term solvency be restored, and that Social Security benefits be improved to meet the needs of all Americans,” says Richtman.

Social Security Advocates joined Richtman at the witness table, too.

Elizabeth Marafino, president of the Connecticut Alliance of Retired Americans (from Larson’s home state), stated that Social Security is important to older Connecticut residents, making this statement more personal by sharing how her maternal grandmother, mother of six and a widow at the age of fifty, was glad to receive her husband’s social security check because it literally kept her out of the poor house.

Marafino noted, “The traditional three-legged stool of pension, personal savings, and social security is deteriorating. The ‘pension’ leg of the stool has been disappearing, eroding retirement security and making Social Security even more important. Along with the high cost of prescription drugs putting pressure on seniors’ finances, (these factors make) the need to increase Social Security benefits urgent.”

Abigail Zapote, Director of Latinos for a Secure Retirement, testified that boosting Social Security benefits is crucial to the Latino population, whose average Social Security checks are lower than other Americans. “Latinos depend on Social Security more than other groups because they tend to have lower lifetime income, longer life expectancies, higher incidence of disability and larger families,” she said.

Enhancing benefits can help older women, too, testified Joan Entmacher, a Senior Fellow at the
National Academy of Social Insurance. “Social Security is the foundation of retirement security for most Americans, but it is especially important for women,” she says, noting that women rely more on their Social Security checks than men do, even though their Social Security benefits are lower. She pointed out that the average retirement benefit for women is only 80 percent of men, making women even more reliant on Social Security, she said.

“Adjusting the regular benefit formula to make it more progressive would increase benefits for all workers, but lower lifetime earners, including women and people of color, would receive the largest percentage increases,” says Entmacher. To boost retirement benefits, she calls for the creation of caregiver credits (the majority of caregivers are women) who take off from their jobs to care for family members.

Finally, Donna Butts, the Executive Director of Generations United, testified that Social Security was important for all generations. ““For more than 80 years Social Security has been the premier example of a policy designed to secure and insure the well-being of individuals and their families. “For many it makes the difference between putting food on the table and deciding whether grandma or junior eat tonight,” she says.

The Beginning of an Honest Policy Debate

According to a NCPSSM blog posted on March 15th, “Republicans on the subcommittee, now in the minority for the first time in 8 years, appeared to be less combative than in the past.”

“This was a richer dialogue about the philosophical differences about Social Security than we’ve had in a long time,” observed National Committee legislative director, Dan Adcock in the blog posting. “There was a quest to figure out what each side could live with,” he says.

Stay tuned.

H

House Bill to Expand, Strengthen Social Security

Published in Woosocket Call on February 3, 2019

With the 116th Congress kicking off on January 3, 2019 and the Democrats seizing control of the House, it did not take long for a bill to emerge that would strengthen and expand the nation’s Social Security program. Seven years ago, when U.S. Congressman John Larson (D-CT) first introduced the Social Security 2100 Act during the 113th Congress, the GOP controlled Congress blocked a fair hearing and vote. Now, with a Democratic majority in the House Larson’s Social Security proposal will finally get a thorough review as Democrats take control of the House Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Education and Labor. These committees have oversight of Social Security.

Larson chose to throw the bill into legislative hopper on the 137th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s birth, who signed Social Security into law in 1935.

On January 30, 2019, Larson, recently appointed to chair of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security, introduced H.R.860, the Social Security Act 2100 Act, with over 202 House Democrats cosponsors (including Rhode Island Representatives David N. Cicilline and James R. Langevin), to ensure the retirement security of working Americans for another century.

Passage of the Social Security 2100 Act only requires a simple majority vote of 218 lawmakers. With 235 Democratic lawmakers sitting in this chamber, it is expected to pass. But, with the Senate-controlled by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his GOP caucus, it will be difficult for Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) to see their companion measure make it to the Senate floor for a vote.

H.R. 860’s eight provisions expand benefits for 62 million Social Security beneficiaries. It would provide an across-the-board benefit increase for current and new beneficiaries that is the equivalent of 2 percent of the average benefit. It also calls for an improved cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), through adopting a CPI-E formula, that takes into account the true costs (include health care expenses) incurred by seniors and a stronger minimum benefit set at 25 percent above the poverty line, tied to their wage levels to ensure that the minimum benefit does not fall behind. Finally, the bill would ensure that any increase in benefits from the bill do not result in a reduction in SSI benefits or loss of eligibility for Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program. Finally, 12 million Social Security recipients will receive a tax cut through the eliminating the tax on their benefits.

Increasing the Financial Solvency of Social Security

According to an independent analysis of the Social Security’s Office of the Chief Actuary, H.R. 860 proposal would also strengthen and protect the Trust Funds by 75 years.

H.R. 860 would have wealthy individuals pay the same rate as everyone else. Presently, payroll taxes are not collected on wages over $132,900.
Larson’s legislation would apply the payroll tax to wages of $400,000, affecting the top 0.4% of wage earners. The bill gradually phases in an increase in the pay roll contribution rate beginning in 2020, of 50 cents per week, so that by 2043 workers and employers would pay 7.4 percent instead of 6.2 percent. Finally, the bill’s provisions would combine the Old-Age and Survivors, called Social Security, and the Disability Insurance trust funds into one Social Security Trust Fund, to ensure that all benefits will be paid.

“Social Security is a promise that after a lifetime of hard work, you should be able to retire with dignity and economic security. It’s critical that Congress preserve and strengthen this promise for years to come,” said Cicilline, who serves as Chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, representing Rhode Island’s 1st congressional district.

Larson, recently appointed chair of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, noted, “With 10,000 baby boomers becoming eligible for Social Security every day, the time to act is now. The Social Security 2100 Act will provide economic security not just for today’s seniors but for future generations too,” said Larson, as the bill was thrown into the legislative hopper.”

There have not been any significant adjustments to Social Security since 1983, when Tip O’Neill was Speaker and Ronald Reagan was President, said Larson. “It’s time for Congress and the President to come together again, just like Speaker O’Neill and President Reagan did to make this a reality, he said.

“For years, fiscal hawks have told us that the only way to ‘save’ Social Security is to cut benefits for future retirees. Congressman Larson’s bill is a resounding rebuke to those claims. The Social Security Act 2100 keeps the program financially sound for most of this century while boosting benefits for millions of beneficiaries,” said Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Richtman says, “Congressman Larson has promised that, for the first time, this legislation will receive thorough consideration in the U.S. House, including hearings with testimony from experts and the public. We applaud him for his vision, persistence, and advocacy on behalf of America’s current and future retirees in moving this bill forward.”

Today, more than 222,000 Rhode Islanders receive Social Security benefits today. It is the most important retirement income for 4 out of 5 seniors and provides financial protections to disabled workers and families who have lost a breadwinner.

For decades, GOP lawmakers pushed its Social Security reforms by privatization, raising the retirement eligibility age and imposing stingier COLA formulas. But, national poll after poll, across party lines and age groups, revealed the public’s strong support for the nation’s retirement program.

Washington Insiders expect Larson’s Social Security bill to pass the House. While GOP Senate leadership keeps the companion measure at arms-length, the upcoming 2020 elections may well grease the legislative wheels for passage. Over 20 Republican Senate, whose seats are at serious risk, may well vote for passage with Democratic Senators.
Stay tuned…

Social Security Recipients Thirsty for COLAs

Published in Pawtucket Times on October 19, 2015

With Christmas fast approaching, almost 65 million people who collect Social Security checks will get hit hard in their pocketbooks. On Thursday, the Social Security announced that there will be no cost of living adjustments (COLA) for 2016. It’s the third time this has happened in over 40 years. .

Unless Congress promptly acts to change the law to give COLAS, Medicare premiums will also be increasing dramatically for almost one-third of Social Security recipients. “The average American senior simply can’t afford a triple-digit increase for their Medicare coverage, says Max Richtman, President/CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) in a statement. The Washington, D.C.-based organization has lobbied Congress to pass legislation to address this urgent policy issue. “For millions of seniors, this large Medicare hike is devastating and a result of a well-intended “hold harmless” provision that left out too many Medicare beneficiaries,” he says.
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According to Richtman, “All of this was triggered by a zero COLA increase in Social Security for 2016, confirming yet again, that the current Social Security COLA formula isn’t accurately measuring seniors’ expenses. Seniors across this nation understand how important having an accurate measure of the increase in their real costs is to their day-to-day survival.”

House Democrats Rally for a COLA

Just one day before SSA’s announcement of no COLA next year, Congressman David N. Cicilline (D-RI), and 55 Democratic House members had sent a letter to the Social Security Administration (SSA) calling for the federal agency to find a way to provide a COLA for 2016. Not surprisingly Cicilline was not joined by House GOP lawmakers. Only Congressional action can revise this decision.

In the Ocean State, there are 153,349 beneficiaries who received $266,541,000 in total benefits in December 2014. In January 2015, beneficiaries received a 1.7% COLA, which averaged $29.55 per month, or $354.58 per year.

“Seniors, who are relying on Social Security for their retirement, have seen the costs of everything go up and deserve a COLA so they can have their basic needs met,” said Cicilline. “I hear from Rhode Islanders every day who are living on Social Security about their struggles with the rising costs of housing, food, and medicine. In fact, it seems everything is going up, except their Social Security check and this is dead wrong.”

SSA’s announcement on October 14 clearly shows that the current method of calculating COLA’s for Social Security beneficiaries negatively impacts the recipients, says Cicilline. The Democratic Congressman calls on Congress to quickly fix this problem now. The lawmaker has co-sponsored H.R. 1811, the Protecting and Preserving Social Security Act, to do just that.

Cicilline charges that the Social Security Administration has used the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) to determine whether the cost-of-living has increased. According to the Washington Post, the “biggest reason retirees aren’t getting a raise” is due to lower fuel prices, even though medical, housing, and food costs have increased.

It’s time to change the way COLAs are calculated, says Cicilline. Critics to the existing formula charge that fuel prices are less important in determining cost of living for the nation’s seniors – individuals ages 65 and older make up only 16% of all licensed drivers in the United States. To fix formula glitch, Cicilline has signed on as a co-sponsor of the CPI-E Act, which would replace CPI-W with the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly. CPI-E more accurately reflects cost of living for today’s older persons by weighting the cost of housing and medical care more compared to CPI-W. It also de-emphasizes fuel and transportation costs.

Blunting the Pain of Medicare Premium Hikes

Promptly responding to SSA’s double whammy of no COLA for 2016 and hikes in Medicare premiums, AARP, the nation’s largest aging advocacy organization in a letter called on Congress to “pass a fix.”

In her correspondence, Nancy LeaMond AARP’s EVP and Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer, asks Congress to protect all Medicare beneficiaries from sharply increased out-of-pocket costs in light of the COLA announcement, requesting specifically that Congress “reduce. the impact of the sudden, sharp increases in the Part B premiums and deductible as soon as possible. Ideally, all Medicare beneficiaries should be held-harmless in the face of no Social Security COLA adjustment.”

LeaMond’s letter notes that 16.5 million Americans face sharp premium increases and that “all Medicare beneficiaries will see their Part B deductible increase 52 percent…from $147 to $223.” Additionally, AARP reiterates its opposition to the Chained Consumer Price Index (CPI), noting that “the Social Security COLA would be even more inaccurate and benefits would be even less adequate if recent proposals to adopt a Chained CPI had been enacted.

AARP has opposed all Administrative and Congressional attempts to enact a Chained CPI, and says it will continue to do so, says LeaMond, because the Chained CPI would further under reported inflation experienced by Social Security beneficiaries, and further erode their standard of living, cutting an estimated $127 billion in Social Security benefits from current and near retirees in the next ten years alone.”

With Capitol Hill polarized by political a House and Senate captured by ultra conservatives, Social Security beneficiaries will have to find ways to stay financially afloat until Congress can reduce the damaging impact of the Part B premium increases with no COLA increase to reduce the pain. Aging groups push for holding beneficiaries harmless to Medicare premium increases. With the election over a year off, law makers might just listen or face the wrath of older Americans who just exercises their right to vote at the polls.

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