Social Security ’21 Cola Increase Anemic

Published in RINewsToday.com on on October 19, 2020

With the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) announcement of next year’s Social Security and Supplemental Security Income’s (SSI) meager cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), over 70 million beneficiaries will only see an increase of 1.3 percent in their monthly checks in 2021.  Last year’s COLA increase was 2.8 percent, the largest in seven years.

According to SSA, the 1.3 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) will begin with benefits payable to more than 64 million Social Security beneficiaries in January 2021. Increased payments to more than 8 million Supplemental Security Income (SSI) beneficiaries start on December 31, 2020. 

SSA ties the annual COLA to the increase in the Consumer Price Index as determined 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 to $142,800 from $137,700, says SSA.

The earnings limit for workers who are younger than “full” retirement age will increase to $18,960. (SSA deducts $1 from benefits for each $2 earned over $18,960.)

The earnings limit for people reaching their “full” retirement age in 2021 will increase to $50,520. (SSA deducts $1 from benefits for each $3 earned over $50,520 until the month the worker turns “full” retirement age.)

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

Next Year’s COLA Increase Not Enough 

Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) calls the increase as inadequate especially for COVID-Ravaged Seniors and noted that it’s the lowest since 2017.  

“The timing could not be worse. The COVID pandemic has devastated many older Americans both physically and financially.  Seniors living on fixed incomes need a lifeboat; this COLA increase is more like an underinflated inner tube,” says Richtman.

The average Social Security beneficiary will see a paltry $20 month more in benefits in 2021, calculates Richtman. “This COLA is barely enough for one prescription co-pay or half a bag of groceries. Worse yet, seniors could lose almost half of their COLA increase to a rise in the Medicare Part B premium for 2021, the exact amount of which has not yet been announced,” he warns.  

“The current COLA formula – the CPI-W – is woefully inadequate for calculating the true impact of inflation on seniors’ pocketbooks. It especially under-represents the rising costs that retirees pay for expenses like health care, prescription drugs, food, and housing. We support the adoption of the CPI-E (Consumer Price Index for the Elderly), which properly weights the goods and services that seniors spend their money on,” says Richtman. 

Examining the Growth of SSA COLAs 

Social Security checks in 2020 are almost 20 percent lower than they otherwise would be, due to the long-term impact of extremely low annual inflation adjustments, according to a newly released analysis by The Senior Citizens League (TSCL).  The analysis comes as SSA announced that the 2021 COLA will be just 1.3 percent, making it one of the lowest ever paid. 

“People who have been receiving benefits for 12 years or longer have experienced an unprecedented series of extremely low cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs),” says TSCL’s Mary Johnson, a Social Security policy analyst for the Alexandria, Virginia nonpartisan senior advocacy group. “What’s more those inflation adjustments do not account for rapidly rising Medicare Part B premiums that are increasing several times faster than the COLA,” she says, noting that this causing those with the lower Social Security benefits to see little growth in their net Social Security income after deduction of the Part B premium.  

Johnson’s COLA analysis, released on Oct. 13, compared the growth of retiree benefits from 2009-through 2020 to determine how much more income retirees would receive if COLAs had grown by a more typical rate of 3 percent. TSCL’s analysis found that an “average” retiree benefit of $1,075 per month in 2009 has grown to $1,249 in 2020, but, if COLAs had just averaged 3 percent, that benefit would be $247 per month higher today (19.8 percent higher), and those individuals would have received $18,227.40 more in Social Security income over the 2 010 to 2020 period. 

During that period COLAs have averaged just 1.4 percent. In 2010, 2011, and 2016 there was no COLA payable at all and, in 2017, the COLA was 0.03 percent. “But COLAs have never remained so low, for such an extended period of time, in history of Social Security,” says Johnson, who has studied COLAs for more than 25 years.  Over the 20-year period covering 1990 to 2009, COLAs routinely averaged 3 percent annually, and were even higher before that period. 

According to Johnson, the suppressed growth in Social Security benefits not only creates ongoing benefit adequacy issues, but also Medicare budgetary programs when the COLA is not sufficient to cover rising Part B premiums for large number of beneficiaries. When the dollar amount of the annual Medicare Part B premium increase is greater than the dollar amount of an individual’s annual COLA, the Social Security benefits of about 70 percent of Medicare beneficiaries are protected by the hold-harmless provision in the Social Security Act.  The Medicare Part B premium of those individuals is reduced to prevent their net Social Security benefits from being lower than the year before, she says. 

However, Johnson notes that the people who are not covered by hold harmless include higher income beneficiaries, beneficiaries who have not started Social Security yet and who pay for Medicare by check and about 19 percent of beneficiaries whose incomes are so low that their state Medicaid programs pay their Medicare Part B premiums on their behalf. 

Johnson says, “that a provision of a recently enacted government spending bill restricts Part B premium increases in 2021. The bill caps the Part B premium increase for next year at the 2020 amount plus 25 percent of the differences between the 2020 amount and a preliminary amount for 2021.”

Don’t look for the “potential Part B spike” to go away, warns Johnson. “Unless Congress acts to boost Social Security benefits and finds a better way to adjust benefits for growing Medicare costs, this problem will continue occur with greater frequency in the future,” she says.

Fixing SSA’s COLA Problem Once and For All

During the COVID-19 pandemic seniors are relying more on their Social Security check but continue to face cost increases each year beyond the extra income provided by the COLA, says Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John B. Larson (D-Connecticut) in a statement following SSA’s announcement of its tiny 2021 COLA increase. “It’s time to fix that by enacting the Social Security 2100 Act.,” says the Connecticut Congressman calling for passage of his legislative proposal that would strengthen SSA benefits by basing the COLA on what seniors actually spend on items such as medical expenses, food, and housing. Under this new CPI-E index, a beneficiary would experience benefits that are 6 percent higher by the time they reach age 90. 

Meanwhile, Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) sponsored and Larson, a co-sponsor, have proposed emergency legislation to increase next year’s COLA up to 3 percent. “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, seniors are facing additional financial burdens in order to stay safe,” said DeFazio.  “This absolutely anemic COLA won’t even come close to helping them afford even their everyday expenses, let alone those exacerbated by COVID-19. Raising the COLA to 3 percent 2021 will provide seniors with an immediate, crucial lifeline during the ongoing coronavirus crisis,” says the Oregon Congressman. DeFazio’s legislative proposal, the Social Security Expansion Act, would also provide a permanent fix to the COLA formula, like Larson using a CPI-E index to factor in seniors’ actual, everyday expenses.

AARP Pushes for Higher Standards When it Comes to Financial Advisors

Published in Woonsocket Call on June 28, 2015

AARP continues its efforts to push for a proposed U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Fiduciary Rule that would require financial advisors to put their client’s interests first when giving retirement advice.  In advance of last weeks hearing, before the House Education and Workforce Committee, the nation’s largest aging advocacy group delivered nearly 60,000 petitions containing the signatures from every state to support a higher standard in financial advising to prevent conflicts of interest.    .

In a June 16 release, the Washington, D.C.-based AARP stated that the June 27th Congressional hearing only showcased financial firms and their concerns, but did not provide much of an opportunity to hear directly from consumers about how the new proposed rule would benefit them.  But, AARP’s petitions drive should send a powerful message to Congress, that the nonprofit group, representing 37 million older Americans, and 60,000 voters identified on those petitions want to have their voices heard by Congress on this very pressing retirement issue.

When Advising, Do No Harm

“While a number of investment advisers also support a rule requiring advice to be in the best interest of clients, some opponents have recently weighed in with comments that offer time worn code words for harming consumers,” said Nancy LeaMond, Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer, AARP.  She says that the delivered petitions would ensure “that all, not just some, financial advisers put their clients’ interests first.”

“Many opponents of the proposed new rule, who are asking for delays or say the regulatory costs are too high, are simply looking to protect high fees at the expense of consumers.  But consumers deserve advice in their best interest, not advice that benefits the adviser,” says LeaMond.

In addition to forwarding petitions to the Department of Labor, AARP volunteers continue their efforts to call on Congress to prevent legislation that seeks to stop or slow an updated “best interest” standard.  According to the AARP, “each year hidden fees, unfair risk and bad investment advice rob Americans of $17 billion of retirement income.”

LeaMond says that AARP plans to submit comments to the DOL on the proposed rule in the weeks ahead. The nonprofit group’s petition delivery included over 33,000 signatures and follows an initial petition delivery last month that included over 26,000 signatures that support eliminating conflicts of interest in retirement advice.  “It is important that the Department hear from individuals who are negatively impacted by the current standard, not just financial firms who benefit from it,” she said.

AARP’s petition drive efforts followed President Obama’s February visit to AARP Headquarters where he used the opportunity to publicly support the proposed DOL rule, endorsed by a coalition of aging, labor and consumer groups that limits conflicts of interest, increases accountability, and strengthens protection for Americans receiving retirement investment advice.

At the AARP press event, Obama called for the updating of DOL rules and requirements that would mandate higher standards for financial advisors, requiring them to act solely in their client’s best interest when giving financial advice.

Obama noted that the existing rules governing retirement investments written over 40 years ago “outdated,” filled with “legal loopholes,” and just “fine print,” to be in need of an overhaul.  The existing rules governing retirement investments were written “at a time when most workers with a retirement plan had traditional pensions, and IRAs were brand new, and 401ks didn’t even exist,” said the President.

According to Megan Leonhardt, senior editor for WealthManagement.com, in a June 15th article, “New Coalition Pushes for DOL Fiduciary Rule,” DOL’s proposed rule has “been delayed multiple times since the agency first rolled it out in 2010.  It was expected to be released in August according to the agency’s regulatory agenda, but an update in May pushed back the date to January.”

“Industry lobbyists have mounted significant pushback. The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association and the Financial Services Institute have argued a rule similar to the DOL’s initial proposal could limit the public’s access to quality financial advice,” says Leonhardt.

Acting in the Client’s Best Interest

“Rhode Island has been part of the national effort to move the Labor Department rule forward,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “We’ve talked to people who have been quite surprised to know that their savings could be at risk by having an adviser fail to act in their client’s best interest. The response to the petition campaign is a measure of the concern. Retirement planning is daunting for the vast majority of Rhode Islanders. There’s plenty to worry about. Having confidence that your financial adviser is working in your best interest would relieve some of the anxiety.  That’s why there seems to be overwhelming support for the rule change.”

Along with AARP, Rhode Island federal lawmakers are weighing in on this key retirement issue, seeing its importance to older Rhode Islanders.

Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-RI) says, “Protecting the financial well-being of our seniors is a top priority for me, and ensuring that they have access to complete and accurate information before making investment decisions is an essential component of that effort.  President Obama and Labor Secretary Perez are leading a good faith effort to protect consumers, including seniors and I look forward to evaluating the final rule after the public comment period ends and I have had the benefit of considering these comments.”

Adds, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D) “Investors should have the security of knowing that the advice they receive is in their best interest.  I applaud the Obama Administration for updating regulations on retirement investments and for working with a wide range of stakeholders to ensure the new rules help Americans save more for retirement.”

For this writer, hiring a financial advisor is like purchasing a used care, that is you always feel that you might have made the wrong decision.   New DOL requires that call for higher standards for financial advisors, who would be required to act solely in their client’s best interest when giving advice, just might give me peace of mind, when planning my retirement…and probably to millions of older Americans, too.

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