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.

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/.