“Chaining” COLAs Still Under Consideration
By Mary Johnson
The past two years without a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) felt like the government clamped a lid on benefits. Now a Congressional debt reduction committee is working on a plan that’s likely to keep your COLA “chained” down in the future by switching to a more slowly-growing “chained” consumer price index (CPI).
The switch to the chained CPI was seriously considered in the closed-door debt limit meetings by Congressional leaders and President Obama earlier this summer. It forms the basis of not just one, but several, of the most prominent debt reduction plans currently under debate. Chaining the CPI has won support from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, and most deficit reduction proposals call for putting it into effect relatively soon.
Proponents don’t call it a cut. They say it’s an “improvement” — and “a technical correction.” They say that the change is needed because the CPI is inaccurate and doesn’t reflect the effect on inflation when consumers substitute goods when prices change. Unlike our current method of measuring cost increases, chaining doesn’t measure the actual change in the cost of goods from one month to the next. Instead, it attempts to measure how much people spend when prices go up.
For example, if the price of gasoline soars do people spend more on gas for their autos, or make fewer trips? Because Social Security recipients are living on fixed income, they don’t always have the leeway to spend more, meaning larger numbers of seniors might drive less. Younger consumers on a budget and people who are out of work, may be in the same boat. And if a lot of consumers are in the same fix, and wind up driving less, this measure is likely to show that inflation didn’t increase much, even though the price of gas at the pump is stratospheric. That would mean your COLA wouldn’t grow either, even though cost inflation may be soaring.
The data certainly suggests this is the case. The years in which inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index for Workers (CPI-W) has been the highest, the difference in the chained CPI was the greatest. The average difference between the CPI-W and the chained CPI is 0.3 tenths of a percentage point. But in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina sent gas prices through the roof, the CPI-W paid a COLA of 4.1% the following year. The chained CPI would only have paid 3.4% — a difference of 0.7 tenths of a percentage point. In 2008 the CPI-W paid a COLA of 5.8% the following year. The chained CPI would have only paid 5.2%, a difference of 0.6 tenths of a percentage point.
TSCL recently released an analysis of the proposal that estimates the chained CPI would cut the growth in average benefits of $1,100 today by about $18,634 over the course of a 25-year retirement, and that assumes that the economy becomes more stable soon. Nevertheless, the reductions in COLA growth compound over time, and are deepest when seniors are the oldest and sickest. By the time seniors are in their late 80s or 90s, when they are most likely to have chronic health problems, monthly benefits would be about $145 lower using the chained CPI.
TSCL is fighting the plan to chain down COLAs. Indeed, seniors need a COLA that more adequately protects the buying power of Social Security, and TSCL supports H.R. 776, the Guaranteed 3% COLA Act, introduced by Representative Eliot Engel (NY-17).
What you can do: Members of Congress are more likely to re-think voting for legislation when they see a large number of seniors are adamantly opposed to cutting COLAs. Add your name to TSCL’s Social Security Fairness Petition. Have your costs jumped this year? Send us an email telling us your story.