COLAs Reach All Time Lows At Same Time Seniors Report Expenses Higher Than Ever
By Jessie Gibbons, Legislative Assistant
Over the past five years, the Social Security cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) has reached an all-time low, averaging just 1.5 percent. Seniors, however, have reported that their living expenses are higher than ever. In fact, The Senior Citizens League (TSCL) has found that seniors have lost almost one-third of their purchasing power since 2000, and their expenses have increased more than twice as fast as the annual COLA. Today, it is more clear than ever that the Social Security COLA is failing to help seniors keep up.
That's because COLAs are currently based upon the way young, urban workers, rather than seniors spend their money. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) uses an inflation index called the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W). It regularly underestimates the spending inflation that seniors experience since it fails to capture the rising costs of medical care, upon which older Americans spend a disproportionate share of their income.
Deficit hawks on Capitol Hill agree that the current inflation index is inaccurate, but instead of adopting a method that actually measures seniors’ spending, many have been advocating for an index that would further trim COLAs. The "chained" CPI has been lauded by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle – including President Obama – as a small technical correction that would factor in the substitution that occurs when the prices of certain goods increase. However, since medical care – a major expense for seniors – cannot be substituted for something cheaper, this index would unfairly affect them. After ten years, adopting the "chained" CPI would result in an $88 monthly benefit cut for the average retired couple, and that loss would continue to compound.
Instead of using the CPI-W or the "chained" CPI, TSCL has been advocating for an inflation index that we believe would actually result in a more accurate Social Security COLA. We favor the CPI for Elderly Consumers (CPI-E), which the BLS has been tracking &ndah; but not utilizing – for decades. This index has shown that the spending inflation for seniors averages about two-tenths of a percentage point higher than the rate at which the CPI-W increases. We estimate that a senior who retired with average Social Security benefits in 1984 would have received $15,496 more through 2013 had the CPI-E been used.
To make the COLA more fair and accurate, TSCL believes that Congress must fully implement the CPI-E, and use it to provide a more realistic annual benefit boost. We support a number of bills before Congress that would do just that, including the CPI-E Act (H.R. 1030), the Guaranteed 3% COLA Act (H.R. 1585), the CPI for Seniors Act (H.R. 2154), and the Social Security Guarantee Act (H.R. 1275). Each of them would go a long way in ensuring that seniors receive the retirement security they deserve.
Please join us in our efforts by signing our Social Security Fairness petition to Congress, or by calling your elected officials and asking them to support CPI-E legislation.