Should Social Security Benefits be Adjusted Using a Locality-based Payment Rate?

Should Social Security Benefits be Adjusted Using a Locality-based Payment Rate?

Mary Johnson, editor

Should Social Security benefits be adjusted annually using a locality – based payment rate?  Some of you, particularly those of you who are retired federal employees know far more about locality - based pay adjustments than I do.  I hope you folks can set us straight on a new legislative proposal that would use locality- based pay adjustment rates to adjust Social Security benefits.  My quest­ion to you — is this a good idea?  Why or why not?

Under current law, Social Security benefits are adjusted annually based on changes in the consumer price index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W).  According to the Social Security Administration, the intent of the annual cost of living adjustment (COLA) is to help protect the buying power of benefits from increases in inflation.  All beneficiaries receive the same percentage of increase, but the dollar amount varies based on the amount of benefits that one receives.  In years in which inflation has gone down, there can be no COLA at all.

Locality pay adjustments are currently used to adjust the paychecks of federal workers.  Federal employees receive a two-part pay adjustment that includes base pay (which is established by a specific formula set by law) and locality pay adjustments.  The locality pay adjustment varies depending on where the employee works.  The parameters aren’t set by law but use metropolitan statistical areas to define locality pay areas.

While inflation varies significantly depending on the area of the country in which people live, locality - based payment rates are not calculated on living costs or specific price levels like the COLA.  According to a story appearing on the Federal News Network’s website, this is a common misconception about locality pay.  In fact, consumer inflation is not even a factor when setting locality pay.

Instead, locality pay increases are intended to keep the salaries of current federal workers competitive with private sector jobs in the same locality pay area.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics measures non-federal compensation in a particular market and compares it to federal pay for federal employees who perform similar work in the same region.  The gap between the two helps determine the locality pay adjustment for a specific area in a given year.

What would locality pay adjustments mean for your Social Security benefits?  It’s unclear, and likely difficult to estimate.  Studies would have to be performed to compare locality - based pay adjustments to what future annual COLAs might be.   Locality pay adjustments would be higher in areas where private sector pay scales are higher than those of federal workers, and lower in areas where pay scales are lower.  The percentage of the annual locality pay increase would vary depending on where you live.  Some retirees would receive a lower percentage of increase, or even no increase, while others a higher percentage.

The legislative proposal also does not specify whether the locality pay adjustment would be applied in addition to the COLA or used instead of a COLA.  If the intention is to add a second adjustment in addition to the COLA my guess is that many retirees would welcome the additional boost.  Should the proposal be intended to replace the COLA that brings a higher level of uncertainty to the annual adjustments than we already experience.  For people who live in areas where private sector pay is on an even level with federal pay or lower, those retirees may wind up with little or no locality pay adjustment, perhaps over the course of many years.

Since people often move when they retire, under locality pay adjustment rates, the area they choose to live in during retirement could significantly impact the amount of Social Security they receive.  Would retirees crowd into areas of the country with high locality pay adjustments?

Finally, locality pay is subject to the approval of the President, and thus subject to politics.  In 2019, the average locality pay adjustment was 0.5%.  The annual COLA was 2.8%.  The calculation has also been challenged by economists and the nonpartisan CBO as not being accurate.  What do you think about using locality pay adjustment rates to adjust Social Security?  To send a comment or take a poll on this topic visit