What’s At Stake for Social Security Benefits In the Upcoming Election?

What’s At Stake for Social Security Benefits In the Upcoming Election?

Mary Johnson, editor

Voters are worried about the impact that midterm elections could have on Social Security benefits.  The U.S. Congressional Budget Office estimates that recent tax reform will add $1.8 trillion to the federal deficit over the next 10 years.  To make matters worse, the Social Security trustees recently reported program financing has eroded, and estimated that the trust funds will run short by 2034, due to lower-than-expected revenue from tax law changes.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan announced earlier this year that he wants to overhaul entitlement spending.  TSCL is concerned that, after the elections, Congress could address rising deficits by moving legislation that would cut Social Security benefits.

The most widely-discussed proposals to revamp Social Security include raising the eligibility age, making the benefit formula less generous, and reducing the Social Security cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs).  Reducing COLAs would impact the lifetime Social Security benefits of all current beneficiaries, as well as affecting future retirees.  Under discussion is a proposal that would reduce COLAs by switching to a more slowly-growing, “chained” consumer price index to calculate the annual benefit boost.  In fact the new tax law, recently did something similar.  Indexing of income tax brackets, the standard deduction, and other parameters of the tax code for inflation was tied to a chained COLA.  That means that people will pay higher taxes over time, as the standard deduction becomes less generous, while rising income would tend to push older taxpayers into higher brackets.

With it looking increasingly likely that Social Security beneficiaries will receive the highest COLA in seven years —about 3.3% in 2019 — proponents of “chaining” the COLA are likely to try to argue that the COLA under current law overpays recipients.  Proponents of using the chained consumer price index to calculate the COLA claim that the chained consumer price index (CPI) is more “accurate” in calculating the COLA because it takes into account how people substitute other items when prices change.

This claim, as you probably suspect, is hogwash.  The CPI currently used to calculate the COLA underpays, not overpays retirees because it is based on the spending patterns of younger working adults.  Yet younger workers spend less than half the amount on healthcare costs than people over the age of 65 do.  Retirees also spend a bigger share of their income on housing.

In fact, when the COLA increases since 2000 are compared with the typical cost increases that retirees experienced over the same period, Social Security benefits have lost 34% of their buying power.  COLAs increased benefits a total of 46 percent, while typical senior expenses have jumped 96.3 percent between 2000 through the first week of 2018.  To put it in perspective, for every $100 worth of groceries a retiree household could afford in 2000, they can only buy $66 worth today.