October 23, 2014 / 12:15 PM / 4 years ago

The COLA crunch: Why Social Security isn't keeping up with seniors' costs

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Social Security’s annual inflation adjustment is one of the program’s most valuable features. But it’s time to adjust the adjustment.

A man soaks his feet in a fountain while reading a magazine on the Rose Kennedy Greenway on a warm summer afternoon in Boston, Massachusetts July 19, 2011. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Retirees will get a 1.7 percent bump in their Social Security benefit next year, according to the Social Security Administration, which announced the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) on Wednesday. Recipients of disability benefits and Supplemental Security Income also will receive the COLA.

That reflects continuing slow inflation in the economy - the COLA has averaged 1.6 percent over the past four years - but it’s not enough to keep up with the higher inflation retirees face.

My in-box fills up with angry e-mail messages about the COLA every year. So if you’re gearing up to accuse Washington politicians of conspiring against seniors, please note: By law, the COLA is determined by a formula that ties it to the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W), which is compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

There is good news about this year’s COLA: Beneficiaries will keep every penny. There won’t be any offset for a higher Medicare Part B premium, which typically is deducted from Social Security payments. The premium will stay at $104.90 for the third consecutive year.

Still, the COLA formula should be revised as part of the broader Social Security reform that Congress must tackle. Many economists and policymakers say the CPI-W doesn’t measure retiree inflation accurately.

“From an ideal math perspective, what you want is a calculation based on an index that matches retirees’ cost of living,” says Polina Vlasenko, a senior research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. “The CPI-W is constructed to measure spending patterns of urban wage earners, and it’s pretty clear that retired people spend differently than wage earners.”

A recent national survey by the Senior Citizens League illustrates the cost pressures seniors, especially those living on fixed, lower amounts of income, face. Half of retirees said their monthly expenses rose more than $119 this year, while an even higher percentage (65 percent) said their benefits rose by less than $19 per month.

Other research by the group, based on BLS data, shows that Social Security beneficiaries have lost 31 percent of their buying power since 2000. Among big-ticket items, the largest price hikes were for property taxes (104 percent), gasoline (160 percent), some types of food and healthcare expenses.

Low COLAs also cut into future benefits for Americans who are eligible for benefits (ages 62 to 70) but haven’t yet filed. When you delay taking benefits until a later age – say, full retirement age (66) - you get full benefits increased by the COLAs awarded for the intervening years.

COLAs are prominent in the debate over Social Security reform that is likely to be rekindled in the next Congress (reut.rs/1omD5yq). COLA reform could involve more generous adjustments - or a benefit cut. A cut would be achieved by adopting the “chained CPI,” which some say more accurately measures changes in consumer spending by reflecting substitution of purchases that they make when prices rise. The Social Security Administration has estimated the chained CPI would reduce COLAs by three-tenths of a percent annually.

A more generous COLA would come via the CPI-E (for “elderly”), an alternative, experimental index maintained by the BLS that is more sensitive to retirees’ spending. That index generally rises two-tenths of a percent faster than the CPI-W.

Congress has been gridlocked on Social Security, but public opinion is clear. The National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) released a national poll Thursday that shows 72 percent support raising benefits. The survey also asks Americans to say how reform should be paid for. The most popular options (71 percent) included a gradual elimination of the cap on income taxed for Social Security ($117,000 this year, and $118,500 in 2015) and a gradual increase over 20 years on the payroll tax rates workers and employers both pay, from 6.2 percent to 7.2 percent.

Poll respondents also backed adoption of a more generous COLA, such as the CPI-E.

“Seniors are noticing the very small COLAs, and they just have a feeling that prices are going up more than that,” says Virginia Reno, NASI’s vice president for income security policy. “If you measure the market basket separately for seniors, average inflation has been a bit higher because they spend a larger share of their money on healthcare, and for things like housing and heating.”

Follow us @ReutersMoney or here. Editing by Douglas Royalty

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