Chained CPI and Social Security: Some Questions and Answers

Back in January I said I’d delve into the impacts of using the chained CPI (Consumer Price Index) to adjust Social Security benefits.

Then the President delivered a strong defense of “the commitments we make to each other,” including Social Security. So I put my draft post aside, figuring the chained CPI was off the bargaining table.

The more fool I. As you’ve probably read, it’s among the entitlement “reforms” in the President’s proposed budget.

The White House has taken great care to package it with other changes that would supposedly protect very elderly retirees and others who’ve relied on Social Security benefits for a long time. Also to shield programs that base eligibility on income.

But as economist/blogger Jared Bernstein said some time ago, the danger is that protections like these will all get swept aside, leaving only the benefits cuts.

Here then are some of the basic issues, as I see them. More to follow in a second post.

Why Do Anything About Social Security?

Our federal policymakers must do something about the Social Security retirement and disability insurance programs — and the sooner the better.

The Trust Fund will run out of money long about 2033. If nothing is done before then, the Social Security Administration will have to rely solely on what it continuously receives from payroll taxes.

That would be enough to pay about 75% of the benefits retirees would get if the Trust Fund still had reserves — a devastating loss for the nearly two-thirds who rely mainly or entirely on those benefits.

What Could Prevent the Shortfall?

At the risk of over-simplifying, our policymakers have two choices, not counting just letting the Trust Fund dry up. They could change the system to take in more or pay out less.

A switch to the chained CPI represents the latter approach because it rises more slowly than the currently-used index — the CPI-W. So, therefore, would the benefits that seniors, severely disabled former workers and eligible survivors receive.

Policymakers could instead “scrap the cap” on the amount of wage income subject to the tax that feeds the Social Security programs.

Or they could raise it enough to cover all but the top 10% of income, as it did in 1982 after Congress stepped in to shore up the program — not for the last time, incidentally.

High earners wouldn’t like this, of course. Nor perhaps would employers, since they’re responsible for half the payroll tax.

The National Federation of Independent Business has already said that its small business members “would violently oppose” it. These, as you know, are the “job creators” that our President and Congressional leaders are so fond of.

Is the Chained CPI More Accurate for Cost-of-Living Adjustments

Proponents of the chained CPI claim that it’s simply a more accurate cost-of-living measure because it reflects consumer responses to price increases. If the price of beef goes up, they buy less of it and more chicken. Etc.

Opponents argue that the index isn’t more accurate for seniors because they spend far higher portions of their income on items that aren’t amenable to switches, especially health care.

Even the CPI-W apparently understates their cost-of-living increases.

For some time now, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has maintained an experimental cost-of-living index specifically for the elderly. Over the long haul, it has risen somewhat faster than the CPI-W. And Social Security’s chief actuary expects it will in the future.

We’d probably see similar results from a cost-of-living measure for people with severe disabilities, since many of them also have disproportionately high health care costs.

So if accuracy were the real issue, Congress would give BLS the funds to fully develop its experimental index, as The New York Times, among others, has suggested.

What Other Objections Have Opponents Raised?

The over-riding objection to the chained CPI switch is that it would effectively cut benefits. The loss in any one year would be small. But losses would mount up over time because the base for each cost-of-living adjustment, as well as the COLA itself, would be lower.

The average earner, says the Strengthen Social Security Campaign, would lose a total of $4,631 by age 75 — more than three months of benefits. Another 10 years and the loss would mount to nearly a year’s worth of benefits.

We need to recall that retired workers now get, on average, only $1,261 a month — and former workers in the Social Security Disability Insurance program somewhat less.

For 36% of seniors, Social Security provides at least 90% of income — not surprising, given what we know about retirement savings. It’s the sole source of income for 29% of the most elderly.

As I mentioned earlier, the President’s budget includes a “benefit enhancement” — popularly known as a bump up. It’s supposed to restore the cumulative losses for people who live long enough to benefit.

Most who do would still get less, according to the SSS Campaign.

Those who don’t are just out of luck, of course. And they’re disproportionately lower-income people, for whom every Social Security dollar counts.

UPDATE: After I published this, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities issued a brief that provides more detail on the impacts of the chained CPI on Social Security retirement benefits.


2 Responses to Chained CPI and Social Security: Some Questions and Answers

  1. […] last post took on some of the basic questions raised by the debate over using the chained CPI (Consumer Price […]

  2. […] Another, no longer favored by Obama, would make cost-of-living adjustments even smaller, though the COLA measure now used apparently understates what seniors must spend to meet their basic needs. […]

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