Why Is the Chained CPI in the President’s Budget?

April 25, 2013

My last post took on some of the basic questions raised by the debate over using the chained CPI (Consumer Price Index) to adjust Social Security benefits.

I deferred the question in the headline here because the post was already quite long, and the answer isn’t simple. So here goes …

Social Security and the Deficit

Strictly speaking, Social Security doesn’t belong in the budget at all — at least, not in the package of spending and revenue proposals we ordinarily think of as such.

It has its own revenue stream — the payroll tax, plus an earmarked portion of income taxes paid on some of the benefits it provides. It also has $2.7 trillion in reserves, i.e., the unused portion of these taxes, invested in Treasury bonds, and the interest on these.

That’s all it’s got.

A shortfall would be dreadful, but it would have no impact on the deficit — unless, as seems likely, Congress used general tax revenues to avert a sudden, big benefits cut.

This, however, is an argument for crafting a measure that will keep the program solvent, not for putting the chained CPI in the budget.

Some say that the Trust Fund is just an accounting fiction. The Treasury bonds the reserves are invested in signify money that’s being used to help pay for items in what we ordinarily think of as the budget.

When Social Security starts drawing on its reserves, as it already has, the Treasury Department has to sell some bonds to other investors in order to pay the program what it owes — or use revenues from taxes not specifically intended for Social Security.

This doesn’t mean that Social Security is contributing to the deficit, however — any more than you or I could be said to increase the deficit if we cashed in some savings bonds a grandparent once gave us.

More Revenues Without Tax Reform

The chained CPI is probably in the President’s budget in part because it would increase tax revenues without any rate-raising or loophole-closing at all.

According to Congressional Budget Office estimates, the federal government would gain $123.7 billion* over the first 10 years because tax brackets and other annually-adjusted tax provisions, e.g., the personal exemption and standard deduction, would rise more slowly.

So even a quite small increase in income could get taxed at a higher rate. The amount we’d owe wouldn’t be a whole lot greater than what we’d owe if the Internal Revenue Service continued to use the same inflation measure it’s been using.

But the tax code would be somewhat less progressive because filers at fairly low and moderate-income levels would take the biggest hits.

And at least some low and moderate-income families would get smaller reductions and/or refunds from the Earned Income Tax Credit because the maximum credit is adjusted for inflation, as are the phase-outs that gradually lower the credit when earnings reach some level above the amount eligible for the maximum.

There would be no impact on the refundable Child Tax Credit if Congress makes the current threshold for claiming it permanent, as the President has proposed.

Big if here, since we know that Congressional Republicans have wanted the EITC and the Child Tax Credit to revert to their more restrictive pre-Recovery Act forms.

Political Strategy

The revenues raised would be a small portion of the total increase the President now says he’d settle for. So it’s pretty clear the chained CPI is in the budget mainly for strategic reasons.

The received wisdom seems to be that he’s again striving for a grand bargain — offering Republican Congressional leaders the chained CPI and Medicare spending cuts they said they wanted in the fond hope they’ll agree to a scaled-back revenue-raising plan.

Or if not that, perhaps proving they’re altogether unreasonable and ought to lose their House majority next year so that Congress can get important business done.

This is what Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast thinks the President is up to — and why he thinks no one should fret about the chained CPI.

The Nation‘s John Nichols thinks otherwise. Look, he says, at how the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee is already messaging the President’s proposal as a “shocking assault on seniors.”

This is likely to depress votes for Democrats next year, Nichols predicts, citing examples from past mid-term Congressional elections.

The chained CPI proposal certainly has complicated life for Democrats in Congress now, even if they ultimately don’t have to cast an up-or-down vote on it — still TBD.

The larger issue, I think, is that the President has, to some extent, legitimized use of the chained CPI as a way to “save” Social Security — and chosen it instead of lifting the payroll tax cap.

So, as Blake Zeff at Salon asks, “How hard would it be for Republicans to push cuts through, when this [the chained CPI] is now mainstream Democratic policy?”

Cuts, I’d add, that could extend to programs specifically for low-income people, which the President’s proposal would hold harmless.

Note how House Majority Leader John Boehner grudgingly welcomes the chained CPI as an acknowledgment that “our safety net programs are unsustainable.”

This implies something far more sweeping than what the President has proposed for Social Security and Medicare, which arguably aren’t safety net programs anyway.

Well, maybe the rumblings and grumblings, mine included, are just worst-case scenarios. But I’m not ready to bet on that.

* The Office of Management and Budget estimates the revenue gain at $100 billion. Differences between CBO and OMB estimates are not unusual.


Chained CPI and Social Security: Some Questions and Answers

April 22, 2013

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.

More at Stake With the Chained CPI Than Social Security Benefits

January 25, 2013

As perhaps you know, the President’s last comprehensive “fiscal cliff” proposal included the adoption of a new inflation measure — the Chained Consumer Price Index.

We’ve heard about it before, but almost exclusively as a way to curb spending on Social Security retirement benefits. And that’s what we’re hearing most about now.

But what the President proposed was apparently a global switch to the chained CPI, with some unspecified protections for “the most vulnerable.”

Just because Congress decided to punt on the “fiscal cliff” doesn’t mean something of this sort won’t resurface.

In fact, it already has in a bill co-sponsored by Tennessee’s Republican Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander.

Like the President’s offer, the Corker-Alexander bill would make the chained CPI the inflation measure used for all federal cost-of-living adjustments.

So it would raise more tax revenues, with the highest percent increases coming from fairly low-income households.

It would also make relatively fewer people eligible for a host of safety net programs and, in some cases, reduce the benefits those still eligible would get, relative to what they could expect if there were no CPI switch.

The same result, of course, for Social Security retirement benefits.

I’ll deal here with the eligibility issue and return to benefit cuts in a separate post. But first, a super-simple primer to set the context.

Chained CPI 101

At this point, the federal government uses the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) to make what are basically cost-of-living adjustments in both the tax code and the Census Bureau’s poverty thresholds.

A somewhat different index — the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) — is used to adjust all major federal retirement benefits, including Social Security, and Social Security disability benefits as well.

Both these indexes reflect the prices consumers pay for a set market basket of goods and services. When the average costs of the total go up, so do  the CPIs.

But, say economists, consumers change their purchasing practices when the costs of certain items rise. For example, if the price of beef goes up, they buy less of it and more chicken.

The chained CPI is designed to capture these changes. So the cost-of-living increases it produces are lower than those based on a a market basket that isn’t continuously re-weighted to reflect substitutions.

Eligibility for Safety Net Benefits

More than 30 federal anti-poverty programs based their income cut-offs or targeting on the federal poverty guidelines,* as do some state and local programs.

The federal programs include many we think of as key parts of the safety net, e.g., the food stamp program, other nutrition assistance programs, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, LIHEAP (the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program).

The poverty guidelines are simplified versions of the Census Bureau’s official poverty thresholds. These, as I’ve said, are annually adjusted using the CPI-U.

The chained CPI would thus mean smaller upward adjustments in the income cut-offs — not much smaller in any given year, but cumulative over time.

Bad Policymaking

I see at least three problems with the result I’ve just described.

First, the thresholds already significantly understate the number of poor people in this country, as even the Census Bureau’s still-evolving Supplemental Poverty Measure shows.

This is partly because the thresholds are based on an outdated minimum cost-of-living measure — three times the cost of what used to be the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s cheapest food plan.

The annual adjustments compound the problem because the CPI-U understates living-cost increases for households in the bottom fifth of the income scale — or so the research we have suggests.

Use of the chained CPI would thus, as Shawn Fremstad at the Center for Economic and Policy Research says, define deprivation downward, even more than use of the current thresholds do.

At the same time, the living-cost research tells us that the chained CPI probably isn’t more accurate for low-income households — quite the opposite, in fact.

So using it would unjustly exclude even more people from the safety net — assuming the proper measure is insufficient income to pay for basic living needs. And if not that, what?

Finally, the proposed switch to the chained CPI is an underhanded way to make consequential policy changes. And that, as Wonkblogger Dylan Matthews says, is what makes it so attractive.

If our policymakers want to shrink the safety net, then they should say so forthrightly, name the programs and give us the figures — not trot out a supposedly technical change that only the most wonkish among us can understand.

* The official list of programs that use the federal poverty guidelines says that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program doesn’t. This is because states can set income eligibility standards for TANF however they choose. Fourteen expressly use the federal poverty level, which I assume means the guidelines.

We Can Shore Up Social Security Without Harming Seniors

June 18, 2012

Every year for quite awhile now, the annual Social Security Trustees’ report evokes alarmist headlines.

“Social Security Still Going Broke (Again),” trumpets the National Taxpayers Union. Politico columnist John Goodman chimes in with “Social Security trustees: We’re going broke.”

And every year experts — and responsible news media too — explain that the Trust Fund isn’t going broke at all.

What with payroll taxes coming in, plus interest on the reserves invested in Treasury bonds, the Fund is now expected to have enough to pay full retirement benefits until 2033.

After that, it will still have enough to pay three-quarters of what retirees should get under current law until 2086.

This year’s report nevertheless projects a shortfall three years sooner than last year’s. Trustees blame the economy — specifically, lower real earnings due to the energy price spike and sluggish growth in average hours worked.

Republicans don’t fret such nuances. They blame the President for not reforming entitlement programs — as if this is something he could do without their votes in Congress.

Well, there are apparently proposals they’d be willing to support — unless they came from the White House, of course.

Back in 2010, House Majority Leader John Boehner teed up the idea of raising the retirement age again. Several leading House Democrats seemed willing to consider this, though it’s doubtful they’d stick their necks out now.

Three Republican Senators introduced an additional wrinkle last year. Once the retirement age gets to 70, index it to life expectancy — presumably in expectation that the average life span will continue to increase.

Average life span, note, not the life expectancy for low-income people. Overall life expectancy gains have masked significant — and growing — differences between richer and poorer Americans.*

The Senators also proposed changing the benefits formula so that “high earners” — those with average annual earnings of a mere $43,000 a year — would get less than they would under current law.

Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney apparently has something similar in mind — for both the age increase and the curbed benefits growth for those “with higher incomes.” Needless to say, no details here.

The modified means test is one of several schemes for reducing Social Security pay-outs.

One that’s gotten more play across the political spectrum would adopt a different cost-of-living adjustment index.

The COLA is now linked to the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) — a measure based on the costs of a standardized market basket of goods and services typically purchased by households in the groups named.

Economists of diverse political leanings have suggested switching to the so-called chained (or chain-weighted) Consumer Price Index.

The co-chairs of the President’s deficit reduction commission liked this idea. So did both the concurrent Bipartisan Policy Center Task Force and the Gang of Six Congress members who later thrashed out an abortive plan to end the debt ceiling standoff.

The chained CPI attempts to reflect consumers’ behavior in response to prices as well as prices themselves — specifically the fact that people change their buying habits when prices rise. When beef prices increase, they buy less steak and more chicken, etc.

A switch to this CPI would thus slow benefits growth. But would it accurately reflect retirees’ living costs? Apparently not.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has been maintaining an experimental CPI for elderly Americans for about 30 years now. It’s found that the index rises somewhat faster than the CPI-W, mainly because seniors spend a greater share of their budgets on health care, housing and, to a lesser extent, heating oil.

The average gap between the indexes isn’t great for any one year, but it mounts up over time. Switch to an index that rises more slowly than the CPI-W and the gap between living costs and benefits increases.

So we’ve got objections to this, objections to that. Yet everyone agrees that Social Security needs some sort of fix. And the sooner it’s made, the less drastic it will have to be.

There’s another obvious fix. Scrap the cap, as it’s commonly referred to. In other words, subject all earnings to the payroll tax rather than give a free pass to everything over a fixed amount.

The cap is adjusted annually, using yet another CPI, but nothing’s been done since 1983 to capture the increasing amount of income flowing to a relatively small number of high-earners.

As a result, the tax has become more regressive. And the Trust Fund is losing revenues that could help it stay solvent — perhaps for 75 years, the Strengthen Social Security coalition says.

Scrapping the cap alone won’t solve the problem, however.

If that’s all that’s done, then the extra revenues gained would ultimately get paid out in higher benefits because, at this point, benefits are based partly on lifetime income subject to the payroll tax.

But one could adjust the formula so that contributions above the current cap didn’t count toward benefits — or did, but only partially, as Congressman Ted Deutsch (D-FL) has proposed.

Seems to me a whole lot fairer to lift the cap than to force people in their late 60s to continue working — or fall into poverty because they can’t get work if they lose their jobs.

Also fairer than reducing benefits across-the-board when we know — or ought to — that a large majority of seniors would be hard put to pay for basic living costs, as about one in six are even now.

* A recent brief by the Economic Policy Institute addresses in detail other arguments against raising the retirement age. Heavily sourced for those who want to plunge in even further.