Sunday, June 16, 2013

Social Security Cost of Living Increases Under a Chained CPI

Since 1975, Social Security beneficiaries have received automatic annual COLA's or cost-of-living adjustments.  These were set up so that our benefits would increase every year in which there was inflation.  Over the decades, COLA's have protected millions of retirees from losing their ability to survive on their benefits plus, ideally, their retirement savings and/or a pension.

Historically, the cost-of-living adjustments have amounted to as much as 14.3% in 1980 down to 0% in both 2010 and 2011.  In 2013, the COLA was only 1.7%.  The amount of the increase each year has traditionally been based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI-W) for the year preceding the increase.  For the average Social Security beneficiary who was receiving $1,240 in 2012, the 1.7% increase raised the amount they were receiving to $1,261 a month. 

The Consumer Price Index that has been used to calculate the size of the of COLA's is based on the prices paid by urban consumers for a specific list of goods and services.  The inflation calculation that has been used in the past is the CPI-W, which is based on goods and services used by urban American workers.  This has been criticized because some advocates for the elderly believe that the CPI-E (or Consumer Price Index for the Elderly) should be used instead.  It relies more heavily on expenses commonly incurred by senior citizens, such as rising health care costs.  However, CPI-W has been used instead, although it is a less generous indicator of inflation.

Now, however, Congress is seriously considering replacing the CPI-W with the even less generous chained CPI.  According to many advocates for seniors, including AARP, this will effectively be the same as a net benefit cut for retirees, as well as for disabled Veterans, who would also see their COLA adjustments change.

President Nixon signed the Social Security COLA law into effect in 1972.  Since then, cost of living increases have been legally mandated whenever the CPI indicates that there has been measurable inflation.  During the past four years, however, the TOTAL cost-of-living increases have only amounted to less than 6%.  Despite this, there is a good chance that future COLA's will be even smaller, should the chained CPI replace the CPI-W as a measure of calculating inflation.

What is the difference between the traditional CPI-W and the chained CPI?  The CPI-W is a formula that measures changes in the cost of items that workers typically purchase.  A chained CPI assumes that, when prices for an item go up, people will substitute less expensive items.  For example, if beef prices rise people will eat more chicken; therefore, they will not actually be spending more money.  This means that the size of the Social Security cost-of-living adjustments do not need to be as large.

At first the difference in the cost-of-living adjustments may not seem to be very much, perhaps just $44 less annually during the first year.  However, the amount of lost revenue continues to compound annually.  For example, AARP estimates that a typical Social Security recipient who is receiving $20,000 a year when he retires at age 65, by age 70 will have lost $662 in cumulative benefits under a chained CPI than they would have earned under a CPI-W.  By age 80, they will have received $5,248 less; and by age 90 they will have lost $14,076 in cumulative payments.

Remember, the CPI-W is already less generous than the CPI-E which many advocates for seniors believe we should be using instead.  To go from a CPI-W to a chained CPI could be devastating for the majority of seniors who will continue to fall behind inflation during the portion of their lives when they may be facing high expenses for medical and personal care.  By the time seniors have been retired 15 or 20 years, very few of them are able to work and recoup the amount of income they are losing to inflation. 

If we Baby Boomers allow this change in the way our future cost-of-living increases are calculated, we could face a very difficult time during our retirement years.  ARRP suggests that everyone who is concerned about this issue write to the President, your Senators and your U.S. Representatives before this change becomes law.

If you wish to see how these changes could affect you personally, use the AARP calculator at


If you are interested in reading more about retirement planning, check out the index articles listed below.  Each one contains some general information as well as links to other articles on that topic.

Gifts, Travel and Family Relationships

Great Places for Boomers to Retire Overseas

Great Places to Retire in the United States

Health and Medical Topics for Baby Boomers

Money and Financial Planning for Retirement

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  1. This is an important call to action and a very helpful article. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  2. Thank you for your comment. I know that this is a very difficult issue to understand, so many people are simply ignoring the change. However, I believe that people will be very upset when they realize how little they are receiving in the future in Cost of Living Increases. I hope that Congress will reconsider this decision.

  3. This is a nice tools I found that shows soical security COLA increases through history

  4. I think Its a low % of increment in social security benefits comparison of Cost of Living Increases.
    social security in las vegas


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