SOCIAL SECURITY AND CHAINED CPI

ABSTRACT: In his federal government budget, President Obama has proposed cutting future Social Security benefits. He has done so in a way that is probably meant to obscure this fact. The Social Security Administration estimates that the result would be a 5% cut in benefits over every 12 year period.

It would not reduce the annual deficit, because SS has its own, dedicated funding stream. Social Security (SS) does not have a major funding problem; its shortfall 20 years from now is easily remedied.

Therefore, it seems that the only reason President Obama is proposing this cut in SS benefits is to offer a political olive branch to Republicans who want to cut SS because they are ideologically opposed to it.

An average 77 year old is receiving $23,832 per year from SS. If chained CPI had been used over the last 12 years, this person would be receiving $22,560 instead. Despite the very modest level of income that SS provides, one-third of seniors rely on SS for at least 90% of their income and another third for over 50% of their income.

The use of chained CPI as the government’s new, official measure of inflation will also, over time, reduce low income families’ eligibility for benefits and push low and middle income taxpayers into higher income tax rate brackets. Thus, it will disproportionately hit low and moderate income families. This would be morally and ethically questionable in the best of times, but with low and middle income families still suffering from the effects of the Great Recession, and income and wealth inequality at levels unseen for at least 80 years, this is unconscionable.

I urge you to contact the President, your Senators, and your Congressperson in the House of Representatives and ask them to oppose this change – or to explain why they support it.

FULL POST: In his federal government budget, President Obama has proposed cutting future Social Security benefits. He has done so in a way that is probably meant to obscure this fact or at least muddy the waters so his proposal isn’t describe as a benefit reduction.

Obama has proposed that the annual inflation adjustment for Social Security (SS) benefits be calculated differently. Instead of using the current Consumer Price Index (CPI), he proposes using a figure called the “chained CPI.” [1] It gives a lower estimate of inflation than CPI, so benefits would increase more slowly. The Social Security Administration estimates that the result would be a 5% reduction in benefits over every 12 year period.

This would cut total SS payments by $10 – $20 billion per year over the next 10 years. However, it would not reduce the annual deficit (which is roughly $800 billion), because SS has its own, dedicated funding stream and is not part of the regular federal budget. Furthermore, SS does not have a major funding problem; its shortfall 20 years from now is easily remedied by other steps that don’t reduce future payments to retirees. (See posts of 1/7/13 and 12/4/11 for more details.)

Therefore, it seems that the only reason President Obama is proposing this cut in SS benefits is to offer a political olive branch to Republicans who want to cut SS because they are ideologically opposed to it.

An average 77 year old is receiving $23,832 per year from SS. If chained CPI had been used over the last 12 years, this person would be receiving $22,560 instead, $1,272 less or a little over a 5% reduction. [2]

Despite the very modest level of income that SS provides, one-third of seniors rely on SS for at least 90% of their income and another third for over 50% of their income. Chained CPI won’t keep up with the inflation that seniors actually experience, given the high portions of their incomes that go for the necessities of food and health care. [3]

And if that isn’t bad enough, remember that SS was meant to be one leg of a three legged stool of retirement security that included employer pension plans and personal savings. Employer pensions have disappeared for most workers and have, at best, been turned into personal savings plans, such as 401ks, where workers have all the risk, just like other personal savings. Given this, now is not the time to be cutting SS, the only guaranteed retirement benefit left in what is now a much less stable and riskier two legged stool.

The use of chained CPI as the government’s new, official measure of inflation will also, over time, reduce low income families’ eligibility for benefits and push low and middle income taxpayers into higher income tax rate brackets. For example, the federal poverty rate is adjusted annually for inflation. Using chained CPI, it will rise more slowly and, in the future, fewer families will fall below the poverty line, which is used to determine eligibility for programs from Head Start to health care, food, and heating assistance. The federal income tax brackets are also adjusted annually for inflation. With the cut off amounts for higher income tax rate brackets rising more slowly, more taxpayers will fall into higher brackets, increasing their income tax. This doesn’t affect the wealthy, of course, because they are already in the top bracket. [4]

The bottom line is that this change in the measure of inflation that is used to calculate Social Security benefits, eligibility for many anti-poverty programs, and income tax rate brackets will disproportionately hit low and moderate income families. This would be morally and ethically questionable in the best of times, but with low and middle income families still suffering from the effects of the Great Recession, and income and wealth inequality at levels unseen for at least 80 years, this is unconscionable.

In reality, this is a backdoor way to cut benefits for SS recipients and low income families, and to have low and middle income taxpayers pay more in income taxes – without having to say that’s what you’re doing. Obfuscation is the name of this game.

I urge you to contact the President, your Senators, and your Congressperson in the House of Representatives and ask them to oppose this change – or to explain why they support it.


 

[1]       Chained CPI assumes that as the prices of goods and services rise, consumers substitute less costly alternatives. For example, if gas prices rise, consumers use their cars less or buy (usually smaller) cars that get better gas mileage. Or if the price of beef goes up, they buy less beef and more chicken or less meat overall. Or if the price of heating oil goes up, consumers turn down the heat and use electric space heaters to heat only the rooms in which they spend time. First, this sounds, in many cases, like a decline in one’s standard of living or quality of life. Second, in some cases buying a cheaper substitute isn’t really an option. When the cost of health insurance and health care goes up, there often isn’t a way to buy a less costly alternative. And for seniors, this is a big part of their budget.

[2]       Matthews, D., 12/11/12, “Everything you need to know about Chained CPI in one post,” The Washington Post

[3]       Warren, E., 4/10/13, Newsletter from Senator Elizabeth Warren

[4]       Ohlemacher, S., 4/8/13, “Obama plan hits seniors, low-income taxpayers,” Associated Press (in the Reading Daily Times Chronicle)

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2 comments

  1. Thank you for resuming your post and for doing this post on social security!

    1. Julia,

      Thanks! It’s good to get back to blogging. There are lots of important decisions and votes happening. I’ll keep you posted on as many of them as I can.

      Take care,

      John

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