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Economy

Social Security COLA Largest in Decades as Inflation Jumps

October 13, 2021

WASHINGTON — Millions of retirees on Social Security will get a 5.9% boost in benefits for 2022. The biggest cost-of-living adjustment in 39 years follows a burst in inflation as the economy struggles to shake off the drag of the coronavirus pandemic.

The COLA, as it's commonly called, amounts to $92 a month for the average retired worker, according to estimates released Wednesday by the Social Security Administration. That marks an abrupt break from a long lull in inflation that saw cost-of-living adjustments averaging just 1.65% a year over the past 10 years.

With the increase, the estimated average Social Security payment for a retired worker will be $1,657 a month next year. A typical couple's benefits would rise by $154 to $2,753 per month.

But that's just to help make up for rising costs that recipients are already paying for food, transportation and other goods and services.

"It goes pretty quickly," retiree Cliff Rumsey said of the cost-of-living increases he's seen. After a career in sales for a leading steel manufacturer, Rumsey lives near Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. He cares at home for his wife of nearly 60 years, Judy, who has advanced Alzheimer's disease. Since the coronavirus pandemic, Rumsey said he has noted price increases for food, wages paid to caregivers who occasionally spell him and personal care products for Judy, not to mention energy costs.

The COLA affects household budgets for about 1 in 5 Americans. That includes Social Security recipients, disabled veterans and federal retirees, nearly 70 million people in all. For baby boomers who embarked on retirement within the past 15 years, it will be the biggest increase they've seen.

"It's going to be welcome," said analyst Mary Johnson of the nonpartisan Senior Citizens League advocacy group. "But what we are hearing is that even with the COLA, buying power will still be eroded because price increases are still going up."

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins called the government payout increase "crucial for Social Security beneficiaries and their families as they try to keep up with rising costs."

Policymakers say the COLA was designed as a safeguard to protect Social Security benefits against the loss of purchasing power, and not a pay bump for retirees. About half of seniors live in households where Social Security benefits provide at least 50% of their income, and one-quarter rely on their monthly payment for all or nearly all their income.

"Regardless of the size of the COLA, you never want to minimize the importance of the COLA," said retirement policy expert Charles Blahous, a former public trustee helping to oversee Social Security and Medicare finances. "What people are able to purchase is very profoundly affected by the number that comes out. We are talking the necessities of living in many cases."

This year's Social Security trustees report amplified warnings about the long-range financial stability of the program, but there's little talk about fixes in Congress with lawmakers' attention consumed by President Joe Biden's massive domestic  legislation and partisan machinations over the national debt. Social Security cannot be addressed through the budget reconciliation process Democrats are attempting to use to deliver Biden's promises.

But Social Security's turn will come, said Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., chairman of the House Social Security subcommittee and author of legislation to tackle looming shortfalls that would leave the program unable to pay full benefits in less than 15 years. His bill would raise payroll taxes while also changing the COLA formula to give more weight to health care expenses and other costs that weigh more heavily on the elderly. Larson said he intends to press ahead next year.

"This one-time shot of COLA is not the antidote," he said.

Although Biden's domestic package includes a major expansion of Medicare to cover dental, hearing and vision care, Larson said he hears from constituents that seniors are feeling neglected by the Democrats.

"In town halls and tele-town halls they're saying, 'We are really happy with what you did on the child tax credit, but what about us?'" Larson added. "In a midterm election, this is a very important constituency."

The COLA is only one part of the annual financial equation for seniors. An announcement about Medicare's Part B premium for outpatient care is expected soon. It's usually an increase, so at least some of any Social Security raise goes for health care. The Part B premium is now $148.50 a month, and the Medicare trustees report estimated a $10 increase for 2022.

Economist Marilyn Moon, who also served as public trustee for Social Security and Medicare, said she believes the current spurt of inflation is an adjustment to highly unusual economic circumstances and the pattern of restraint on prices will reassert itself with time.

"I would think there is going to be an increase this year that you won't see reproduced in the future," Moon said.

Policymakers should not delay getting to work on retirement programs, she said.

"We're at a point in time where people don't react to policy needs until there is a sense of desperation, and both Social Security and Medicare are programs that benefit from long-range planning rather short-range machinations," she said.

Social Security is financed by payroll taxes collected from workers and their employers. Each pays 6.2% on wages up to a cap, which is adjusted each year for inflation. Next year the maximum amount of earnings subject to Social Security payroll taxes will increase to $147,000.

The financing scheme dates to the 1930s, the brainchild of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who believed a payroll tax would foster among average Americans a sense of ownership that would protect the program from political interference.

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