WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 an added $92 a month for the average retired worker, according to estimates Wednesday from the Social Security Administration. It’s 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, gasoline and other goods and services.
“It goes pretty quickly,” retiree Cliff Rumsey said of the cost-of-living increases. 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 also noted price increases for wages paid to caregivers who occasionally spell him and for personal care products for Judy.
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.
Among them is Kitty Ruderman of Queens in New York City, who retired from a career as an executive assistant and has been collecting Social Security for about 10 years. “We wait to hear every year what the increase is going to be, and every year it’s been so insignificant,” she said. “This year, thank goodness, it will make a difference.”
Ruderman says she times her grocery shopping to take advantage of midweek senior citizen discounts, but even so price hikes have been “extreme.” She says she doesn’t think she can afford a medication that her doctor has recommended.
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 adjustment is 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 provides at least 50% of their income, and one-quarter rely on their monthly payment for all or nearly all their income.
“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’ 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.
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 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 they pay for outpatient care is expected soon. It’s usually an increase, so at least some of any Social Security raise gets eaten up by 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 will be temporary, due to highly unusual economic circumstances.
“I would think there is going to be an increase this year that you won’t see reproduced in the future,” Moon said.
But 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.
That argument still resonates. “Social Security is my lifeline,” said Ruderman, the New York retiree. “It’s what we’ve worked for.”
EXPLAINER: Why the Social Security COLA is jumping next year
WASHINGTON (AP) — Rising inflation has triggered a sizable increase in Social Security’s annual cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, for 2022. The Social Security Administration announced the 5.9% COLA on Wednesday after a Labor Department report on inflation during September.
Over the last 10 years, the Social Security COLA has averaged about 1.7% annually as inflation remained low. But the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic has triggered rising prices for a wide range of goods and services, and that will translate to bigger checks for retirees.
WHY ARE SOCIAL SECURITY BENEFITS ADJUSTED?
Policymakers say the COLA works to preserve the purchasing power of Social Security benefits and shouldn’t be seen as a pay hike for retirees.
At one time Congress had to approve inflation increases, but starting in the mid-1970s lawmakers turned that function over to nonpartisan experts within the government bureaucracy. The annual review is now tied to changes in an official measure of inflation and proceeds automatically and with no political brinkmanship.
HOW DOES THE COLA FOR 2022 MEASURE UP?
The Great Recession saw a COLA increase of 5.8% for 2009, and next year’s number is just a notch above that.
But one has to go back nearly 40 years to find a bigger COLA boost, the 7.4% awarded for 1983.
Next year’s number won’t come close to that, but it’s still the biggest Social Security hike the vast majority of baby boomer retirees have seen. Up to now, they’ve collected meager to modest annual adjustments, not counting three years for which there was no COLA because inflation barely showed a pulse.
A 5.9% COLA will increase the average Social Security payment for a retired worker by about $92 a month, to $1,657 next year. Compare that with this year’s COLA, worth only about $20 a month.
WHAT’S CHANGED OVER THE PAST YEAR?
As the economy recovers from the shock of coronavirus shutdowns, prices are rising at a pretty good clip.
Gas serves as an ever-present reminder, above $3 a gallon in most states, $4 a gallon in California and Hawaii. But food had already been going up and so are labor costs as employers compete to hire choosy workers seeking higher pay and better benefits. Add to the mix supply chain problems that have slowed deliveries of everything from refrigerators to running shoes.
All that gets sifted into the prices that consumers pay for their everyday needs.
The COLA is big enough to have an impact on the overall economy.
It affects the household budgets of about 1 in 5 Americans, including Social Security recipients, disabled veterans and federal retirees, about 70 million people.
About half of seniors live in households where Social Security benefits account for at least 50% of their income, and one-quarter rely on their monthly payment for all or nearly all their earnings. For this latter group, the COLA can literally make a difference in what they’re able to put on the table.
DO PRIVATE PENSIONS ALSO PROVIDE A COLA?
Inflation protection is central to Social Security’s benefit design, but it’s not so common among traditional private pensions. Benefits paid by most employer plans gradually lose some of their purchasing power over the years.
Social Security not only increases retiree checks to compensate for inflation, but it then adds that amount to a person’s underlying benefit so it grows with compounding as future COLAs are factored in.
CAN SOCIAL SECURITY AFFORD TO KEEP PAYING COLAs?
Proposals have been floated both to increase or trim back COLAs in the context of a broader Social Security overhaul. Many advocates for older people argue that the inflation index currently used does not adequately reflect the higher health care costs faced by the aging.
On the other side, groups pressing to reduce federal deficits urge switching to an alternate inflation measure that factors in consumers’ habit of substituting cheaper goods when prices rise. That would yield slightly lower estimates of cost-of-living changes.
Social Security trustees said in their report this year that the program’s long-term fiscal imbalance is casting a longer shadow.
For the first time in 39 years, the cost of delivering benefits will exceed Social Security’s total income from payroll tax collections and interest. From here on in, Social Security will have to tap its savings to pay full benefits.
The report also moved up the exhaustion date for Social Security’s massive trust fund by one year, to 2034. At that point, the program will be able to pay only 78% of scheduled benefits, the report said.
Such a reduction would represent a major hardship for most people who depend on Social Security, even middle-class retirees.
But hardly anyone with political power in Washington is talking about fixes.
“Social Security is an issue that really needs to be addressed together by both parties,” said David Certner, legislative policy director at AARP. “It is very difficult to do bipartisan work on something as big and important as Social Security in what is a very partisan atmosphere.”