Social Security Rise to Be Among Lowest in Years

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Social Security COLA (FILE - In this Feb. 11, 2005 file photo, trays of printed social security checks wait to be mailed from th
Bradley C. Bower/AP
BY STEPHEN OHLEMACHER

WASHINGTON -- For the second straight year, millions of Social Security recipients, disabled veterans and federal retirees can expect historically small increases in their benefits come January.

Preliminary figures suggest a benefit increase of roughly 1.5 percent, which would be among the smallest since automatic increases were adopted in 1975, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

Next year's raise will be small because consumer prices, as measured by the government, haven't gone up much in the past year.

The exact size of the cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, won't be known until the Labor Department releases the inflation report for September. That was supposed to happen Wednesday, but the report was delayed indefinitely because of the partial government shutdown.

The COLA is usually announced in October to give Social Security and other benefit programs time to adjust January payments. The Social Security Administration has given no indication that raises would be delayed because of the shutdown, but advocates for seniors said the uncertainty was unwelcome.

Social Security benefits have continued during the shutdown.

More than one-fifth of the country is waiting for the news.

Nearly 58 million retirees, disabled workers, spouses and children get Social Security benefits. The average monthly payment is $1,162. A 1.5 percent raise would increase the typical monthly payment by about $17.

The COLA also affects benefits for more than 3 million disabled veterans, about 2.5 million federal retirees and their survivors, and more than 8 million people who get Supplemental Security Income, the disability program for the poor.

Automatic COLAs were adopted so that benefits for people on fixed incomes would keep up with rising prices. Many seniors, however, complain that the COLA sometimes falls short, leaving them little wiggle room.

David Waugh of Bethesda, Md., said he can handle one small COLA but several in a row make it hard to plan for unexpected expenses.

SOCIAL SECURITY COLA (Graphic shows annual Social Security cost-of-living adjustments; 2c x 3 inches; 96.3 mm x 76 mm;)"I'm not one of those folks that's going to fall into poverty, but it is going to make a difference in my standard of living as time goes by," said Waugh, 83, who retired from the United Nations. "I live in a small apartment and I have an old car, and it's going to break down. And no doubt when it does, I'll have to fix it or get a new one."

Since 1975, annual Social Security raises have averaged 4.1 percent. Only six times have they been less than 2 percent, including this year, when the increase was 1.7 percent. There was no COLA in 2010 or 2011 because inflation was too low.

By law, the cost-of-living adjustment is based on the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers, or CPI-W, a broad measure of consumer prices generated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It measures price changes for food, housing, clothing, transportation, energy, medical care, recreation and education.

The COLA is calculated by comparing consumer prices in July, August and September each year to prices in the same three months from the previous year. If prices go up over the course of the year, benefits go up, starting with payments delivered in January.

This year, average prices for July and August were 1.4 percent higher than they were a year ago, according to the CPI-W.

Once the September report, the final piece of the puzzle, is released, the COLA can be officially announced. If prices continued to slowly inch up in September, that would put the COLA at roughly 1.5 percent.

Several economists said there were no dramatic price swings in September to significantly increase or decrease the projected COLA. That means the projection shouldn't change by more than a few tenths of a percentage point, if at all.

Polina Vlasenko, a research fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research, projects the COLA will be between 1.4 percent and 1.6 percent.

Her projection is similar to those done by others, including AARP, which estimates the COLA will be between 1.5 percent and 1.7 percent. The Senior Citizens League estimates it will be about 1.5 percent.

Lower prices for gasoline are helping to fuel low inflation, Vlasenko said.

"In years with high COLA's, a lot of that had to do with fuel prices and in some cases food prices. Neither of those increased much this year," Vlasenko said. "So that kept the lid on the overall increase in prices."

Gasoline prices are down 2.4 percent from a year ago while food prices are up slightly, according to the August inflation report. Housing costs went up 2.3 percent and utilities increased by 3.2 percent.

Advocates for seniors say the government's measure of inflation doesn't accurately reflect price increases older Americans face because they tend to spend more of their income on health care. Medical costs went up less than in previous years but still outpaced other consumer prices, rising 2.5 percent.

"This [COLA] is not enough to keep up with inflation, as it affects seniors," said Max Richtman, who heads the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. "There are some things that become cheaper but they are not things that seniors buy. Laptop computers have gone down dramatically but how many people at 70 are buying laptop computers?"

The cost of personal computers dropped by 10.6 percent over the past year, according the CPI-W.

That's a small consolation to Alberta Gaskins of the District of Columbia, who said she is concerned about keeping up with her household bills.

"It is very important to get the COLA because everything else you have in your life is on an upward swing, and if you're on a downward swing, that means your quality of life is going down," said Gaskins, who retired from the Postal Service in 1989.

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December 02 2013 at 2:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jbrady5282

Another ridiculous AOL article that ignores the zero percent raise of 2010 and 2011. It is directly tied to the rate of inflation. Low, negative, or no inflation is a good thing. Can't have it both ways.

October 18 2013 at 3:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
croone22

Add energy and food and you have a 10+% COLA..I guarantee you that when Obama's term is over, he will retire to Hawaii.

October 16 2013 at 10:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jrb359

Seniors and Veterans seem to be Obama's punching bag. He shows he has no use for them and treats them like second class citizens. He must feel that he can not get their vote and simply doesn't care. It would be nice if he would realize he is president of all the people in the US and not just president of the Democrat Party!

October 15 2013 at 5:51 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
nos2001

been to a grocery store or gas station lately?

October 15 2013 at 5:47 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
nos2001

did you know that cola is figured different than it used to be? when figuring the cost of living they removed gas and food.. most people are unaware of this. the same is true of unemployment. its NOT how many are unemployed. but how many are collecting a check.. soooo- all thos whose benefits have run out are not counted.

October 15 2013 at 5:46 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to nos2001's comment
mgh406

The FEDs and the Administration manipulate all of the stats.

October 16 2013 at 4:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mac2jr

There were riots today in stores around the country as EBT card limits were unintentionally removed and people that should have known better used these cards to 'rip off' the system.

This is one of the reasons that many dislike Food Stamps, and believe that all users are crooks, and frankly has done much harm to the trust that is given to people in need by those paying for trying to help.

I do trust that the EBT administrators will go after IBM and all those Walmart managers that allowed this while fully knowing that it was illegal, and go after those that took advantage of our generosity.

October 15 2013 at 2:51 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mac2jr's comment
jrb359

How about going to the source and make those that abused the card pay it back?

October 15 2013 at 5:48 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
mac2jr

The U.S.A. has to bring back the strength of the Unions and start getting us back to decent pay and benefits.

The U.S.A. has to tell all International Corporations to Leave the country if each does not comply with U.S.A. laws, wage scales, and benefit scales. (Currently 600 Internationals based in the U.S.A. are attempting to remove themselves from U.S.A. laws and use laws from Asia, etc.., which would mean lower pay, no benefits, no safety restrictions, no inspectors, etc., a disaster for the U.S.A. citizens. The TPP Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) - United States Trade Representative
www.ustr.gov › Trade Agreements › Free Trade Agreements‎
Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Press Releases; Federal Register Notices; Reports; Speeches; Fact Sheets. 9/23/2013. Readout of this week's Trans-Pacific ... is behind this...

And this will destroy Social Security....

October 15 2013 at 2:45 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mac2jr's comment
nedfarn25

all the jibberish you just put down has nothing to do w social security-nothing

October 15 2013 at 5:52 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
mac2jr

demsbaitnswitch3 what branch of the military were you in, and when did you serve?

October 15 2013 at 2:39 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
poolcue1950

WRONG SAME AS LAST YEAR .

October 15 2013 at 12:16 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply