Editor's Note: This piece is cross-posted from the Center for Economic and Policy Research Blog.
According to reliable sources, the Obama administration is seriously contemplating a deal under which the annual cost of living adjustment for Social Security benefits would be indexed to the chained consumer price index rather than the CPI for wage and clerical workers, CPI-W, to which it is now indexed. This will lead to a reduction in benefits of approximately 0.3 percentage points annually. This loss would be cumulative through time so that after 10 years the cut would be roughly 3 percent, after 20 years 6 percent, and after 30 years 9 percent. If a typical senior collects benefits for twenty years, then the average reduction in benefits will be roughly 3 percent.
There are a few quick points worth addressing:
1. The claim that the chained CPI provides a more accurate measure of the cost of living;
2. Whether Social Security benefits are now and will in the future be sufficient to allow for a decent standard of living for retirees; and
3. Whether this is a reasonable way to be dealing with concerns over the budget.
This are taken in turn below.
Is the Chained CPI More Accurate?
While many policy types and pundits have claimed that the chained CPI would provide a more accurate measure of the cost of living for seniors, they have no basis for this claim. The chained CPI is ostensibly more accurate for the population as whole because it picks up the effect of consumer substitution as people change from consuming goods that increase rapidly in price to goods with less rapid price increases.
While this is a reasonable way to construct a price index, it may not be reasonable to apply the consumption patterns and the substitution patterns among the population as a whole to the elderly. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has constructed an experimental elderly index (CPI-E) which reflects the consumption patterns of people over age 62. This index has shown a rate of inflation that averages 0.2-0.3 percentage points higher than the CPI-W.
The main reason for the higher rate of inflation is that the elderly devote a larger share of their income to health care, which has generally risen more rapidly in price than other items. It is also likely that the elderly are less able to substitute between goods, both due to the nature of the items they consume and their limited mobility, so the substitutions assumed in the chained CPI might be especially inappropriate for the elderly population.
While the CPI-E is just an experimental index, if the concern is really accuracy, then the logical route to go would be for the BLS to construct a full elderly CPI. While this would involve some expense, we will be indexing more than $10 trillion in Social Security benefits over the next decade. It makes sense to try to get the indexation formula right.
Are Social Security Benefits Adequate?
While some people have tried to foster a myth of the elderly as a population living large, the facts don’t fit this story. The median income of people over age 65 is less than $20,000 a year. Nearly 70 percent of the elderly rely on Social Security benefits for more than half of their income and nearly 40 percent rely on Social Security for more than 90 percent of their income. These benefits average less than $15,000 a year.
The reason that seniors are so dependent on Social Security is that the other pillars of the retirement stool, employer pensions and individual savings, have largely collapsed. Defined benefit pensions are rapidly disappearing. Defined contribution plans, like 401(k)s have also proved grossly inadequate. Only around half of the work force even has a defined contribution plan available to them at their workplace. In a period of stagnant wages and limited employer contributions, workers have generally been unable to accumulate much wealth in these plans. According to the Retirement Research Center at Boston College, the median value of 401(K) and other defined contribution plans for those near retirement who have a plan is $120,000, enough to get an annuity paying $575 per month.