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 last 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.
“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 last 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.”
Policymakers say the COLA was designed as a safeguard to protect Social Security benefits against the loss of purchasing power in an ever-changing economy, 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 earnings.
“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 agenda 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 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.
“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.