Op-Ed: Should Social Security Cost-of-Living Increases be Trimmed?

CQ Researcher | July 18, 2013

Should we measure inflation as accurately as possible? Of course we should, particularly when the fiscal implications of measuring inaccurately are so large. The so-called chained Consumer Price Index (CPI), a far more accurate inflation index than the one used now, would better reflect retirees’ actual spending patterns and the cost increases they encounter. Economists from the left, right and center broadly agree on that, and their view is affirmed by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Adopting this improved measure would also generate more tax revenue, slow government spending growth and strengthen the Social Security system. 

So how can anyone oppose this change? Some special interest groups do so for their own financial benefit, while others argue that seniors face faster price growth or the most vulnerable would be hurt by this change.

Yet alternative measures that purport to show seniors spending more are highly flawed — including in the ways they measure housing and health care — to the point that the CBO has concluded, “It is unclear...whether the cost of living actually grows at a faster rate for the elderly than for younger people.”

Even if a better measure were produced for measuring cost increases affecting only retirees, adopting it would raise serious fairness concerns. Should the one-third of Social Security beneficiaries who are not retirees receive smaller cost-of-living adjustments so seniors can receive larger ones? Should New Yorkers, with their high cost of living, receive a higher percentage than Detroiters? Should each government program get its own index or only those backed by powerful interest groups?

As for the most vulnerable, it makes little sense to measure inflation incorrectly for everyone in order to retain a desired windfall for the neediest. Doing so would cut taxes for the top 1 percent by $1,000 each in order to keep an average $20 tax cut for the lowest fifth. Instead, desired tax relief and benefit enhancements for the most vulnerable should be achieved through targeted reforms designed specifically to strengthen those populations.

Ultimately, the best thing we can do for the most vulnerable in society — at least within Social Security — is to make the program sustainable and solvent and avoid the 23 percent across-the-board benefit cut currently scheduled for when the program’s funds dry up. If we can’t even measure inflation correctly, how can we hope to make the hard choices necessary to keep Social Security funded for future generations?