Mary Johnson

A new survey by The Senior Citizens League (TSCL) indicates that even after receiving the highest Social Security cost of living adjustment (COLA) in 40 years, seniors report they are worse off than before. The majority of Social Security recipients say their monthly expenditures from January 2021 to January of 2022 grew far more than the amount the COLA-boosted benefits.

The COLA increase of 5.9 percent raised average Social Security benefits by $92 per month. But 73 percent of survey respondents who receive Social Security said their household expenses increased by at least $96 per month in 2021. Nearly half of all survey participants, 48 percent reported that expenditures had increased by more than $144 per month.

“Inflation has burned through consumer buying power during this period,” says Mary Johnson, a Social Security and Medicare policy analyst for The Senior Citizens League. Johnson, who studies how inflation impacts the buying power of Social Security benefits says that inflation has continued to spiral upward since the 2022 COLA was announced last October, creating an unusually high benefit shortfall of almost 2 percent.

“By January 2022, the annual COLA was already falling behind the rate of inflation,” Johnson says. The December consumer price index (CPI) data indicates that the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W), which is used to calculate the Social Security COLA, was 7.8% through December 2021. “That’s 1.9 percentage point higher than the 5.9% COLA that beneficiaries actually received in January,” Johnson points out.

When inflation rises faster than Social Security income, retired and disabled beneficiaries experience a loss in buying power. For example, the average retiree benefit of $1,564.00 in 2021, increased by 5.9 percent to $1,656.30 per month in January — an increase of $92.30 per month. But with December inflation of 7.8 percent, that benefit level would have needed to increase by $122.00 to $1,686.00 just to keep up. “Thus, the 5.9 percent COLA already leaves average retirees with a shortfall of about $30 per month, due to inflation through the end of last year,” Johnson says.

To calculate the amount of shortfall you are experiencing, multiply your gross Social Security benefit (the amount before deductions) in 2021, by 1.078 to determine the amount a benefit would have had to increase to match the December level of inflation. Then subtract the gross amount of your actual Social Security benefit for 2022. The difference is the benefit shortfall. (The gross Social Security benefit information can be found in the “Your New Benefit Amount” letter that the Social Security Administration sent out in December of last year.)

How long will inflation continue? Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell is expected to start financial actions this month to bring down inflation, but even so inflation will take time to turn around, “This is especially the case since gas and other oil products are likely to remain high,” Johnson says. “Older consumers are looking for relief from the non-stop price hikes. Retired and disabled Social Security beneficiaries know that a COLA that does not keep up with rising costs forces them to spend more from savings, can force them to borrow, and leads to a loss of Social Security income over the course of a retirement that is never remedied,” Johnson adds. The Senior Citizens League is working for legislation that would boost Social Security benefits by about $30 per month for all recipients to help make up for the COLA shortfall.

With 1.2 million supporters, The Senior Citizens League is one of the nation’s largest nonpartisan seniors’ groups. Its mission is to promote and assist members and supporters, to educate and alert senior citizens about their rights and freedoms as U.S. Citizens, and to protect and defend the benefits senior citizens have earned and paid for. The Senior Citizens League is a proud affiliate of The Retired Enlisted Association. Visit http://www.SeniorsLeague.org for more information.