'Chained CPI' hurts seniors

A nurse examines a patient on February 10, 2011 in Novato, Calif.

President Obama released a budget proposal today that among other things calls for reducing Social Security payments by using a formula to calculate inflation that's stingier than the current one. It's called the "chained" Consumer Price Index. The idea is that when the price of certain goods goes up, consumers typically switch to lower-cost substitutes. If the price of steak rises, they switch to hamburger. But not everything has an easy "down market" replacement. Take health care for seniors.

Under the president's plan, we could save more than $100 billion on Social Security over the next 10 years by using this lower measure of inflation.

The problem is the elderly spend a much larger share of their incomes on health care than the rest of us. When prices go up on some aspects of health care, cheaper substitutes may not be available or as effective. If doctors order a particular test or procedure, most patients, particularly the elderly, are not going to argue in the first place.

The cost of health care has been rising faster than inflation. And because seniors need more of it, even Social Security's current inflation adjustment may understate the true impact of inflation on them.

Social Security benefits are already meager for most recipients. The median income of Americans over 65 is under $20,000 a year, and most depend on Social Security for more than half it. The average Social Security benefit is less than $15,000 a year.
Besides, Social Security doesn't contribute to the budget deficit and it's not in serious trouble. Its trust fund is flush for at least two decades.

If we want to ensure its solvency beyond that, we don't have to hurt beneficiaries. We could raise the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes, now $113,700. Or fully tax the payout for wealthy beneficiaries.

Why is the president even suggesting the chained CPI for Social Security? Republicans aren't asking for it. Not even Paul Ryan's draconian budget includes it. Democrats invented Social Security and have been protecting it for almost 80 years. They shouldn't be leading the charge against it.

About the author

Robert Reich is chancellor's professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...