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Here's How the Trade War Could Affect Social Security

By Maurie Backman – May 15, 2019 at 1:18PM

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It's not entirely bad, but it's also not entirely good.

In case you haven't been following the news, there's a bit of a trade war brewing between the U.S. and China. It's been causing some upheaval in the stock market, and if the tariffs that China is threatening come to be, the cost of consumer goods could go higher in the coming year.

That's a good thing and a bad thing for Social Security.

Social Security benefits are subject to annual cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs. Those COLAs were implemented back in the 1970s to help seniors retain their buying power in the face of inflation, and they're based on data from the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W). When the general cost of living goes up, Social Security benefits tend to follow suit. What this means is that seniors could see a substantial boost in their Social Security income for 2020.

Senior in a supermarket

Image source: Getty Images.

If so, that would bring a huge sigh of relief for many, since earlier estimates this year projected a 0% COLA. But now, the nonpartisan Senior Citizens League is projecting a 1.7% Social Security raise for 2020. That's something for seniors to celebrate -- or is it?

Social Security largely falls short

While a boost in Social Security income would no doubt be a boon to millions of seniors, let's remember that those benefits are only designed to replace about 40% of the average worker's pre-retirement income. Most seniors need roughly double that to live comfortably. As such, Social Security already does an inadequate job of sustaining seniors in the absence of other income.

To be fair, Social Security was never meant to serve as a sole income source. But if the general cost of living goes up because foreign-made goods become pricier, then that alone could be enough to negate whatever COLA comes to be for 2020. And seniors living solely on Social Security could actually end up losing buying power, even with a boost in benefits.

Of course, it's too soon to know what 2020's COLA will be. Typically, that information is announced in October, though it's common for analysts to speculate about COLAs along the way.

Unfortunately for seniors who rely heavily on Social Security, there's not much to do right now but sit back, wait for politics to play out, and brace themselves for any unfortunate backlash that might ensue. Current workers, however, can take away the very important lesson of not relying on Social Security alone in retirement, and instead saving independently to ensure that they have adequate income once their careers end. Socking away $300 a month over 30 years at an average annual 7% return can produce a $340,000 nest egg. That's certainly a welcome dose of comfort.

Trade war or not, the general cost of living has a tendency to rise over time, and Social Security has historically done a very poor job of keeping up. Saving independently is a good way for workers to buy themselves options down the line when circumstances outside their control cause life to get a whole lot more expensive than planned.

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