This has been a terrible year for the U.S. economy and labor market. More than 36 million people have filed for initial unemployment benefits over an eight-week stretch, with the U.S. economy's record-long expansionary streak coming to an unceremonious end -- and the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is wholly to blame.
But it's not just the U.S. economy that's threatened by the proliferation of the coronavirus. The more than 64 million people currently receiving Social Security benefits (over 80% of which are senior citizens) could be in for a rude awakening come October.
Social Security's October COLA announcement is a highly anticipated event
You see, during the second week of every October, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) releases its inflation data for the month of September. For the Social Security Administration (SSA), this is the last piece of the puzzle needed to determine the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in the upcoming year. Think of COLA as the "raise" Social Security beneficiaries receive to help them keep up with the rising cost of goods and services (i.e., an inflationary boost).
Since 1975, the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) has been the program's inflationary tether. The CPI-W has eight major spending categories and dozens upon dozens of sub-categories, each with their own respective weighting. Based on the price movement of various goods and services, a singular CPI-W reading is yielded each month. Whether it rises or falls dictates whether we're seeing inflation (rising prices) or deflation (falling prices).
Although the BLS reports CPI-W data every single month, the SSA only factors in CPI-W readings from the third quarter (July through September) when determining the upcoming year's COLA. If the average reading from the third quarter of the current year is higher than the average reading from the third quarter of the previous year, beneficiaries will receive a raise that's commensurate with the year-over-year percentage increase, rounded to the nearest tenth of a percent. Meanwhile, if deflation occurs and prices fall, monthly benefits remain static. Thankfully, benefits cannot decline due to deflation.
Here's why Social Security beneficiaries are unlikely to receive a "raise" in 2021
Over the past 45 years, Social Security recipients have seen their benefits go up 42 times (i.e., there was inflation in 42 of 45 previous years), with the exceptions being in 2010, 2011, and 2016, where no COLA was passed along. But based on recent BLS reports, it's looking like 2021 could be added to the list.
According to the April inflation data, released two weeks ago by the BLS, the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) -- a similar inflation measure to the CPI-W -- declined by 0.8%. That's the largest single-month decline since the height of the Great Recession in December 2008. Over the past 12 months, the CPI-U for all items is up a meager 0.3%. Assuming we continue to see the effects of coronavirus-fueled deflation hit numerous parts of the U.S. economy through May and beyond, the 12-month trailing data will likely register a decline in all-items pricing for the CPI-U and CPI-W.
Based on CPI-U data provided by the BLS, energy delivered a 17.7% decline in unadjusted pricing from the previous year, with gasoline prices down 32% and fuel oil off 33.2%. There were also sizable declines of 5.7% for apparel and 5.5% for transportation services in April.
If there is hope for at least a small COLA in 2021, it could come from the trio of food, medical care services, and shelter. These categories respectively account for 16.35%, 7.43%, and 30.27% of the CPI-W's weighting, and over the unadjusted trailing 12-month period they've seen positive inflation of 3.5%, 5.8%, and 2.6%, respectively. Albeit it should be noted that shelter costs, which had been rising on a monthly basis, are flat in both March and April.
While it's not written in stone that Social Security beneficiaries won't receive a COLA in 2021, the inflation data from April certainly seems to indicate that'll likely be the case.
Adding insult to injury
Unfortunately for the more than 64 million Social Security beneficiaries, not receiving a COLA in 2021 would simply magnify preexisting problems with the CPI-W.
Truth be told, the CPI-W doesn't do a very good job of tracking the real inflation that Social Security beneficiaries are facing. As its name suggests, the CPI-W tracks the spending habits of urban and clerical workers, many of which are of working age and not receiving a Social Security payout. This means that important expenditures to seniors, such as medical care and housing, aren't receiving nearly the weighting they should. Comparatively, less-important expenses, such as apparel and transportation, are netting more weighting in the CPI-W.
According to a recent analysis from The Senior Citizens League (TSCL), a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan group focused on promoting seniors' issues, the purchasing power of Social Security dollars has declined by 30% since 2000. That's a slight improvement from the 33% decline noted in last year's report from TSCL. Put in another context, what $100 in Social Security income used to buy in 2000 will only purchase $70 worth of those same goods and services today.
For example, take note that while COLA might be 0% in 2021, medical care service inflation continues to advance faster than any major category. For seniors, medical care expenses (as a percentage of their total expenditures) are typically double that of urban and clerical workers, creating a clear disparity that's not being accurately factored into the annual COLA calculations.
Over time, it would not be surprising to see this loss in purchasing power grow larger, especially during years where no COLA is passed along to program recipients.