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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press Joe Schiavone, 81, keeps a workshop in his home in Florida. Next year's modest cost-of-living increase of 1.6% from Social Security worries him, and that might become a political issue.

Friday, October 11, 2019 1:00 am

Social Security raise to be slight

RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR | Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Millions of retirees will get a modest 1.6% cost-of-living increase from Social Security in 2020, an uptick with potential political consequences in an election year when Democrats are pushing more generous inflation protection.

The increase amounts to $24 a month for the average retired worker, according to estimates released Thursday by the Social Security Administration. Following a significant boost this year, the cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, for 2020 reverts to its pattern of moderate gains.

But seniors and advocates complain that the inflation yardstick used to determine the annual adjustment doesn't adequately reflect their costs, mainly for health care.

The COLA affects household budgets for about 1 in 5 Americans, nearly 70 million people, and that includes Social Security recipients, disabled veterans and federal retirees.

Criticism of the COLA formula has been amplified by Democratic presidential candidates and congressional Democrats. That's helped to shift the Social Security debate from a near-exclusive concern with the program's solvency to a focus on expanding benefits, including the cost-of-living adjustment.

“Most of the discussion about Social Security is about how can we promise more rather than how can we keep the promises we're already making,” said conservative retirement policy expert Charles Blahous, who as a former public trustee of Social Security once helped oversee its finances.

With the COLA, the estimated average monthly Social Security payment for a retired worker will be $1,503 a month starting in January.

Joe Schiavone, who retired from flooring sales and lives on Florida's Space Coast, says it feels like he's not keeping up.

“My biggest concern is that your money is buying less and less,” said Schiavone, who's in his early 80s. “The figure that they use for the rise in the cost of living to me is very erroneous.”

Schiavone points to increased health care premiums and copays, along with other kinds of insurance, as the main culprits. He expects that part of his COLA will be eaten up by an increase in Medicare's “Part B” premium for outpatient care, which hasn't been announced yet.

Roughly 1 in 2 seniors live in households where Social Security benefits provide at least half the total income. “None of the jobs I worked on in my life had any sort of pension or 401(k) plans,” said Schiavone.

He's wary of politicians' promises about Social Security. “I very rarely believe what anybody says in a campaign,” said Schiavone. “I really don't know what to believe.”