Social Security COLA to drop in 2023, analysts predict

(NEXSTAR) – Social Security recipients shouldn’t expect 2024’s cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to be as significant as 2023’s, despite warnings that beneficiaries are losing their purchasing power.

“The 2024 COLA could be around 3.1%,” Mary Johnson, the Social Security and Medicare policy analyst for the Senior Citizens League, said in a news release issued last week.

The Senior Citizen’s League (TSCL), a nonpartisan senior advocacy group, has for years based its estimations of upcoming COLA increases on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and specifically its Consumer Price Indexes — the same data which is ultimately used by the Social Security Administration to determine its annual COLA increases.

The 2023 increase, at 8.7%, was the largest COLA increase in over four decades, partially thanks to supply-chain disruptions which fueled soaring inflation amid the pandemic. But analysts with TSCL are worried that cooling inflation — or at least the appearance of cooling inflation — will result in a smaller 2024 COLA increase that could have detrimental effects on beneficiaries.

“Inflation is moderating, but a lower inflation rate has not necessarily meant that prices have decreased,” TSCL writes in a study published earlier this month, in which the group argues that “key items” remain at “stubbornly high” prices.  

Johnson, speaking with Nexstar ahead of last year’s COLA announcement, noted said that seniors have different spending habits than younger generations. The Consumer Price Index, she said, does not accurately reflect the rising costs of items that older Americans more frequently spend their money on, including prescription drugs, food, housing or dental services (which are generally not covered by Medicare).

“[Seniors] are spending a bigger percentage of their household budgets [on these expenses],” Johnson said. “These costs are not showing up, necessarily, in the COLA. There’s a weakness in the COLA.”

TSCL’s most recent study of benefit increases over the last two decades also appears to show a significant decline in seniors’ ability to keep up with rising prices: Social Security benefits, according to TSCL, have lost about a third of their buying power since 2000, even when accounting for every COLA increase over the last 22 years.

“For every $100 a retired household spent on groceries in 2000, that household can only buy about $64 worth today,” TSCL wrote.

TSCL’s projections of a 3.1% COLA increase in 2024 are subject to change, of course. The official COLA won’t be announced until October before going into effect in January. But no matter the increase, it likely won’t be enough to satisfy the needs of seniors, TSCL believes.

“It’s not like we have a target number we were hoping for. We want to see an approach that’s more comprehensive than that,” said Johnson, who pointed to a number of economic issues facing current and future beneficiaries — including the possibility of Social Security’s insolvency, of the fact that fewer jobs now offer pensions to supplement Social Security checks.

“People are also living longer lives in retirement, so it’s hard for anyone to save for that,” she said.update

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